Sharon, 26, described the day when she had to send a signal to her hometown, Haifa, letting residents know that a missile would strike within 40 seconds.
“Forty seconds?” a student in the gender studies class at Millburn High School called out. “That’s crazy.” Without hesitation, Sharon replied, “What’s crazy is that in the southern part of Israel, people have only 15 seconds” to find shelter once the warning signal goes off.
Sharon was discussing the work she did as an interception officer in the Arrow missile unit during her compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces in 2006. Sharon and Hen, another former IDF soldier, had come to Millburn High School on April 11 through StandWithUs, an organization that promotes a pro-Israel message on college campuses, in high schools, and in their communities.
The Israelis’ visit to MHS was organized by senior Olivia Lange, who is part of the StandWithUs MZ Teens Internship program. In addition to attending national conferences and taking part in on-line workshops, the interns run programs in their schools and youth groups. Lange also brought speakers to the school during the fall semester.
Lange has been to Israel through a NFTY youth group program, and she heard about the internship program through her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “I love Israel so much,” she said: “the North, the South, the cities, the villages, the desert. And this is an opportunity to stop hate.”
Hen and Sharon (the IDF asks that their last names be withheld) also spoke at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Princeton University, and Fairleigh Dickinson University during their swing through New Jersey.
While high school students have been receptive to their presentation, Hen said, college students at places like Vassar and Swarthmore have been somewhat less welcoming.
“There were often protest signs, and people tried not to let us in,” he said between classes at MHS. But he took it as “an opportunity to respond since that’s what everyone was thinking. Often their ideas were naive,” he said, and it was not difficult to show the college students that they didn’t necessarily have a complex picture of the Mideast conflict.
The MHS stop was their second to last before Sharon would return to Israel and law school and Hen would return to his role as shaliah, or emissary, in the Pacific Northwest.
They attended several classes, back to back, including the gender studies elective and a genocide and human rights elective. They adjusted their talks slightly to meet the needs of each class.
In the class on gender, Sharon reflected on what she perceived as an utter lack of gender bias in the IDF. “Because I’m a female officer in a combat position, they always send me to feminist organizations to talk, but I have nothing interesting to say beyond, ‘Be who you are and do your duty.’” She added, “It is harder for me to do the physical stuff but I was never expected to do less. I was the only female officer and I was treated exactly the same as everyone else.”
A senior asked if she was nervous about going into the army.
“You’re all waiting to see which colleges you’ll be going to and you want the best one or the one that’s most fun,” Sharon responded. “It’s the same with us but we are going into the army. We want the best unit, or the one with the hottest guys….”
Hen recalled how, as a child, he was on his way to an ice cream shop that was blown up just before he arrived. “I saw some of the [most] horrible things you could see. And when I got home, I told my mother what happened and she said, ‘OK, you’re alive. That’s the most important thing.’ And she turned around and kept cooking. And we moved on.
“There was no therapy, but instead of teaching me to hate or to be resentful, she focused on the fact that I’m alive.
“This is what we’re doing in Israel,” he concluded. “We celebrate life.”
The incident had a direct impact on his choice of a non-combat unit for his army service:
“I wanted minimum conflict,” he said, and ended up in the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories unit, which manages humanitarian issues in the West Bank and Gaza. “How many armies do this? It reflects how committed the Israeli army is to protecting human life and human rights,” he said.
Asked whether friends and family understood his choice, he struggled to answer, and finally said, “It’s really hard. It’s a thin line to walk. But people who see the bigger picture understand. People who believe in a better future understand. My job was to make the army better.”
The students seemed to get a lot out of the presentations. Tenth-grader Audrey Mahl, in the gender studies elective, said, “This was awesome. It was so great. I loved it. I just did not realize what was entailed in going into the army in Israel.” Laina Haymes, a sophomore in the genocide class, said, “It was really interesting and offered a different perspective.”