If military service were in people’s genes, Eilon Even-Esh would surely qualify as a carrier.
His grandfather was in the Polish and Russian armies, his father and mother served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, and he is a veteran of both the IDF and the United States Marine Corps.
During Memorial Day weekend, in recognition of his having served both nations, Even-Esh will receive the Distinguished Service Award from Chabad of West Orange at its gala dinner, “Stand Strong, Stand Proud — Celebrating our Heroes,” on Sunday evening, May 28.
In a May 18 interview, Even-Esh readily admitted that many other members of the Marine Corps and the IDF have performed more bravely. And yet this Orthodox Jewish father of five takes great pride in his military service and credits it with preparing him for his profession as an instructor of Israeli martial arts.
Even-Esh was born in Haifa in 1973; three years later, his family moved to New York, then to New Jersey, first Woodbridge and later Edison. “I still consider myself a Jersey boy,” he said.
He now lives in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, with his wife, Yael, and their children, two daughters and three sons who range in age from 8 to 2-year-old twins.
After high school, Even-Esh attended Stockton University in Galloway for one year, but left, he said, “because it was a very empty experience, and I was looking for meaning.”
His parents advised him to return to Israel, where he joined the IDF at the age of 19.
“It was the most meaningful thing I could think of,” he said. He volunteered for a front lines Kravi (combat) unit. “They are the guys who get shot at,” he said.
Later, Even-Esh became a trainer of bomb-sniffing dogs. While on patrol against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, one of his fellow soldiers spotted a candy wrapper on the ground. “We called in the dogs and found a massive chain of roadside bombs that would have completely annihilated our whole platoon,” Even-Esh said.
“It was scary, but when you are 19 or 20 it is scary in a different way than how we adults get scared.” Some 20 years later, he said, he “would be hard-pressed to do something like that again.”
To the relief of his parents (“I was giving them a heart attack the whole time I was in Israel”), after his IDF tour of duty as a staff sergeant, he returned to the United States at the age of 21 and enrolled as a political science major in Columbia University. After graduation he decided to become an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“It was a bit of a culture shock,” he said. For example, “In the U.S., the military had a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about being gay”; in Israel, “you had to serve whether you were gay or not gay.”
In contrast to the rigid spit-and-polish requirements of the Marines, he said, the IDF stresses accomplishments above appearance.
“The IDF’s idea of discipline is if they tell you to take the hill, you take the hill. It doesn’t matter how good you look or whether your shirt is tucked inside your pants. It matters that your weapons are cleaned and well-oiled.”
Beyond that, Even-Esh found vast sociological differences in the make-up of the two countries’ troops.
“In Israel everyone is Israeli. In America, it is a humongous country with many cultures. That is why in the military they have to break everybody down. They shave your heads so you all look alike, and then they inculcate you with military culture,” he said.
Even-Esh wanted to be a pilot when he joined the Marines, where he attained the rank of captain, but a queasy stomach made that goal impossible. “I was a puker,” he said.
Instead, he became an amphibious assault vehicle officer, training Marines in the operation of the tank-like vehicles that can move between land and sea. While many of his trainees were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he remained stateside. Like being on a football team, “I was helping coach, not in the game,” he said. “I was very relieved.”
As far as being a Jewish Marine, Even-Esh said, “Unless you are a chaplain, to be an Orthodox Jew in the Marine Corps is impossible. Keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher are impossible” while serving.
Brought up as a secular Jew, he became religious after his four years of service in the Marines after meeting up with Chabad members in San Diego. “The more I looked into what they were saying, the more it made sense,” he said.
It was there that he met and married his wife. In 2007 they moved from California to Kew Gardens Hills, where he found a unique way to combine his military experience and his Jewish identity.
He is an instructor in Krav Maga, a self-defense system developed for the IDF and Israeli security forces. He learned the martial art while serving in the IDF and teaches those he thinks “need it most — people in the Orthodox Jewish community,” since, he said, people wanting to commit anti-Semitic acts “look for someone who looks Jewish.”
He instructs students at yeshivas in New York and Teaneck and teaches a class at a gym in Brooklyn. Some students are as young as 6, and that makes his teaching “especially challenging. You don’t want them to go home and punch and kick their brothers and sisters,” he said.
Youngsters’ “bones are small and fragile,” he added, so he modifies training to focus on wrestling moves and steers clear of choke holds and “dirty tricks” like eye gouging and hitting below the belt. “I am more comfortable teaching the young guys how to get out of somebody grabbing them and how to control a bully without hitting the bully.”
Also being honored at the Chabad dinner are Harry and Abby Vine of North Caldwell and Charles and Dr. Rina Goldberg Hafner of West Orange, in recognition of “their significant contributions to Jewish life, religious institutions across the United States, and Israeli organizations.” In addition, Efrat Bunker of West Orange will receive the Chesed Award for her industrious volunteer activities.