JERUSALEM — Last summer, while many of his college friends were settling into jobs and apartments in New York and Hoboken, Elie Klein bid a tearful farewell to his family in Warren and boarded an El Al plane to Israel.
Although he had never handled a gun and never aspired to be a soldier in the United States, Elie made aliya to join the Israel Defense Forces and “do his part to defend the Jewish homeland,” he told NJJN. On Oct. 24, a little more than a year after moving to Israel, Elie, 23, earned his red beret as an IDF paratrooper.
His parents, Jeffrey and Marilyn, traveled from Warren to watch their son (and 400 of his fellow paratroopers) being inducted in a ceremony at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. For the Klein family, the occasion marked the conclusion of the most physically and emotionally demanding eight months of Elie’s life.
“We are really proud of him for undertaking such a huge commitment and following through with it,” Elie’s father told NJJN at the ceremony. “He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the College of New Jersey right before he made aliya. He could have gotten a nice job in New Jersey with an engineering firm, but he decided to sacrifice that and enlist here.”
The Kleins joined Elie on the last leg of his division’s 38-mile hike from Beit Shemesh to the ceremony at Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the 1967 Six-Day War. The two-day hike is a national tradition for paratroopers at the end of their eight-month training.
Elie’s deep connection to Israel was sparked at a young age, and he traveled there nine times over the years to visit his Israeli cousins. His aunt Roberta Bell-Kliger (who also attended the induction ceremony) made aliya 30 years ago from New York; she has four children, two of whom are IDF helicopter pilots.
“The connection just built up in him over the years, and the belief that if Israeli soldiers didn’t exist, the country wouldn’t exist,” Jeffrey said. “We fully understand his reasoning, and we are 110 percent behind him. He is living his dream.”
Elie was one of 245 people on his aliya flight, which was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that helps Jews from North America and Great Britain make aliya, together with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Although she admits to having mixed emotions about her son’s choice, Marilyn said she “knows what he’s doing is for a great cause. I see how well he has done, and it makes me really proud.” She said she is grateful for technologies like Skype that enable her to keep a close connection with her son. Elie often writes about his life as an Israeli in a blog (Klein36.wordpress.com) that has attracted up to 6,000 views.
Their fellow congregants at Temple Shalom in Bridgewater are equally proud, said Jeffrey. “Last year Rabbi Ron Issacs led a group from our shul to Israel. Elie met them in Jerusalem in his IDF uniform, and many of them told me afterward that taking him to lunch and hearing about his experiences was a highlight of their trip.”
The changes in their son over the course of a year are remarkable, his parents said. He went from having no conversational Hebrew to being proficient. He learned basic Hebrew at a Jerusalem ulpan, then picked up the rest in the army. “I still make a lot of mistakes, and the guys make fun of me,” Elie said with a laugh. “During basic training I couldn’t tell the difference between mitbach (kitchen) and mitvach (shooting range). I sometimes found myself confused about whether we were going to eat or shoot.”
Growing up in a Conservative household, Elie has become more ritually observant since joining the army, his father said. About a third of his unit is religious, and Elie has begun putting on tefillin — although sometimes, he admitted, his motivation is a desire to get out of kitchen cleaning duty.
Physically, Elie is also transformed. “By the time I finished advanced training, I lost about 50 pounds from running and hiking up to 100 kilometers a week carrying 140 pounds of equipment on my back,” Elie said. It took him a while to get used to Israeli army-style breakfasts of low-fat sour cream and chopped salad. “My friends back home can’t believe I eat this stuff for breakfast.”
Elie unwinds from the pressures of military life with his friends in Tel Aviv, where he rents an apartment a few blocks from the beach. An accomplished hockey player who earned a college scholarship from the New Jersey Devils Alumni Association, he scrimmages as often as possible at the Canada Center, an Olympic-size rink and training center in the northern town of Metulla.
Elie’s dynamic personality, charming smile, and 6’3” frame make him stand out in the army, particularly among his female counterparts, Jeffrey confided. One of his commanders set her sights on him during training, but because of fraternizing regulations, she waited until the day he finished the program to ask him out.
After he finishes his 18 months of army service, Elie said, he hopes to study for an MBA in Israel. As far as his long-term plans, he said he is “undecided” about whether he will stay in Israel after his studies or return to the States.
Soon, Elie and his unit will head off to the Judean Desert for winter training in Nabi Musa before reporting to duty in Gaza.
Checking the Israeli news sites for updates has become a daily ritual for his parents. “Obviously we’re nervous about this next phase,” his mother said, “but we know he has trained with the best.”