Today’s students living in the suburbs of New Jersey may be far removed from the idea of serving one’s country through military service. But three Israel Defense Forces officers brought to vivid life the challenges of fighting and the pride that comes with defending their country for students at Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean.
The three were brought to the school March 16 by Friends of the IDF. Later that evening, they appeared before 30 people at the East Brunswick home of supporters Danna and Yair Nezaria. The night before they attended the FIDF dinner in New York, which raised $33 million.
The trio, all first lieutenants with command duties, served in Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. (For security reasons, they can be referred to only by their first names.)
They spoke of their roles in the military and their pride in defending Israel and answered questions about their responsibilities and daily lives.
Yonah said her almost unaccented English was the result of having an American father — her mother is Yemenite — and living four years in San Francisco. The Beit Shemesh resident, who is stationed with an artillery unit in northern Israel, talked about being religiously observant in the military.
“The religious are a minority in the army. It’s not that the army doesn’t allow an observant lifestyle,” she said, but acknowledged that “it’s challenging to go the whole night without sleeping and then get up and pray or rush to have to wash your hands before eating.”
Tikvah, who is of Ethiopian heritage, trains young soldiers — some of them not psychologically prepared to leave their homes and families — at the Michve Alon base near Safed.
“It is a process,” she said. “Some of us are not magnificent soldiers. Some of my soldiers can’t sleep at night away from home. We speak to them and help them join step by step.”
The resident of Aluf received an enthusiastic response from the students, particularly the girls, when asked about training on the same level as males on strength maneuvers.
“I may not be stronger, but sometimes I can pick up things that are heavier than they can,” said Tikvah, adding she was proud to be able to perform many of the same physical tasks as the males.
“If you take yourself seriously,” said Yonah, “if I think I can run as fast as they can, then I can.”
“Girl power,” responded Tikvah, triggering loud applause.
The third soldier, Or, a Jerusalem resident, is part of a tactical drone unit at Ramon Air Force Base. In addition to its defensive mission, the unit has also used the aircraft to limit casualties to Palestinian civilians during military operations in Gaza.
“We get a lot of respect from family and friends for serving in the military, but it is hard,” he said. “But it is very satisfying to serve as an officer.”
He thanked the FIDF for building a gym on his base. The organization also provides academic scholarships to veterans, financial assistance for soldiers in-need, support for “lone soldiers” — those without family in Israel — aid for wounded veterans and the families of fallen soldiers, rest and recuperation for IDF units as well as educational, cultural, and recreational facilities.
Yonah said many of the IDF soldiers have the same aspirations as the Hillel students: to go to college and launch careers — but accept that they must defer those goals to serve first in the military.
In response to student queries about how they can assist Israel and the IDF, Yonah stressed the importance of helping “defend Israel to the world.”
“Learn the history of the Jewish nation, get involved on Facebook,” advised Or. “Learn what it is to be a Jew so you can answer the lies. Go on the web and be proud of what you are. Be proud to be a Jew.”
As they left, students assessed the program. “I thought this was great because it really spread awareness so everyone knows what’s going on,” said sophomore Renee Tordjman of Long Branch. “A lot of people don’t have the right knowledge of Israel or what life is like in Israel.”
Joe Betesh, a sophomore from Deal, said the program “was very informative. I feel that when people learn the truth about Israel they will be supportive. I really learned a lot myself about Israel — it’s always good to learn more about Israel.”