Brit Felsen-Parsons could have been studying at Columbia University this year, living the student life in Manhattan. Instead she has been spending 16-hour days, often in blistering heat, surrounded by the thunderous noise of guns, serving as an infantry instructor in the Israeli army.
Meeting her during a brief visit back in New Jersey in early April, nine months into her two-year IDF service, that picture was hard to conjure. Dressed in jeans and a vintage silk blouse, with her long brown hair curling over her shoulders, the 18-year-old from Mountain Lakes couldn’t have looked less like a soldier.
The only clue was the energy in her stride. “I’m pretty fit,” she acknowledged, and you could see it.
This is a girl who edited the school newspaper at Mountain Lakes High School and had nothing to do with athletics — but, Brit said, her military service has been “absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had. This has been the best year of my life.”
The idea of joining the army started a few years back. “I wanted to challenge myself, to experience something totally different, and to share what young Israelis go through,” she said. She first made sure that she’d fulfilled her dream to get into Columbia and could postpone starting there, and then she had to win over her parents. “The idea caused considerable uproar,” she recalled.
Her father, John Parsons, is a physics professor from Canada and it took all of Brit’s persuasive skills to win his approval. Her mother, Irit Felsen, a psychologist, is from Israel and did understand her daughter’s desire; though she left as a young woman to study and then settled in the United States, she loves Israel and has taken Brit and her younger sister to visit many times.
But it wasn’t a pretty sight when she visited Brit in Israel two weeks after the start of boot camp. “I was pretty much a wreck,” Brit said. “I can honestly say basic training was the most miserable I’ve ever been.”
But exhausted as she was, she didn’t regret her decision for a moment. Those initial weeks, she said, “are designed to break you down to a mush, and then build you up. You learn that the limits you thought you had are just something you imposed on yourself, that you can do things you never knew you could.”
Getting to know her fellow soldiers came relatively easily as she spoke Hebrew fluently. But she couldn’t read or write it, so studying her chosen specialty, guns, was hard. She wasn’t alone; there were a number of other girls from abroad, including one other from New Jersey, and some had no knowledge of the language at all. According to the IDF, there are around 2,800 “lone” soldiers like her, people from abroad without their families, currently serving in the army.
Just a few months into her training, the conflict with Gaza erupted, what Israel dubbed its Pillar of Defense. None of the people she has gotten to know went into action, but awareness of danger was acute. At the best of times, moving about the country in uniform, she said, “we know we can be targets of suicide bombers.” But still, she insisted, she feels safe in Israel.
Brit said she has a totally new level of confidence. “I have to be able to go to a different range every week, and show people how to use different weapons, to do something they might not want to do. I’ve got to make it understandable and interesting and something they enjoy doing. The intensity is amazing.”
On this visit home, her parents have seen the results for themselves. Irit Felsen told NJJN, “We are so very proud of her. She got to see what she can do, she is doing something very meaningful to her, and I think it is a tremendous beginning for her adult life.”
Asked whether she’d recommend enlisting to other Americans, male and female, Brit’s response was an immediate: “Absolutely!” She plans to be on the Columbia campus in the fall of 2014, majoring in international studies or neuroscience. But at some point, she said, she expects to go back to Israel. “That’s where my heart is.”