Two central Jersey men who joined the Israel Defense Forces and took part in this summer’s operations said they gained self-confidence and an appreciation of the toll of war on both sides.
On Oct. 1, the two “lone soldiers” — those serving with no immediate family in Israel — spoke to teens at the Jewish Center in Princeton about their experiences and were later interviewed by phone by NJJN.
Sgt. Ben Rathauser, a class commander in the Givati Brigade overseeing basic training, served in Operation Protective Edge. His unit, although not yet battle-ready, took over security at the Egyptian border.
He attended the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick. His parents, Drs. Robert and Debra Rathauser, are members of the Jewish Center and Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. Now visiting his family on leave, the 21-year-old asked that his hometown not be published for security reasons.
“I grew up in a very Zionistic household, and part of being a Zionist is supporting Israel,” said Rathauser, who made aliya after high school. “I had the option of going to college, but I felt it was my duty to join the IDF. Part of being a Zionist is putting aside other things to serve the country.”
Loel Hudis of Princeton was in the IDF from 2009 to 2011, serving in Operation Pillar of Defense, and remains a reservist who returned to participate in the latest war in Gaza. A staff sergeant and fire team leader with an infantry unit, he was deployed to the West Bank as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper.
Hudis, 27, encountered both Palestinians and Jews on a daily basis during his assignment around Hebron, finding good and bad among both.
“I think most didn’t want trouble,” he said. “I think a lot of people remember what the Intifada was like and didn’t want to go back, and that was on both sides.
“On the other hand, there were some people on both sides who wanted to cause trouble, so it made the situation difficult. During the operation there was a lot of rioting and attacks against the IDF we’d have to respond to.”
Hudis also attended the Raritan Valley Schechter and graduated from Princeton High School. The son of Dr. Stephen and Merrye Hudis, he is a third-generation member of the Jewish Center.
“Basically, the West Bank is a mess,” said Hudis, who was involved in dismantling the Hamas terror network, but couldn’t go into specifics.
Rathauser, who also spoke of his experience at the Jewish Center on Yom Kippur, will be in the military for two-and-a-half years instead of the usual three because he is an immigrant who entered the IDF at 19. He spoke to the teens about his friend, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas killed in Gaza.
Rathauser came to Israel through Garin Tzabar, a group of about 20 young Americans who lived together on Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the lower Galilee. He returns to the kibbutz on the weekends.
Although his family traveled to Israel annually, he developed his strong bond with the country in the 11th grade while participating in the Reform movement’s Essential International Experience program, which brings high schoolers to Israel for a semester. A trip to Poland with the EIE program mid-semester also had a significant impact.
“I decided to join the army after returning from Poland,” said Rathauser. “I saw the huge correlation about what happened to the Jews in Poland and what could happen if we didn’t have our own army to secure the future of the Jewish people.”
Once his military service is completed, he would like to attend The Hebrew University. He dreams of becoming an ambassador for Israel “to continue to work with youth and others to teach them about Zionism and help Israel.”
“Being a soldier in the IDF has helped me to mature so much,” said Rathauser. “I learned, especially as a commander, to put others before myself.”
Hudis agreed to his parents’ request that he get his degree at Syracuse University before joining the IDF.
After being discharged in 2011, he worked and attended Tel Aviv University, earning a master’s degree in public heath with a focus on emergency and disaster medicine. He now works at a Princeton public safety and security consulting firm.
Despite his experiences, Hudis is optimistic about the prospect for peace.
“The question of Israel living peacefully with her neighbors is always going to be there,” said Hudis. “I know there are rational and sane people on both sides. It’s only a small percentage who are involved in the conflict. It’s really unfortunate that there’s so much international pressure placed on Israel. I think it’s really shaping the conflict. If this happened in a vacuum, I think this would have been solved a long time ago.”