For the past year I have had the honour to stand in synagogue ever Saturday and read aloud the prayer for the soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces.
As an 18-year-old Israeli girl every time I say, “Hu yevarech et chayalei tzva hagannah l’Israel” – “May God bless the fighters of the Israeli Defence Forces” – my thoughts turn to my friends back in Israel who are in the army. Sometimes it’s someone I shared my table with at school, sometimes it’s someone who I used to dance ballet with, sometimes it’s someone who helped me with homework, and sometimes – and these are the hardest days – it’s my best friend, Stav, who can be difficult to reach by phone. She doesn’t have cell reception on her army base.
But let’s be honest: sometimes I also think about myself, about the future me who, in just a few months, will wake up every morning, put on my army uniform and literally serve and protect my country. I think about the meaning of dedicating almost three years of my life to my country.
Over the past six months in Canada, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about the IDF. Some knew everything about it (including the names of all the army bases around Israel), some knew about it in general, and some didn’t know the IDF is mandatory. And yet, almost everyone responded in the same way: they all looked at me with worry in their eyes.
In the beginning, I didn’t understand why people looked at me like that. The teenagers in Israel, myself included, are so eager to join the IDF and serve our country. Not because it seems fun – I promise you, we all know it’s not exactly a five-star stay, and the food isn’t exactly high quality – but because we want to protect our country.
As I talked to more Canadians, I realized why I get those worried, sad faces: the people I talk to are not Israelis.
The way I see it, as Israelis, there are three things that make us so eager about serving in the army.
First is our childhood. Most of us go through the same stages in life: birth, school, university, marriage, having kids and retiring. As an Israeli, I grew up knowing my friends and I will have one more stage for a productive life – serving in the IDF. While in Canada and the rest of the world, kids are being asked about what they want to do when they get older, in Israel, kids are asked about what they want to do in the army.
Second is our experience. Every Israeli knows that feeling of war. Before I came to Canada, I was cleaning my room when I found a diary I wrote during the 2014 Gaza war.
Inside, I had written about dragging my brother to the shelter for the first time, about the fear of going out into the streets, about the sadness in the air.
I meditated on the frustration of losing so many people, for basically nothing, and about my inability to help, even though I wanted to so badly. We, as Israelis, know that someone must do something about the daily threat Israel is facing. We understand that if we don’t, no one will.
The third – and for me, the most important – reason, is that almost every Israeli knows someone, a soldier or a citizen, who died in battle. When I was in Grade 6, one of my best friends lost her brother. I remember sitting in the shivah house every day. There is one picture in my head that I’ll never forget: my friend’s mom sitting in a chair, crying, heartbroken, screaming, “How did this happen to him?”
After you witness something like that you become part of the most undesirable club in the world – you become part of that group of people who know what death looks like.
You know that when a soldier dies in a war, there is also a whole family that dies with them. And you realize that you are fully in that circle of people who will do anything to protect their Israeli brothers, even putting their own lives in danger, because you don’t want any other families to experience what you saw. You’re in that club, and so is almost every other Israeli.
Now, after living in a country without wars or mandatory army service, I have learned where those sad looks come from. I have also learned about life without war, life without fear and life without the army.
So when I read the prayer for the IDF soldiers, I think about my friends, but I also wonder: why? Why do teens around the world get to go to university, but we go to the battlefield? Why, when my new friends from Toronto will eat in fancy restaurants, I’ll eat canned corn?
I won’t lie: sometimes the answer is not so clear. But as time goes by, and my army service is getting closer, I begin to understand it more.
This year in Canada prepared me for my army service in surprising ways. Being so far from my beloved country made me understand that I’m lucky to have an opportunity to give back to my country, my people, and my community. I am eager to join the most moral army in the world. Even more than that, I’m proud.
So to all those people who gaze at me with worried looks or sad eyes when I talk about joining the IDF next year, I want to tell you that you don’t need to be sad for me. Instead, be proud. Be proud that you as a Jewish person have a homeland where so many young, strong, people are willing to stand up and risk their lives for a place where all Jews can call home.