October 24, 2020

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Aliyah, IDF-style – part 4 (Ziesel R. and her dad)


After another too-long absence on these pages, Ziesel R. – the young woman originally from the US who joined the IDF as a lone soldier earlier this year – has resumed telling us her story.


I would like to begin by apologizing for not posting a blog in six months. I’m sure you all understand that was due to the rigorous training that I went through.

Let’s take a look at my combat training that began 6 months ago. It was an extremely intense time with many days spent in the shetach (field). Almost every soldier is given something that they specialize in during training. I was given the Negev. The Negev is a machine gun weighing in at about 17 pounds. We did a week course on how to use it properly. It was a difficult week but I completed it nonetheless. One night they woke us up at 3 a.m. with a hakpatza (emergency drill) and had us all crawl about 250 meters with the Negev on difficult terrain. This was probably the most challenging thing that I’ve had to do in my service but I was very proud of myself for completing that difficult task.

After a couple more months of intense training we finished and received our kumta (beret). My father flew in for the ceremony which was sadly canceled while he was on the plane. (My father wrote an amazing article about his time with me in Israel that I suggest everyone read (posted below*). Having him in Israel was exciting and I finally got a taste of what it’s like to not be a lone soldier. A lot was going on at the same time he was in Israel. Unfortunately the Negev caused a lot of strain on my back. After combat training I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer to switch my specialty and take the combat medics course which began a couple days prior to my dad’s arrival. I was delighted to have been accepted to the course but faced a lot of difficulties. My commanders in the course were unaccommodating and made the course difficult for me. Fortunately I had four friends that did the course before me and spent a lot of time both on the phone and in person helping me. I also had a mashakit aliyah (someone whose job in the army is to help immigrants with understanding material). This ended up not being enough with commanders that were not interested in helping me. Ultimately I ended up switching to another medics course with different commanders. The way the medics course works is that almost every week a new course begins making switching to another course easy for someone like me. Switching courses ended up being the best decision. I loved my commanders and the head commander. I also really enjoyed the people I was with. It really reminded me how even when things look down it almost always ends up being for the better.

Toward the end of the three month medics course my mother and younger sister came for a visit. Fortunately my commanders were amazing and gave me ample time to spend with my family. Also while they were here I got my Israeli driving license which was very exciting. Again I got the taste of what it’s like to not be a lone soldier. Although they left, the memories we made together were incredible and now was time to focus on finishing my course.

I finished the course with great grades and went back to the life of a combat soldier. During this time, I also moved to Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak.  I haven’t been there long but am very happy there. My unit is based next to the Jordanian border. I rejoined them but returned with a better attitude. I was only there for a few weeks before finally receiving permission to take leave. I booked plane tickets about 14 hours before getting on a plane to visit my family and friends in America. I’ve been in America for about a week and half now and will be here for a month. It is great being back and seeing everyone but at the same time I miss Israel. America will always be where I grew up but Israel is home.


Here is the post written by Ziesel’s father in December:

Is it possible to celebrate Chanukah and not think of our modern day Maccabees who protect and defend Israel and the Jewish people the world over? Probably few with children serving in the IDF especially Lone Soldier parents who may not see their Maccabee children but for brief visits with sometimes more than a year in between. Particularly difficult are the various graduation ceremonies (tekes) recognizing milestones in the military that families are invited to. To be sure other relatives, friends, host families and their Lone Soldier pals are there for them. As we used to say ‘lone but not lonely’.  But it isn’t the same.

A huge amount of thanks and gratitude to Nefesh B’Nefesh and EL AL the airlines of Israel for organizing and subsidizing a parent trip to Israel to attend a tekes for their Lone Soldier child. Nefesh B’Nefesh and EL AL recognize the importance of a parent attending a highlight tekes for the morale of the whole family and can sustain a soldier for a long way between parent visits.

The army, not so much.Neither I nor my Lone Soldier, Ziesel, attended a tekes during my trip (through no fault of Nefesh B’Nefesh and EL AL who worked overtime to make it happen).

To ‘make it happen’ was no mean feat. Anyone who knows the IDF only from ‘Operation Thunderbolt-the raid on Entebbe’, may be surprised to learn that the army doesn’t always have its- I will avoid the military term and say- ducks in a row. We reckoned ‘around Thanksgiving’. An official invitation was issued on 8 November for the tekes 23 November allowing a week for organizing work, family and scheduling flights (thanks again NBN and EL AL). No sooner had I landed that I discovered the tekes was canceled. Before I could be disappointed about that I learned my solider volunteered for and was accepted to the combat medic course. She was now on a completely different base and under new command (a lot can happen midflight). As proud as I was of her initiative, as an IDF Lone Solider veteran I was a little disconcerted because I knew that the permission she received for leave to spend time with me from her previous command was nullified. It was now up to the new command. A new lobbying effort began. I knew how it would seem, “Hi, I’m your new soldier. You don’t know me very well but can I have the first week of the course off?”

So, rather than meeting my daughter on a parade ground with bands and speeches accompanying receiving her new beret identifying her as a combat solder in the Arayot HaYarden Brigade with advanced training, we reunited at the Beer Sheva bus station.

Any disappointments that may have been,were melted away with hugs and kisses. Had she changed? She was the same beautiful, intelligent, articulate, poised, confident young woman we said farewell to a year ago- only more so. And way Israeli with mad Hebrew skills and an M-16. She introduced me to a couple of her friends from the course. “Is she a good solider?” I asked them in Hebrew. “Yes. Of course. The best.” I told her she was the ‘real deal’. “What does that mean?”, she asked. “It means if your plan was to come to Israel, make Aliyah and be a soldier in the IDF, you have done it, 100%” (100% is army slang for “100%”).

We had a wonderful Jerusalem Shabbat together with my older daughter and son-in-law at their Har Nof apartment. Motzai Shabbat she and I headed to Ibim, the immigrant absorption village she now calls home. Ziesel wanted to be closer to base if she didn’t get any additional leave. I was given the 5 shekel tour of Ibim- about 4 minutes. I was more focused on the placement of bomb shelters than the laundry and dining hall. Ibim is spitting distance to Sderot. As a parent you may tell your child “don’t play in the street” or “avoid walking alone at night (even if you have an M16)”. Add “be aware of the nearest bomb shelter and keep your ‘go bag’ squared away”. It’s not a kvetch but advice from experience. Both her mom and I were living in Israel during the Persian Gulf War.

I met some of the other Lone Solders. In my mind, exceptional young people. The culture of the IDF places enormous responsibility on extraordinarily young people. They are poised, professional and more than a little nonchalant. The social atmosphere was NCSYish- kosher fraternity/sorority but with fewer bad decisions. Ziesel made it clear from the start, “don’t touch the M16” but one of my young brothers let me check out the Tavor. Very cool would be an understatement. One of her friends dropped of her new kumta. New style for the mixed combat units: khaki background, dark brown tendrils over medium brown splotches. Looks cooler than it sounds. She acted less than enthusiastic but wasted little time changing out her generic O.D. one.

In some ways the best part of the visit was doing normal things that might belie we hadn’t seen each other in a year. Laundry, grocery shopping and picking up custom boot liners designed to relieve the tendonitis caused by carrying heavy loads quickly over long distance i.e. what combat soldiers do the most (by normal I meant normal Israeli things).

Good news! Leave permitted til Thursday (would just one more Shabbat cause the army to collapse?). So, back to Jerusalem and my turn to be the tour guide. First the Gush Katif Museum. I had some artifacts to deliver: some pictures of when I volunteered with some friends at Kibbutz Netzarim just before Operation Desert Storm. Within eyesight of her current residence beautiful and growing communities were exchanged for terror, destruction and rockets toward her and her neighbors.

Walking through Jerusalem I spied a sign for Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center. While my daughter begged off, (even though she is a trained killer it’s somehow gratifying to know she fears the possibility of being embarrassed by her dad) I was excited to see that which I heard so much about but did not exist in my time. I found a warm and homey space that was a cross between a dormitory common area and the living room of that house where everyone hangs out, with a very enthusiastic staff. I would have found it very inviting back in the day. On the way out we were offered a delicious cake to take for Shabbat. It was comforting to know that such a resource existed for my soldier.

We arranged to meet my older daughter at the Ammunition Hill Museum. As the year comes to a close most of us have forgotten that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the victory of the Six-Day War in June. Ammunition Hill is significant to me because many years ago on a day trip while volunteering with Sar-el this is where I decided to begin my journey to becoming a soldier. I gave my daughters a complete historical reenactment of the battle and its context to the access of the old city and Temple Mount. Plus a tutorial on trench warfare (no extra charge and thanks, girls, for being polite while dad geeked out).

Some things can mean more than a tekes. Even before we got to Jerusalem the poor girl couldn’t stand still for one second without being complimented on her new kumta. Our day for visiting the Kotel was no exception. On the way she needed to stop for a few things (soldiers always need a few things). We happened upon a tiny cobbler’s booth along Yaffo Street. He was an older guy with an apron stained with dyes, polish and glue. There were belts, shoelaces and some other accessories but covered with dust. It made me wonder how long it had been since his last sale. With his help we found the cordovan colored polish that matched my daughter’s boots and the small applicator brushes that would pack into her already overstuffed industrial sized backpack. “How much?” I asked in Hebrew taking out my wallet (visiting parents always pay). “No” he said refusing payment “not for a soldier”. His gesture of appreciation was one of the highlights of my trip. I hugged him. Somehow his sacrifice comforted me knowing that, tekes or no, my daughter’s contribution was appreciated by the people who really counted. After stopping for a bite to eat we picked up a couple sufganyot and brought them to him as a token of appreciation. He of course refused but this was my turn to insist.

On to the Kotel. It is just time for the afternoon prayers and the wide Plaza is filled with worshipers and tourists. But first we have to go through security which my daughter bypasses because she’s in uniform and armed. There is a small formation of newer army recruits getting instructions from their young commanders before they are released for lunch. The tourists are enthralled as if they were the very soldiers that liberated Jerusalem in 1967. I do not take praying at the Kotel for granted. That even a single Jewish person could be here is an open miracle.

It’s time to leave but we’re making little progress. The tourists don’t allow my daughter any rest. Who wouldn’t want to take their picture with the pretty girl soldier with the fancy beret and an M-16? She’s happy to oblige. I make a (bad) joke that after the Army she can work in Times Square dressed as Wonder Woman taking pictures with tourists.

It would be satisfying and triumphant to leave on that pleasant scene but disingenuous. Leaving Israel is mostly bitter and never sweet. Efforts to extend leave until after Shabbat have failed. Tonight we go to Ibim so that tomorrow I can accompany Ziesel to her base. She tells me I don’t have to but of course I wouldn’t have it otherwise. In the morning she suggests we part at Beer Sheva station reminding me half joking that I won’t be permitted on base. I, (only) half joke that there should be no reason why not, reminding her I was a soldier while holding up a Ziploc sandwich bag with my old and faded IDF document (ID, discharge and fortunately never needed POW record). If she was impressed she didn’t let on.

The trip to the base was somber. In Beer Sheva we had the breakfast of an Israeli soldier on the move: bourekas and coffee. From Beer Sheva to the base there may have been tears (trained killer indeed). We parted as we met — with hugs and kisses. One last in-person Shabbat bracha. I watched my little girl lug her heavy soldier’s pack until my view is obscured by trees, fencing and buildings. My trip back to Jerusalem was less sad. At least we were still in the same country for a little while longer and I reflected on our time together and how much I appreciated those who made the trip possible.

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