Three weeks into the second Lebanese war with rockets raining down on the north of the country, 130 Jewish youngsters landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Their sole purpose was to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
But Israeli reality since July 12th was much different than the scene presented to these volunteers during the scout seminars they attended throughout North America when they made up their minds to come to Israel.
Members of Kibbutz Yiron, one of the assigned homes for the volunteers, had been spending the last three weeks in the bomb shelters. Their life had come to a virtual standstill - very few people roamed the lush grounds of the kibbutz as the Katyusha rockets whizzed by.
Garin Tzabar (Photo: Boaz Bardosh)
And so three of the four groups of idealistic youngsters were taken to temporary hotels and youth hostels in Jerusalem to wait out the war, while continuing their preparations for the assignment ahead.
These youngsters came to Israel through a program initiated by the Tzofim (Israel Scouts) Movement and the IDF called Garin Tzabar. The initiative is supported by the Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency.
Born into families of Jewish and Israeli backgrounds living throughout North America, members of Garin Tzabar aged 18 to 25 are due to be drafted into the army in November of this year following four months of preparations that will include touring Israel, one week of pre-military training and a week of "Gadna".
The Jewish Agency is providing a Hebrew language Ulpan for those who need to brush up on their Hebrew language skills.
Since Garin Tzabar's inception 15 years ago, some 900 youngsters have come to Israel to join the army, 70 percent of who remained in Israel after completing their service, a third were joined by their families who came here to make aliyah.
This year's Garin comprises 130 members divided into four groups; they will be spending the next few months including their army vacations for the next three years at kibbutzim Yiron, Sasa, Kfar Hanasi and Ein Harod Ichud. During their stay at these kibbutzim, each volunteer is assigned a kibbutz family.
The 31 youngsters who comprise the "Yiron" group, half boys and half girls, were all avid Israel supporters. They were active members of the Israeli scout movement in Toronto, Canada, yet their reasons for wanting to come to Israel to join Israeli army are varied.
Ilan Grains, the youngest member of this group, is the son of an Israeli father who left Israel to study in the US when he was 22, Ilan's mother is Canadian. Ilan says he was always attached to Israel, and when he was just five months old his father brought him here to show him off to the family.
Ilan celebrated his Bar Mitzva at the Western Wall, after which he went on a field trip where he met and fell in love with a beautiful young girl, called Metzada. Ilan stayed in touch with her until, to his absolute horror, she was killed in a terror attack.
It seems that Ilan will never completely recover from that shock. He is intent in enlisting into an elite army unit and would like to become a field medic. "I would rather save lives than to take lives," he says.
Eighteen-year-old Netta Sadeh, daughter of Israeli parents who left Israel when she was 15 to live in Toronto, always knew that she would return to Israel to do her military service. At first she considered coming here alone, but now she is thankful that she joined the Garin where she has met many friends in the same situation as her own.
The weeks that preceded her arrival were spent glued to CNN as she struggled with her decision to come here during wartime. "Every news broadcast made me change my mind, but I am really glad I decided to come." She says.
Canadian born Aaron Draper, 25, is the oldest member of the group. This is his third visit to Israel – the first two were on the Birthright and Hillel programs. Aaron says he never took Israel's existence for granted.
"If the Jewish state was around before the holocaust, it may have been prevented." Aaron says. He decided to come here after completing his studies as a PE instructor, and hopes that his physical condition will help him get into the Nahal Unit as a combat soldier.
He is fully aware that his superiors will be quite a bit younger than himself but he is not perturbed by this, "it's not a problem unless you make it one," he says. His parents, as Aaron puts it, are proud but apprehensive.
Prior to arriving in Israel, the group underwent five training seminars in Toronto where they got a chance to deal with their own personal dilemmas and the difficult decision of leaving their current lives behind and joining the Israeli army. Parents partook in the fifth and final seminar along with their children.
The weeks prior to their arrival in Israel posed many difficult questions and could have changed their plans. A fierce war had broken out in the north and the future was uncertain. Parents were alarmed.
But these kids are well taken care of here in Israel: They are accompanied night and day by five staff members who take care of their every need. Boaz Bardosh the group coordinator from Kibbutz Yiron, is the mother and father of these kids; Lior Seidel, who spent three years in New York as a 'shaliach' is currently the Director of Garin Tzabar at the Israel Scouts.
According to Lior, the majority of the young men and women who have participated in these groups are highly motivated and many of them serve in the IDF's elite combat units, "we even have one pilot," he says proudly, "and the army makes an extra effort to meet their assignment requests."