The hot July sun blazes in the sky, scorching the asphalt pavilion in the Mahva Alon military training base and turn Nathaniel Schlakman's cheeks pink. But the 18-year-old who came from New Jersey to don an IDF uniform welcomes it.
"It's a different sun," he revels in the misery, "an Israeli sun."
Until a year ago, Schlakman's future seemed quite clear. He worked out five times a week in order to get accepted into the Marines. However, he ultimately landed two months ago at Ben Gurion Airport with the first group of soldiers organized by Aish Machal.
"I couldn't keep sitting on my couch in my spacious house, watching on television how IDF soldiers are defending Israel, which is also my country," he explained. "I studied history, and I understood that all the big disasters, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, happened because we didn't have a country of our own, and we had nowhere to go. I decided that if I'm going to serve, it has to have meaning."
"Nathaniel told me that if he's going to take a bullet, he'd rather take one in Israel, for the country," said Aharon-Yosef Katsof, who found Schlakman in the religious school in which he studied.
Katsof's story embodies the ideology behind Aish Machal. Twenty-six years old, Katsof located all 23 members of the group that recently landed in Israel. When he arrives at Mahva Alon to visit "his kids," as he calls them, they give him friendly slaps on the shoulder as they greet him with shouts "A. Y." – his initials, nearly the only remaining indicator of his American past. Thanks to his Israeli wife and three Israeli-born children, his accent has faded, making it hard to believe that just seven years ago he was a computer student at a Los Angeles college.
I was like an alien
It all started for him when he was 10 years old on a trip to Israel with his parents. "I fell in love," he declared. "But when I finished high school, I went with the flow and applied for college."
A year later, he decided to return to Israel "because I felt at home here. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a typical American. But in my heart, in the places that can't be seen, I felt that I am a Jew and an Israeli." But the bureaucracy at the Interior Ministry scared him off. "Here there is a shouting clerk, there they say that a document is missing. Balagan (a chaotic mess)," he smiled under his cap.
Only at the age of 22, when he was already father to his daughters Shirat Hodaya and Shira-Nava, now aged five and three, did he return to the Interior Ministry, make aliyah, and prepare for enlistment.
But the military didn't want him. "They told me that as a father of two, I have an exemption from military service," he said. Katsof, whose son Yisrael was born just a year ago, did not give up. "I understood that you can't get by here without connections. So, I pulled some strings, and I got an interview with the commander of the recruitment office in Jerusalem. I told him that every Jew has the right to be part of the IDF system. After a quarter of an hour, he gave in."
Katsof enlisted for a half a year of military service and underwent an officers' course as part of his reserve duty.
"I really can't say that it was easy," he said. "They didn't understand my thought process. I landed in the military like an alien. I searched for someone who had already gone through the track and could help me integrate. I broke down a few times, but I got up and continued on. Why? Because this is Israel."
His personal experience was just the tip of the iceberg. Of the widespread range of difficulties confronting Americans who want to enlist in the military Katsof learned only when he started working in the hesder yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Tel Aviv as a deputy to director Baruch Tretiak, 36, originally from Kansas.
Aish HaTorah is an organization that seeks to connect Jews to their heritage and prevent assimilation. Some 100,000 people participate in Aish HaTorah programs every year. Aish Machal, which Katsof and Tretiak initiated, is one of them.
"The Aish HaTorah yeshiva is a yeshiva of Israelis that only a few Americans came to. We saw how confused they are. They had no one to give them guidance," said Katsof. "Baruch and I started to spread the idea, and only in February of this year did we receive authorization from the Defense Ministry to open a Machal branch."
The Machal concept – of IDF volunteers from abroad – has existed since the establishment of the State. There are additional projects that bring young immigrants, some of whom perform IDF military service, "but since the days of Ben Gurion, there has not been a group of volunteers that come with one clear purpose – to enlist."
How did you find volunteers?
"I flew to the US and I wandered between twenty Jewish high schools in New York, New Jersey, California, Boston, and Baltimore. I came in uniform, with my ranks, and a coat on top. I came to the school, knocked on the door, and asked to meet with the principal. When they said that he is busy or that I 'didn't have an appointment,' I would tell them that the principal had invited me to stop by when I'm in the area.
"Once I was in front of the principal, I would take off my jacket and say, 'Hi, I'm an Israeli soldier from the combat Engineering Corps. Usually when I show up at places without an invitation, I blow up the door. In this case, I am asking you to open the door and give me five minutes.'
"Some of the principals would organize a meeting with all the students in the grade, while others agreed to send out emails or make recommendations to graduates that were suitable," explained Katsof.
This is how Yitzhak Benji, also from New Jersey, was scouted. His parents, Persian-born, were in Israel for a few years before they moved to the US. "The Persian mentality hasn't left them," Benji testified. "If I had applied to college, I am certain my mother would not have allowed me to live in the dorms. So, they were alarmed when I decided to leave and travel to such a faraway and dangerous place. But now, especially after I passed the paratroopers' tryout period, they are the proudest parents in the world."
Jordan David, who now insists that people call him Yarden, grew up in New Jersey to a family that had no problem paying the $30,000-a-year tuition for private Jewish high school. During a meeting with Katsof, he said that he dreams of making a drastic move – to study in Bar-Ilan University.
"So I suggested an even more drastic move for him," recalled Katsof. "When he said that he is going to enlist in the military, people laughed at him. They said, 'You, who grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth, are going to crawl through bramble and do sit-ups?"
Yakov Kroll, 20, whose dream is to serve in Givati, arrived in Israel after two years of studying accounting and real estate at a Santa Monica college. "I have always asked myself what I can do for the country," he said in fluent Hebrew, which the volunteers obtained during a six-week preparatory course in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
"I thought that if I'd be a lawyer, maybe I could sue Iran, or if I'd work in public relations, I could do hasbara (public relations) for the country. But ultimately, I understood that there is only one way to truly contribute to the country, and that is the military."
Katsof met with Kroll's father in Beverly Hills at the home of a real estate magnate who wishes to remain anonymous. "He funds us," said Katsof, refusing to provide any additional details. "I told the father, 'I have a program that fits your son to a T,' and that was enough."
Now, a week before entering basic training, Kroll is working hard to find an apartment to rent. The housing scholarship, as well as the double salary from the military – NIS 700 (about $180) – he will receive only after he reports to the induction base. "But most landlords demand payment ahead of time," he said without a trace of complaining in his voice. He explained that he is a lone soldier, and when he is hungry, he eats in the soldiers' hostel.
When I asked who irons his uniforms, he laughed and quipped, "You think they've been washed?" But he proclaimed that he likes it here. "This is the most fascinating place on earth, without a dull moment. The distance has helped me miss my parents. I think that's what called growing up."
On the times in which they miss home spoke Moshe and Eliyahu Engelman, blond twins from New York wearing black kippahs. "We are both 20-years old, but I was born two minutes first," declared Moshe, as he describes how Katsof fished them out of a Jerusalem restaurant for the project. "He heard that we were speaking English, sat down at the table, and asked matter-of-factly 'Have you ever thought about joining the army?'"
So, had you?
"Of course. But everyone always told me that if I travel to Israel for a year, I'll finish my degree after everyone else. When A.Y. explained how much that year will contribute to my character, I said to myself, 'So what if I'm late?'"
Brothers Rafael and Joshua Levy, aged 20 and 18, plan on serving in the commandos, which obligates them to serve for two or more years. "Because of my dad's work, I traveled throughout the world," said Rafael. "But after a visit to Israel, I would get on the plane and cry. I felt like part of my soul is here."
And do you miss America?
"Sure," said Yehoshua. "I miss football games. But does this seem like a good enough reason not to serve?"
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