After an airplane ride more than 10 hours long, Marla Harlan arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, tired, worried and eager to see her son Seth.
Seth met his mother in full military uniform with an M16 slung over his shoulder and flowers in his hands. The two embraced. In that joyful moment, Harlan realized Seth was no longer the boy she had raised.
Seth is today a “lone soldier,” a Jewish American who emigrated to Israel to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.
“Being the mother of any soldier is difficult … What can I say?” Harlan said. “I am proud of his commitment, but can’t wait for him to finish his service and return home.”
In growing numbers, Jewish college students have been leaving their “safe” homes in the United States to join the IDF.
“Jews feel a very strong connection to Israel, and … will do whatever it takes to support that homeland, including leaving college, leaving their families and their country,” said Zack Cutler, director of finances for the Student Alliance for Israel at George Washington University.
Zachary Katowitz completed his first year at George Washington University, but after visiting Israel he decided that the country was where he felt most at home.
Katowitz realized he would be drafted into the IDF, and he decided to enlist at the same time as Israeli citizens of his age group. He left before beginning his sophomore year of college in the United States.
Now waiting for his draft card to arrive, Katowitz said he hopes to finish his studies in Israel after completing his required 30 months of military service.
When he is drafted, Katowitz will go through various examinations to determine which of the seven IDF units he will be placed in: Infantry, Armor Corps, Corps of Engineers, Ordnance Corps, Education and Youth Corps, Medical Corps or Quartermaster Corps.
Why would someone want to enlist in an army of another nation?
“For the challenge, for my love and passion for Israel,” said Tahg Adler, a California native and a former IDF Infantry Soldier who plans to return to Israel in the near future. “I wanted to do something totally different and feel like I was being a part of Israel from the inside. I feel that I have more in common with Israeli family and friends because of my army service.”
“It takes an incredible commitment to leave the comfort and security of your home and friends to serve in a military half way across the world,” said Harlan, whose son Seth served in the IDF during the recent Lebanon War. “They deserve the support and prayers of not only their fellow Jews, but also people everywhere who are willing to take a stand against terrorism.”
Daniel Berman, a Jewish American student and president of Friends of the IDF at George Washington University, said he plans to join the IDF after he graduates.
“I felt that I owed my parents and myself to finish college in America,” Berman said. “Jews have not had a home for more than 2000 years, and now that we do I feel it is our obligation to protect it.”
The IDF was founded when the state of Israel was established in 1948. Israeli citizens are required to be a part of the IDF, and most citizens enlist right after high school. Every year thousands of Jewish Americans make “Aliyah” – the Hebrew word for ascent – to Israel and join the IDF.
Many Jews feel they have an inborn connection to Israel.
“It was definitely a challenge, however I am extremely grateful for the experience,” Adler said. “I made incredible friends, learned a lot about the culture and society, and feel like I experienced something extremely special.”