If you ask our father why we left Israel, one of the reasons he will give you is that he did not believe that his three daughters should spend some of the best years of their lives in the army. We left when Netta was 12, which was the cutoff age at the time for when kids would not be forced to return and serve.
For years, I struggled with his decision. Serving in the Israeli army is a rite of passage for an Israeli citizen, a shared experience of the community. But, the dutiful daughter of an Iraqi/Israeli patriarch, I also knew that I would never disobey my father’s decision, especially knowing the sacrifice he made for us, leaving behind his parents, brothers, sisters, and their children.
When my husband and I met Akiva Goldstein, we were, and continue to be, awed by him. Here was a kid, born and raised in the United States, with an affluent family and all the conveniences life has to offer, who, instead of partying with his friends at college, chose to enlist in the Israeli army.
Tonight we begin the observance of Israel’s Memorial Day, and tomorrow night, Israel’s Independence Day, so I was honored to speak with Akiva regarding his experience and what led him to decide to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Akiva grew up in the Philadelphia area, in a Zionist household with strong Jewish ties. He attended Jewish day schools and Ramah, and knew from an early age that he would serve in the military, but certainly didn’t decide immediately on the Israeli army. He acknowledges a fellow Ramah alumnus and lone soldier with cementing his decision.
On August 1, 2006, Michael Levin, also from the greater Philadelphia area, was shot and killed by a Hezbollah sniper during the second Lebanon War. Akiva was 13 at the time, but he vowed then that he would finish Michael’s service. He committed the summer before his senior year in High School, and moved to Israel the summer after graduation, in 2011.
Once in Israel, Akiva completed a 9-month preparatory course, known as Mechina, in the Golan, and then, true to his word, embarked on Michael Levin’s path by joining a combat unit with the Tzanhamim (Paratroopers), opting for the only one that required a tryout. Recruits undergo months of rigorous training that includes fitness training, Krav Maga, and marches with heavy equipment. More than a quarter of recruits drop out. At the end of the course, recruits must complete a “Beret March”, marching 75 kilometers in full combat gear through all weather extremes and doing a round of push-ups in full combat gear near the finish line before completing the march and receiving their maroon berets.
Aside from the physical challenges of the experience, Akiva was a lone soldier. Time off from the unit many times meant returning to an empty apartment, not to the arms of family and friends. But there was also an amazing community, and a network of soldiers serving with Akiva from around the world, from places like South Africa, Brazil, France, and Ethiopia, committed to fighting for Israel’s security.
Akiva completed his service and returned to the US. Instead of taking time to readjust to civilian life, he matriculated within two months of his return. Now graduating, he credits his strong local community with supporting him through the adjustment. Most daunting, initially, was incorporating the religious aspects of Judaism back into his life, since his army experience was so secular, but little by little he has simply gained new appreciation for some of the practices.
If you’ve never been to Israel on the eve of Yom Ha’atzmaut, I highly recommend putting it on your bucket list. There is no greater party that I’ve ever attended. That this celebration is preceded by the acknowledgment of the price we have paid, and continue to pay, for the freedom we enjoy is potent. Israel exists due to the dedication of those born into her, and those who have committed their lives to her due to their sense of duty and love for her, like Akiva and Michael. And, for that, we are eternally grateful.