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MAY 5, 2017

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Locations updated 6/3/16

Rivertowns host visit from Israeli soldiers

By Jackie Lupo

REGION — Last week, while high school seniors in the Rivertowns talked about their final college decisions, in Israel the big topic of conversation among graduates was which branch of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) they will join.

Just how different life is for Israeli young adults was revealed when five members of the IDF, ranging on age from 20 to 26, were the guests of local community groups, schools, synagogues, cultural sites, and volunteer families’ homes. Their visit, from April 23 through May 1, was arranged through a new program called “Tzahal Shalom,” established this year by a group of Rivertowns families and directed by Laurie Davidowicz of Irvington and Jennifer Schwartz of Ardsley.

“Tzahal” is an acronym for the “Tzava Hagana L’Israel” (Israeli Defense Forces in Hebrew). “Shalom” has many meetings, including “hello,” “goodbye,” “peace,” and “harmony.” The program, funded by private donations, pays for the young IDF soldiers' travel to the area. The participants are handpicked by their superiors as goodwill ambassadors, based on their military accomplishments and their fluency in English. A similar program, Tzahal Shalom of Northern Westchester, has operated for 10 years.

Families hosted “parlor meetings” where neighborhood friends of all ages mixed with soldiers in an informal setting. The soldiers’ itinerary wasn’t limited to the Jewish community, however; they also toured West Point, attended a Boy Scout meeting, dropped in at a boxing club, and had lunch with elderly veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

Military service at 18 is mandatory for Israeli citizens who are Jewish (and optional for non-Jewish citizens). It is considered a rite of passage, like going to college or getting a driver’s license is in this country. For the Israelis, who must serve for 32 months, for men, and two years, for women, enlisting is anticipated despite the fact that it can have life-or-death consequences. Some also re-enlist, taking advantage of opportunities for high-level technical training and degree programs.

On Thursday, April 27, the soldiers, all in uniform, appeared at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, talking about their daily lives and fielding questions from an audience of students, faculty, and administrators.

Matan Shavit, 24, was a former top-ranking member of the Israeli jujitsu team when he was in high school. In 2010 he enlisted in the infantry branch of the IDF. Shavit took command of a platoon of 35 soldiers at the age of 21, and served in “Operation Protective Edge,” a mission to eliminate terrorist tunnels infiltrating into Israel, in the summer of 2014. “During the operation my company commander was killed in action,” he said, noting that as a platoon commander, he had to be “the mom and dad of 35 soldiers all the way, 24-7.” He will graduate from the IDF’s Tactical Command Academy in September with the rank of company commander.

Rotem Levy, 20, started her army gig as a field observer, then went to officer school and became a commander of an operation room. She described her job as “using radar and sonar, making sure no one crosses the border in the sea.” She said if there were a threatened attack, she would be the one to notify the forces. “If you don’t do well, people’s lives can be taken. It can be my family, my neighbor’s family. It’s small, Israel, the size of New Jersey. I get so anxious. We know it’s our families we are protecting.”

Natanel Horesh, 25, has been in the army nearly seven years. He belongs to a combat unit, and, like Shavit, served in Operation Protective Edge. Horesh is an Orthodox Jew who wears a yarmulke with his army uniform. He has been attending the command academy and will graduate in two weeks with a B.A. in political science and the rank of company commander.

Twenty-one-year-old Sapir Malik is an infantry instructor. “I teach soldiers how to defend themselves using weapons,” she explained. “For me, this is a big responsibility because I know in the reality we live in, we really do need that. We have terror attacks in Israel every day. Sometimes you don’t hear about that because we prevent some of them.”

She described having 16 soldiers under her command as “a life-changing experience. You’re responsible for their lives.”

Twenty-four-year-old Dudi, whose last name was withheld for security reasons, joined the air force at 18. He recalled that at that time, he was “a teenager used to having no responsibilities and partying.” During the first month of training at the flight academy, the recruits’ cellphones were taken away; he was allowed to have his phone back for one hour a month during ground training. Soon, he progressed to survival drills, where he was dropped from a plane into a forest, as if he had to eject into enemy territory, with dogs and soldiers chasing him. “You have to hide all day and run all night,” he said. “That’s the first time you discover that you can endure more than you imagined.”

Now, he flies autonomous planes from the ground, and has worked as a flight instructor with 29 candidates under his command. His enlistment will be up in 2018.

In the only tense moment at Mercy, during the Q&A session two female students asked about Palestinian territorial issues and challenged the soldiers’ response. Shavit tried to explain the Israeli position, but the students left the lecture hall, saying they were going to class. As they headed for the door, Shavit called out to them that he wanted to talk, but the young women didn't take notice. “I praise life,” Shavit said after those students walked out. “If there is someone who wants to talk to me and have an intelligent, backed-up-by-facts conversation, I’d be more than happy to do that.”

Levy later told the Enterprise that although she had expected more such encounters, this was the first time on their trip (which included mostly Jewish institutions and visits to Jewish households) that the group had had to respond to a politically charged question. “I know a lot of people are anti-Israel or pro-Israel for emotional reasons,” Levy said. “They have to know the facts. Just because they’re Jewish, that isn’t good enough. It’s important to get both sides. I find it kind of sad that not everybody is willing to hear both sides.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


Rotem Levy (center) talks with veterans Milt Mitler of Hartsdale and Ralph D’Andrea of Ardsley at the Ardsley Cucina on April 27.