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My Israeli Child Just Graduated High School - and the Army is Next

My Israeli Child Just Graduated High School - and the Army is Next

A row of smiling Israeli teens

My wife and I moved from Providence, Rhode Island, to Israel with our three small children in 2004. With the Second Intifada still raging, “timing” wasn’t one of our strong points. However, relatively quickly after our arrival in Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat died, and the Second Intifada ran out of steam.

So, for the last 14 years, although there have been ups and downs, overall, we have been happy with our decision to make aliyah (move to Israel to live) and to raise our children as Israelis. Albeit, there have been many times when we did enact the “PR machine” to justify to our friends and family in the States that we were not completely mad and that there was indeed an inner Jewish logic to our decision. We thoroughly enjoyed living in Israel, where the dominant culture is Jewish and where our kids went to a public school in which they could master Hebrew texts better than their father, who is a Reform rabbi.

In Israel, being Jewish sometimes happens best when it happens outside the synagogue. For example, when I took my kids to a basketball game over the Hanukkah vacation, we watched the players in the Jerusalem stadium light the Hanukah candles and sing Maoz Tzur (a traditional Hanukah song) in Hebrew. Because the public culture is Jewish, Shabbat and Jewish holidays define the rhythm of life.

Watching our children grow up speaking Hebrew was simply an exercise in Heschelian awe (a type of radical amazement). Even though I speak Hebrew like my grandfather spoke English, there is always a level of nachas (Yiddish for joy) when my children mock and correct my poor Hebrew grammar or my American accent. However, like many things in life, in addition to all the privileges of living in the Jewish state, there are also the obligations. And I have learned, like every Israeli parent, that there is no time when these obligations hit home harder than when your kid graduates high school.

High school tests and high school pressure are not much different here than what my friends in the States are going through with their children. I have been through high school graduation before with our two daughters but going through it now with my son feels different. For one thing, there is far less pressure in Israel about university, which seems very far away after high school graduation; that is because my son and his friends are thinking about only one thing – the army.

My son and his friends began talking about the army last year, but time moves quickly and suddenly all they talk about is how to get into the most prestigious combat units. In my son's circle, everyone wants to be a fighter pilot or an elite commando. And let's face it, they have been socialized to do this since kindergarten – ever since they first heard the sirens for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) or Israel's Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day).

I am quite aware intellectually that Israel needs an army, and I understand that not to have power in this cruel world puts us and our people in a very dangerous place. However, at this moment I do not feel particularly intellectual. I also know that the Israeli army needs young men like my son and his friends who have good liberal Jewish values. The hardest thing about all of this is being supportive and coaching him gently as he makes some very intense decisions (because of the decision I made 14 years ago). I know for his sake I need to be supportive and I need to be cool. But… I am not… cool.

Photo: Courtesy of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism

Rabbi Rich Kirschen is the director of NFTY in Israel, the Union for Reform Judaism’s teen summer Israel travel program. Kirschen was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1996. Before making aliyah to Israel, he served as the executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Brown University in Providence, RI. He also served as the University of Michigan Hillel's associate director in Ann Arbor, MI. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Cara Saposnik, who is the director of international relations at the Sam Spiegel Film School.

Rabbi Rich Kirschen
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