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Many campus Israel groups have brought Israeli soldiers to speak at their schools in recent years because they value the insights and perspectives IDF veterans bring to the campus Israel dialogue. But some people who have had life-changing experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces later earn their college degree in the United States. These students offer a unique view on Israel, based on their experience, and their advocacy on campus conveys that.
Sam Besser, who enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after serving nearly two years in the IDF, noted that he came to campus with perspectives that differ from those of his peers. “It is unfortunate that so many people are misguided by lies and it’s even scarier that a lot of American Jews don’t have the knowledge to combat these lies and untruths,” he said.
Although he knows more than many other students, Besser is careful not to preach or bombard people with more information than they can process. He encourages people to develop their own opinions after they have gathered reliable information.
Israel Campus Beat spoke with three American-born IDF veterans who have returned to the U.S. after completing their military service. Each has been involved — or plans to become involved — in campus Israel advocacy efforts. They told their stories and explained how their army service has turned them into effective and authentic voices for Israel.
*** David Abraham, who will begin graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia University in the fall, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona prior to serving in the IDF. Now, looking forward, he sees a tangible change in his level of advocacy.
“While in college, talking about and supporting Israel just seemed like the right thing to do. I didn’t have [as much of a] physical connection to Israel, [but] I never really considered the option of not being an advocate on campus,” Abraham explained. “Now that I have done the army and I am about to attend graduate school at Columbia University, I see the importance of Israel for the Jewish people in a completely different light.”
Abraham grew up in a Zionist household where he received what he described as a typical education from Hebrew school and “stories of [his] Mom’s trips to Israel were just as important as going over the nightly math homework.” After spending a gap year in Israel on the Nativ program, studying in Jerusalem and volunteering Be’er Sheva, Abraham fell in love with the language and mix of cultures in Israel. When he finished college, he wanted to return to Israel.
“I found the only plausible way to integrate into society was to join the IDF, where I would feel that connection of tradition and history to the modern day Jewish people while also learning the language,” he explained.
Abraham joined the IDF through a program called Garin Tzabar, which places groups of 20+ immigrants together on a kibbutz before they join the army. Although he was excited about this opportunity, he was nervous about the uncertainty of what would happen.
“One of the most special things about the army is that it places people together who never would have had the opportunity to meet while at the same time everyone is thrown into a similar confusion and hardness that they have never experienced before,” he explained. Additionally, he became fairly fluent in Hebrew and gained what he described as the mental ability to do anything, which he finds applicable outside of the army.
After serving in the army for two years in the Armored brigade, first as a tank driver and then a tank commander, Abraham was given responsibility for training new soldiers in fighting tactics in the tank before they defended the country’s borders.
“I felt as though from that moment on I could go anywhere in Israel or the world and be seen as an Israeli Jew, and not just a Jew, and that meant a lot to me,” he said. “It was as if I had put my foot into society and was now able to go after whatever I desired. The army or just contributing to society in some way was the key to making it with the Israeli people and I had successfully completed that.”
As Abraham prepares to return to the academic world, he relishes the opportunity to share his perspective on campus.
“I think that I can definitely convey my experiences, but something so wonderful about life in general is that no two people will ever experience the same thing in the same way. I feel fortunate that I had such a positive impact from my time in the army and can only hope that others would be open to learning from my experience and maybe try to find their own experiences in helping Israel,” he said.
*** Elliot Charles felt propelled to join the IDF from an early age. His grandfather survived the Holocaust and his grandmother served in the Haganah (which would later become the IDF). In 2006, Charles’ good friend, Michael Levin was killed in action in Lebanon, fighting for the state of Israel, when he was 22 years old. Charles recalls that Michael had written to a friend in his yearbook ‘you can’t fulfill your dreams unless you dare to risk it all,” a quote that would become his legacy.
Charles joined the IDF in 2008 after he turned 18 and served for two and a half years in a combat infantry unit in the Nahal Brigade.
Before he enlisted, he was anxious, nervous and excited, and he knew it was something that was vital for him to do.
“I wanted to ensure that someday my children and grandchildren — if faced with another mass genocide of my people — will have a safe haven,” Charles said.
Like Abraham, Charles participated in Garin Tzabar, through which he and his group volunteered on a kibbutz and then enlisted in the military together.
His period of military service presented Charles with both the most amazing and difficult periods of his life. He trained for eight months, served as a squad commander and specialized in Hummer patrols.
“The friends and comrades that I served with were and still are very important to me. I learned Hebrew, humility, sacrifice and appreciation for all that I have,” he said. “I did not know Hebrew very well in basic training, to the point that I wasn’t able to hold a conversation. This was both frustrating and challenging. As my Hebrew improved I was able to understand and speak, thereby allowing me to integrate into my unit.
“I matured greatly through my service,” he added, noting that he grew stronger from the experience.
After the army, Charles moved back to Denver, Colorado, where he will start his sophomore year at Metropolitan State University in the fall.
“My experience has helped me advocate for Israel due to my strong connection and patriotism for America,” he explained. “Now back in America, I plan to give much more to the country that has given both me and my family all that we have.
“It’s not necessarily that my connection changed,” he continued. “I just envision something different than others when I think about Israel. I think most American Jews envision a utopia when thinking of Israel while non-Jews think of a desert or chaos with bombs exploding everywhere. I think of the good and bad times, of my friends, but most importantly, I think of what Israel was, has become, and could someday be.”
*** Sam Besser spent almost two years in Israel as a soldier in the IDF, during the time that most of his friends were in college. Besser attended Solomon Schechter Day School in Chicago and knew basic facts about Israel, but after his first visit — in high school, for a distant cousin’s wedding — he knew a little bit more about the place that would soon become so important to him.
Besser said that some of his older friends had not been ready for college when they enrolled. He wanted a different experience and — after promising his parents that he would attend college later — he decided to volunteer for IDF service. He participated in Machal, a program for volunteers from outside of Israel. When he departed for Israel, he had every reason to be nervous: He didn’t know much Hebrew, had no idea how to get around the country, only knew a few distant relatives and knew he would have to adjust to a completely different culture.
“It was scary to be on my own,” he said. “I was only an 18-year-old American kid. When most of my friends were getting ready for college, I was preparing to go to the army.”
He served for 20 months as a machine gunner, attaining the rank of sergeant before being discharged.
Besser learned that he can accomplish anything that he puts his mind to whether it was a 13-hour march, surviving the harsh conditions of the Negev or thriving while based on the border of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The other people in his unit became like family to him.
“If we don’t stand up and protect ourselves and our holy land, no one else is going to it,” he said. Noting that there are many ways to support Israel, he said that volunteering to serve gave him a special connection and a deeper understanding of the Jewish homeland.
After his discharge, Besser enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a school that he knew had a large Jewish population. He will graduate in December.
He serves on the Chabad board as one of the Israel chairs, as well as organizes pro-Israel speakers, and passes out literature; He’s also helped bring Sgt. Benjamin Anthony of the IDF as a speaker and helps promote a pro-Israel image on campus.
Although he said he would have been involved in campus Israel affairs even if he had not served in the IDF, Besser is convinced that his experience has made him more knowledgeable and a more confident advocate.
“Israel is my home,” he said. “I was born in America and I am proud to be an American, but I always phrase it that I am a Jewish American.”
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