They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. That may have been the case for 20-year-old Akiva Goldstein who decided to make aliyah and join the IDF after graduating from high school – a Christian one.
“I think that if I had gone to the Jewish high school, I’m not sure if I would be in Israel today,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein made aliyah at the end of 2011, leaving behind his family, friends and a girlfriend, none of whom, have an intention to follow him (except for vacations and visits).
He was recently inducted into the IDF’s elite Paratrooper’s Brigade.
Goldstein was raised in a Jewish-conservative household in Philadelphia, attending the Jewish elementary school of Solomon Schechter and Camp Rama in the summers. He chose to go to the Quaker Friends’ Central High School in part because of the school’s focus on athletics, but also in order to broaden his horizons.
Though the school had a large percentage of Jews, Goldstein explains that “the majority of them are less than reform, they maybe go to synagogue once in a year, they don’t know much about Judaism.”
So with an obviously Jewish name, a Star of David necklace, and his greater knowledge of Judaism, “I was the token Jew, even though I wasn’t orthodox,” he said.
Being the sole identifiable Jew and one of the only students with a connection to Israel, “strengthened my Zionism,” he explained, as it was no longer something he could take for granted.
It also made Goldstein “realize that there are so many Jews that don’t have a connection to the place that we call home.”
“If I continued like that, if I turned into that,” and “if Jews continued to do that, there’s going to be no one left, just the silent annihilation of Judaism.”
Camp Rama and Michael Levine
But a Herzilian realization about the necessity of Zionism after spending time in a non-Jewish setting wasn’t the only thing that drove Goldstein to Israel.
At home, Goldstein was raised in a Zionist environment, filled with Judaica and ornaments from Israel and where Israel “was part of our discussion,” his mother, Pearl, explained. The family has made many trips to Israel, the first time with Akiva when he was six-years old. Both of his siblings studied for a year in Israel, one in yeshiva and the other at Hebrew University.
Akiva, however, gives most of the credit for his decision to move to Israel and join the army to the Israel-focused atmosphere of Camp Rama, of which his father is currently the President (an unpaid lay-leader position).
“Every summer they would have 30-40 Israelis working at the camp, sports, lifeguards…there were families that came from Israel and their kids were in our age groups.”
Another factor at the camp was Michael Levine, the American lone soldier killed in action during the Second Lebanon War, whom Goldstein admired from afar.
Levine had to literally force his way into the army. When Levine approached the IDF recruitment office, he was not allowed in because he had not received his first draft notice. So he scaled the compound’s wall and climbed in through a bathroom window on the second floor.
By the time Levine was in the army, people in the camp knew, even though he no longer attended the camp.
Goldstein says he even remembers Levine visiting the camp, during Levine’s month’s leave, a few days before the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War.
Levine’s death affected the entire camp. One evening, people closest to Levine in the camp, like Levine’s twin sister Dara who was a counselor in Goldstein’s age group, were called away one by one, until the night’s activities were finally cancelled.
“It was a very sad and terrible night,” Goldstein recalled.
While Levine wasn’t Goldstein’s inspiration for joining the IDF – something Goldstein had always wanted to do – Goldstein said he joined the paratroopers “in honor of Michael.”
Pushing his way in
Like Levine, Goldstein also had to push himself into the army recruitment office when he too was not allowed in without that first draft notice which would provide the date for an initial interview.
When he was told at the entrance that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter, he declared that he would wait there until he was given a date.
“So I sat there for five hours” until “someone came out and said you can do it right now.”