It’s now been about 31 years since I volunteered for the IDF. The fact that I — an Oak Park kid who grew up playing sports and looking for ways to skip Hebrew School — would have ever served in the Israeli army is still bizarre to me. But now, many years and multiple kids and grandkids later, I have to say that the experience stays with me every day. It changed my life forever.
My Jewish faith brought me to Israel. My commitment to its security made me enlist. I was no kid at the time, with a past that was anything but a soldier’s life. I was just an ordinary guy from an ordinary family. I wasn’t particularly political or pro-military. I had never belonged to any kind of organization, not even the Cub Scouts. Not only had I never held a weapon — I don’t think I’d ever even seen one.
So imagine my shock, after just a few weeks in the IDF, when I was patrolling the Kotel and overheard a young American girl talking to her mother.
Mommy, I just saw an Israeli soldier.
The immersion into real-life soldiering was quick. They gave us a weapon — an M-16 — on the first day and told us not to use it until we were fully trained. But that didn’t mean we'd get an easy and safe assignment. There’s no such thing in the IDF.
The first week of my service, an Egged bus had picked me up from my army base in Beit El when, all of a sudden, we started getting pummeled by rocks being thrown by some Arab kids. I'd like to say I was cool as a cucumber, but in truth I was freaked out. Stone hitting metal and windows was loud and ominous. It seemed like a real life-threatening situation, my first ever.
To my shock, the driver screeched to a stop and started chasing the kids. I opened the door, fumbled with my M-16, and kind of froze. What the hell am I supposed to do, I thought? I don’t know how to fire this weapon, or whether I should even try.
In the midst of my paralysis, an Israeli woman nearby looked at me and yelled “Do something!” Fortunately the driver returned to the truck and we moved on, but I knew I had failed the moment. I might be an untrained American soldier in Israel, I thought, but I had better step up my game or people are going to die. This is the real thing.
Being an American Israeli soldier is like having two parts of you collide. While your heart wants to defend Israel so deeply that you’re willing to give your life for it, you carry a lifetime of American culture in your DNA. I was always trying to reconcile the two.
Yet there were times when it all came together, beautiful moments of clarity as to who I am and why I was there. I had my first such moment at 3:00 am, alone in a guard tower, on the far outskirts of an army base. It was isolated and quiet. I had no ability to communicate with anyone and was required to stand the entire time. My commanding officer had given me a stern lecture that, if I fell asleep, I would endanger lives and face harsh consequences.
So I stood there, intensely vigilant, feeling the heavy burden on my shoulders. As I stared into the dark stillness, suddenly a wave of emotion came over me, a deep and surreal connection to G-d, my people and my history. It was a true out-of-body experience. And then it hit me like never before.
I am now a soldier protecting Israel. And nothing bad is going to happen on my watch.
From that moment on, I was a bit different. I was still Alan from Oak Park, but now I was also what I really wanted to be: an Israeli soldier, defending my people’s ancient homeland. I felt I belonged there, and each day thereafter was more meaningful, even spiritual.
There was the night I sat around a campfire with my buddies, all kinds and denominations of Jews — young, older, Ethiopian, Sephardic, Ashkenazi — and a couple guys played guitar as we sang Hebrew songs and danced around the campfire. I felt like I was part of David's army in ancient times ... and in a sense I was.
My recollections of my days in the IDF are still remarkably fresh in my mind. They replay vividly and way more often than people around me — even my family — realize. And now, as I look back, I think of the many lessons that the time taught me. I don’t consider myself a better Jew or a special Jew because of the experience. I just had the honor of serving in defense of Israel.
But my service did give me a gift I couldn't have understood at the time: a profound and special lifetime connection to Am Yisrael. I think of current soldiers differently. I understand them and I love them all. They are always in my prayers.
Many years after my service, my son Aaron — who was born in Israel but grew up in Oak Park — returned to serve for three years in a combat unit. As a dad, I felt a full array of emotion — fear and worry, but most of all, pride. A lot of pride.
The cycle of my life continues.