Heroes of the Israel Defense Forces
Heroes of the Israel Defense Forces

Like it or not, teenagers need to eat, sleep, go to school, and (in Israel) join the army. By age 18, Israeli citizens receive their official draft notice, summoning them for two or three years of mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. Many seize the opportunity to test themselves in different ways. Here are some of Baba’s favorite IDF heroes.

Hadar Frank: Combat Soldier

Running the Karakal obstacle course makes “Wipeout” look like a walk in the park, even though that TV game show boasts it has the world’s longest obstacle course.

Hadar Frank, 21, starts her Karakal training with a 500-meter run, then leaps over a wall and several hurdles, and climbs a 20-foot rope—all in full battle gear, while carrying equipment, weapons, and artillery. “Both men and women have trouble with it,” she notes. “Not everyone is built for that kind of activity. But women can do it, if they have the right training.”

As one of the top female soldiers in the Karakal Brigade, the IDF’s premier infantry combat unit where men and women serve together equally, Hadar has witnessed what women can accomplish. “All it takes,” she says, “is a strong body and a strong soul.”

Hadar is finishing her three-year commitment to the IDF in Karakal. Founded in 2000 to increase female participation in combat units, more women have volunteered for it than anyone anticipated. “Karakal was designed to be 50 percent men and 50 percent women,” she explains, “but now it’s actually about 70 percent women—all kinds of women. Some are very tough and strong, others are very girly. The only common denominator is that we all wanted the challenge.”

The hardest part of her service, Hadar says, is the long hours of guard duty. “Most of our work is guarding Israel’s border with Jordan. Sometimes, being alone out there at night is a little scary. When you see something, the procedure is to call out a demand that they identify themselves. If they do, then everything is fine. But if they don’t, then you have to give chase. If you’re alone, that’s not always easy.”

The best part, she says, is the people. “Karakal is like a family—we serve two and a half weeks straight, followed by a five-day break,” Hadar explains. “All that time, for three years in a row, you’re all together. Being in a fighting unit in the army really makes you grow up—that’s true for guys and girls both. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from succeeding at something difficult.”

Isaac Landes: The Negevist

You don’t mess with the “Negev”—a specialized gas-fired machine gun that shoots 900 rounds per minute. That’s why, when a unit moves in to conquer enemies, the “Negevist” leads the charge. Spraying machine-gun fire to keep the enemy’s heads down, he allows the rest of the platoon to advance safely. Isaac Landes, 21, a member of the IDF’s Nahal Infantry Brigade, wanted to hold that exceedingly dangerous position so much he spent a week competing for it against other soldiers in his platoon. Winning the title meant that in every battle, he’d be the first to put his life on the line to protect everyone else.

Being a “Negevist” is a highly coveted role. “We went through a week of training, and whoever showed the most guts was picked,” recalls Isaac. “The IDF does a lot of crawling, so I steeled myself against bleeding elbows and knees, and just went for it. Even though I’m not a big guy, and the Negev is pretty heavy with a lot of kick, I got the gun. It’s a great weapon, with a laser point night vision. When I’m carrying it, I look like a cyborg.”

Most of Isaac’s active IDF service has been spent near the West Bank town of Shechem (Nablus), one of the most dangerous areas in the disputed territories. “To go in or out,” he explains, “you have to pass through a checkpoint. I’ve spent my time patrolling the outskirts, managing one of the checkpoints, or being involved with an arrest.”

Isaac, who was born in the United States, is enrolled in a Hesder yeshiva program, which combines yeshiva study with army service. As one of the few religious soldiers in his unit, he serves as an informal role model. “For many soldiers, I’m the only religious Jew they’ve ever met,” he says.

For Isaac, serving in the infantry was always his goal. “I love Israel, and I have a great love for the Jewish people,” he says simply. “A soldier’s job is to fight, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Tamar Gresser: Aiding the Bnei Menashe

As a religious girl, 18-year-old Tamar Gresser was exempt from army service, but not serving never occurred to her. Instead, Tamar chose to perform National Service, or as it’s called in Hebrew, Sherut Le’umi. “I love Israel,” she explains, “and I want to do whatever I can to make it a better place.”

Tamar became intrigued with working with the Bnei Menashe, an immigrant group which claims descent from one of the lost tribes of Israel. They believe they were driven out of the Holy Land 2,700 years ago, and spent hundreds of years wandering before settling in northeast India. In 2005, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi accepted their claim of Jewish ancestry, allowing them to make aliyah, immigrate to Israel, under the Law of Return. So far, about 1,700 Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel.

Initially, no positions with the Bnei Menashe were available. But Tamar kept on calling, and finally a position opened in Nazareth Illit. “That gave me pause,” Tamar recalls. “It’s near an Arab village, and very far from my home in Beersheba. But by then, my heart was set on helping them. The more I learned about them and their history, the more excited I became. I knew I’d go, no matter where I was sent.”

Working as a teacher, youth advisor, counselor, and best friend, Tamar spends her days assisting the Bnei Menashe at school and home. In addition to learning Hebrew, finding employment, and adjusting to Israeli culture, the biggest problem they face is that they don’t look like Jews. “Or rather, they don’t look like people think Jews look,” Tamar explains. “They feel isolated. It’s very painful for them to always feel excluded.”

Even though it’s traditional for National Service girls to move on to a different kind of work in their second year, Tamar chose to continue working with the Bnei Menashe. “I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “It’s been a privilege to work with the Bnei Menashe. They came to Israel with such high expectations and instead found life very hard. To be able to help ease that pain just a little has been a blessing.”

Hadar, Isaac, and Tamar are just three of the thousands of heroic young men and women serving the State of Israel. Each of them is a living, breathing example of Hillel’s dictum, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14).