By Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod/JNS.org
For two American Jews who immigrated to Israel last summer, their first Veterans Day in the Jewish state presents an opportunity to reflect on how the skills they learned while serving in the United States military is already coloring their lives in Israeli society.
On July 19, Steven Rich, a U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan, boarded a plane at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to make aliyah, fulfilling a dream that he had since visiting Israel on Birthright a year earlier.
Currently learning Hebrew before studying government at the Interdisciplinary Center university in Herzliya next year, Rich still carries around a mezuzah pendant—the traditional Jewish parchment inscribed with religious texts—from his grandfather, who served with U.S. troops in World War II. In Afghanistan, Rich attached the mezuzah to his dog tags.
“I got blown up a couple of times and the pendent got dented,” he said. “My dad always said it was like my grandpa watching out for me out in the field.”
Though Israel is now home, Rich is still proudly American. “I haven’t left America,” he said. “It’s simply just not where I am right now. Where I am doesn’t determine who I am.”
While military enlistment is voluntary in the U.S., Rich believes that Israel’s nationwide military service requirement helps form a cohesive bond within in Israeli society.
“Everybody in Israel has that mentality of being a team player, that we’re all in it together,” he said.
Another difference between the American and Israeli militaries is that U.S. soldiers often travel long distances. “I left home for seven months at a time [in the U.S. military],” Rich said. “But when Israeli soldiers hear that they are like, ‘Wow, I’ve never left home for more than two weeks.’”
The move overseas
Natan (formerly Neal) Brinn, a retired U.S. Navy commander who also made aliyah this past summer, understands the strain of travel. “When you’re assigned to a ship, you’re expected to be away from home at least half the time,” he said.
As a warship commander, Brinn became religiously observant and began to notice the toll military life was taking on his family. Today, though he studies in a yeshiva for nine hours a day, he’s home with his children for every meal. “I love this schedule,” he said. “I never had those opportunities in the Navy.”
When he retired earlier this year, Brinn was the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish line officer in the U.S. Navy, consulting with rabbis to keep Shabbat while commanding his warship. Moving to Israel meant forfeiting some financial benefits. Nonetheless, he’s using the resourcefulness of his military career in civilian life through his passion for community leadership and interest in genealogical research.
Based on a program he instituted on his warship, Brinn established a regular Friday cleanup initiative, recruiting neighborhood children to pick up trash and rewarding them with popsicles, followed by songs to usher in Shabbat. “Caring for our neighborhood’s cleanliness is an American value that I want to share with Israeli society,” Brinn said.
Before making aliyah, Brinn and his wife, Rochelle, had to research several generations back to prove their Jewishness, a perquisite for invoking Israel’s Law of Return to gain citizenship.
“One of the things the military taught me to do is to take a deep look at things,” Brinn said of his ability to research tirelessly.
The unexpected payoff was discovering many “new” relatives living in Israel. “Probably anyone here can do that,” he remarked. “All you have to do is just research to find out.” Brinn eventually hopes to turn these researching skills into a business.
Doreet Freedman, director of strategic partnerships at Nefesh B’Nefesh, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) partner organization that facilitates immigration to Israel from North America, said of the American veterans living in Israel, “Nobody wants to disconnect from their lives in the U.S. They are and will remain a living bridge between the two most vibrant democracies in the world.” Freedman emphasized that new olim (immigrants) are building a life in Israel based on the shared values of the two countries: democracy, free speech, pluralism, and free enterprise.
“Olim are coming to Israel from a sense of idealism,” Freedman said, “because they want to part of the greatest Jewish project in modern history.”