Jewish Men & Women lLeave Homelands To Join Israeli Military
On Friday, he sold his silver Pontiac. On Saturday, he left his Boca Raton apartment. Today, he expects to be in Israel, ready to take arms as a soldier. "I'm needed by my country," said Jonathan "Yoni" Charust, 22, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Israel. Israel has been engaged in a battle with Hamas and Hezbollah for more than a week. Israel has pounded Hezbollah targets in Lebanon while Hezbollah has lobbed rockets into northern Israeli cities. The numbers of foreign recruits may not be many, a few hundred in an Israeli Army that is estimated by the U.S. Department of Defense in published reports to have about 625,000 troops. Nevertheless, Jews from abroad leave their homes in the United States, Canada, England, South Africa and the Ukraine, among others, to come to Israel and serve. "They bring their hearts and minds, and we are proud and happy that they come to be part of our country," said Aaron Sagui, consul for political affairs at the Israeli consulate general's office in Miami.A New Jersey native, Charust's family moved to a suburb of Haifa when he was 8. Last year, he decided to take advantage of his dual citizenship and came back to the United States to work. He lived with an uncle in Tamarac for a few months and then rented a Boca Raton apartment. A computer technician, he returned to America to find prosperity and take a break from the daily tensions of living in the Middle East. The kidnapping of 19-year-old Israel soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas changed his plans. With one tour of duty in the Israeli military in his past, Charust said the kidnapping convinced him to serve again. He booked his flight about the same time he received a draft notice from the Israeli military. To serve in the Israeli military, the main requirement is to be a citizen -- all Jews are eligible for citizenship under the government's 1950 "Law of Return." Those who come from distant lands earn the same token pay as other soldiers -- just a few hundred dollars a month -- and eat the same hard bread, eggs and cottage cheese for breakfast in the mess hall. They all go through the same basic training. "They didn't come to save us," Sagui observed. "They are young guys who come to strengthen us."Assaf Regev lives on a kibbutz about a half hour from Haifa along with 20 other soldiers from abroad, including those from New York, South Africa and Europe. He left his home last year in unincorporated Miami-Dade County near Aventura to serve in an Israeli combat unit. Regev's grandmother survived Auschwitz. It helped shape his feelings of Israel's need for survival as a safety net for Jews. He said he grew up in a house that preached that the country was his Jewish homeland. "I love America and I will be going back, but this is a place I can always feel at home," he said, when reached by telephone in Israel. Last year, he graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in sports management. His plans to attend law school are now on hold. He said he has the respect of the Israelis in his unit, although he gets teased. "They say `what are you doing here? You're from Miami.' …This is the place that has saved the Jewish people. This is something that if I could do it, I should do it."Service in the Israel Defense Forces is mandatory for Israelis, the only exceptions made to those not physically or mentally well, or the ultra-orthodox if they prove that they are in school. Women serve two years; men serve three. Then, men are called about three weeks a year for exercise and training until age 40. And until age 40, they are in the reserves and can be called back for active duty any time during war. Because soldiers from abroad often immigrate at a later age, they often don't serve the full three years, Sagui said. Serving in the Israeli military does not mean Americans have to give up their citizenship. Two years ago, David Blum left his house in North Miami Beach to go on a 10-day tour to Israel. He found a new home instead. "I'm Jewish and if it wasn't for Israel there wouldn't be any Jews," he said from Israel. His military service, training recruits and engineering in combat situations, will be over in three months and at age 22 he plans to return and work in his father's lighting business in Hallandale Beach. When he joined the Israeli military, Blum said he didn't speak much Hebrew. Now he is fluent in the language, a requirement in the Army because it's the only language in which commands are given. Blum said he is proud of his decision. "I don't consider myself Israeli, I am Jewish, this is a Jewish country, this is my home, I'm going to protect my home."