Shortly after nine o'clock on Thursday August 6 a bus trundled past the largest kosher meat-packing plant in Israel, coming to a stop near the center of the religious kibbutz of Tirat Zvi. Sixteen young men and women emerged, taking their first steps into the community they will call home for the next year.
For at least one of the new kibbutzniks, however, stepping off the bus was not simply about arriving at a new home. The moment I arrived in Tirat Zvi was the first time I understood what my aliyah really represents. My aliyah is not about arriving at the airport or spending a week in Jerusalem. That is, my aliyah is not about being in Israel. It is all about making a difference in Israel. For better or worse, the army is where I have chosen to start making the difference. And so it is only when I arrived at the kibbutz that I will call home throughout (most if not all of) my army service, I truly felt my aliyah had begun.
My fifteen fellow garin members and I are hardly the first volunteers from abroad to commence our service in defense of the Jewish State from Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. Our garin only exists in Tirat Zvi thanks to Lazar Berman, an American who moved to the kibbutz six years ago as he began his service that would culminate as a lieutenant in the Givati brigade. Lazar's "host mother" on kibbutz enjoyed the experience so much that she invited Garin Tzabar to launch their first religious garin in Tirat Zvi in 2007. Several of the fifteen volunteers that made up that first religious garin remain on the kibbutz, including two members of elite special forces units.
Lazar was joined on Tirat Zvi by another young American volunteer, a nineteen year old from Pennsylvania named Michael Levin. When Michael was killed in the summer of 2006 in the Second Lebanon War, his unassuming courage and love of Israel left a deep impression on many in the Jewish world. A fellow camper of Michael's from Camp Ramah in the Poconos was so inspired by his courage that she decided to follow his example. Today she is a member of my garin, preparing to enlist in the Israeli army in three months. Everyday she joins the rest of our garin for breakfast and dinner in a room known as Mo'adon Michael, named after the fallen soldier by his family in America and friends on the kibbutz.
Lazar and Michael, and in a sense every Israeli soldier for the last sixty odd years, are truly following in the footsteps of the first English speaker to come to Tirat Zvi and volunteer his service in defense of the Jewish state. Seventy years ago, one of the most unusual men of the twentieth century drove up to the gates of the kibbutz. Bearing a trunk full of arms and a biblical passion for the Zionist cause, Orde Wingate immediately revolutionized the fighting style of the Jewish military forces. From his base in Tirat Zvi, Wingate led the boldest kibbutz members on daring raids against marauding Arab gangs. Known as the Special Night Squads, Wingate's original tactics so influenced the fighting philosophy of the incipient Jewish army that Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan later said "Wingate taught us everything we know."
Living in Tirat Zvi, home to Israel's major meat-packing factory and the highest recorded daytime temperature in Asia (53.9ºC; 129.0ºF on June 22 1942), is not always easy for a vegetarian like myself who grew up in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Bearing the legacy of Wingate, Berman and Levin in mind helps, reminding me that this smoldering kibbutz along the Jordanian border has been the staging ground for others who shared my determination to defend the state of Israel. As Michael Levin said, "You can't fulfill your dream unless you dare to risk it all."
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