Friday, February 18, 2011

Friends' Legacies from a Friday Off

Fridays are for leaving the army behind. When the start of weekend leave has that first day of summer vacation magic, freedom so unfathomably splendid that most soldiers respond by fleeing for the safe confines of their beds.

Sleep was not on my agenda last Friday. Two friends were waiting for me up north, two kibbutzim hosting events to remember two remarkable young men. Kibbutz Maoz Hayim was the setting for the fifth annual ritza nivut (“navigation run,” a map-in-hand, timed scavenger hunt) in honor of Yotam Gilboa, a friend killed in the line of duty in the summer of 2006. A few miles west, on Kibbutz Ein Harod Ichud, a hike and picnic honored the legacy of Avi Schaefer, killed a year ago by a drunk driver near the campus of Brown University.

Yotam and I first met when we explored Israel as participants in the 2002 Nesiya summer program. Avi and I never met. Yet I feel a kinship for a young man whose passion for Israel led him to volunteer in the IDF, live on a kibbutz through the Garin Tzabar program, and champion the Jewish state at Brown – while befriending Palestinians – insisting that advocacy and empathy are not contradictions.

My admiration for both Yotam and Avi comes from their refusal to allow progressive personal sentiments dissuade them from a commitment to communal responsibility, namely service in the Israeli army. Both recognized that regardless of what they wished for the future of the state of Israel, past and present responsibilities required them to serve as soldiers. Yotam taught me this lesson one evening when we were seventeen year olds lounging around a campfire in the Galilee. To my surprise, the salt of the earth kibbutznik confessed that Israel did not have all the answers he was searching for in life. He wanted to travel the world and learn from other cultures. His future, he felt, lay elsewhere. But he had no doubts about his present. “I owe it to my community, my parents, my friends,” Yotam explained, “so in a year’s time, I will enlist.” Left unsaid was what he owed to himself. Unsaid, though not beyond appreciating from the challenging and dangerous path Yotam followed in the army until his tragic death.

In his single year as a college student, Avi was widely lauded for his efforts to promote dialogue between supporters and opponents of Israel. He was unashamed about his military service, despite the abuse a former Israeli soldier would presumably receive in advocating for Israel on a liberal college campus. Avi understood, and wisely communicated to his peers, that his experience as an Israeli soldier was not antithetical but rather fundamental to his efforts at peaceful reconciliation. Through word and deed, Avi succeeded in demonstrating how his past and current activities were all the struggles of a “soldier for peace.”

Yotam and Avi are bound up in the life I now lead. One inspired me to enlist, the other reminds me that the consequence of my service can be a strength and not a crutch in the paths I follow after the army. And so it was fitting that the two events were held on the same day. A predawn bus from base allowed me to run around Yotam’s childhood home for several hours, joining hundreds who had come to honor a young man’s life or simply test their navigation skills in a friendly competition. When the event came to a close, I hitched a ride across the Gilboa mountains and arrived at the kibbutz Avi called home as a participant in Garin Tzabar. The crowd was smaller, largely composed of the member’s of Avi’s garin and a few Israeli friends. I came as a stranger and left as a friend. Not the sort of friend who shares stories and laughs yet the kind whose admiration and shared passion lead him indebted to the other's memory even during times apart.

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