No one comes from overseas to voluntarily enlist in the Israeli army for lack of idealism. As I have explained once or twice, lone soldiers have a raft of reasons for joining the Israeli army. But nearly everyone shares some sense of deep seated Zionism, a sense that their service is contributing in some way to the Jewish State. And then they serve. Volley after volley does not go quite the way they imagined, the balls keep coming at them when they are not ready to return them, and by the end of the match, if not before, they have sworn to never again take up a racquet, if not avoid the court all together.
The tennis parable is merely another way of describing how volunteer soldiers from abroad tend to lose their Zionism over the course of serving in the Israeli army. It happens because the army is a grinding and grueling environment where Zionism is unnervingly absent upon and a grunt’s life is full of disappointment and frustration. After a year and a half, or two or three, no one emerges unscathed. And while exact numbers are unknown, my experience suggests that well over half of lone soldiers finish their service burned by the experience and distanced from a once fiery Zionism.
No one in my garin (the group of lone soldiers I live with on kibbutz) has had an easy ride in the army. Each of us has had our low moments, many followed by even lower moments as if some celestial being was trying to prove things can always get worse. And so as we gathered for the final weekend seminar before our discharge date in October, I was eager to hear where my friends were with their Zionism.
Surprisingly, the answer is very well, thank you. Towards the end of Shabbat, I led a discussion group on these very issues. Despite my efforts to play devil's advocate, to remind my garin friends of the many complaints they voice all the time about their army service, the collective response was that their sincerity and attachment to the state has only deepened through their army service.
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. After all, I feel the same way. More importantly, the strength of our garin (and the whole Garin Tzabar concept in general) is our ability to draw strength vicariously from each other’s experiences. While each of us shoulders personal disappointments, our garin is a community we can and do turn to all the time to share our complaints. Rarely do I share a complaint with less than half the members of my garin before their sympathetic ear has reduced the bitterness of whatever it was that was bothering me. As much as I appreciated the framework of Garin Tzabar -- and my own kibbutz community -- before the army, only now do I recognize how valuable and lucky I truly am to be part of such a program.
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