For some local high school grads, IDF service beckons

The Midwest Garin Tzabar group in Chicago includes recent St. Louis area high school graduates Danielle Serota (front row, third from left), Talia Wolkowitz (front row, third from right) and Yonatan Dar, with dark hair, behind Talia. Amanda Lopatin is also part of the group, which is heading to the Jewish State this summer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Sending a child off to college is hard enough for most parents to fathom. So imagine sending a child more than 6,000 miles away because he or she has decided to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

That’s exactly the situation several local Jewish parents are facing this summer. And while these parents say they are proud and supportive of their sons and daughters, they also find themselves teetering on an emotional rollercoaster. Not only do they worry about possible danger, they also wonder if their children will live in Israel permanently after their stints are over.

“Every time I talk about it I start to bawl,” says Dr. Harvey Serota, whose daughter, Danielle, 18, a recent Parkway Central High School graduate, will be leaving shortly to spend the next six weeks in Israel for a Hebrew immersion program. Then she will join roughly 300 other young Jews from all over the world, including about a half-dozen from St. Louis, who are making aliyah and volunteering to serve for at least two years in the Israeli army.

“To me, what she’s doing is like giving a kidney to someone you don’t know. She’s a hero as far as I’m concerned,” says Serota. “As someone once, said and it’s so true, ‘I’m crying with one eye and thrilled with the other.’ ”

Danielle’s mother, Dr. Pearl Serota, expects to be “emotional” once her daughter boards the plane for Israel in a few days. But she’s been trying to stay focused on getting Danielle ready to leave and enjoy as much time with her as possible.

“I always wanted my daughter to be strong and independent. I guess I should be careful what I ask for,” she says with a slight chuckle. “No question I’m sad she will be going so far away. But I know this will be an amazing experience for her.”

Rich and Jenny Wolkowitz feel similarly as they say goodbye to their middle daughter, Talia, 17, who is leaving within days for Israel and the IDF. Talia, another recent Parkway Central High grad, will also be spending time honing her Hebrew skills in an ulpan (an institute for intensive Hebrew study) before joining other lone soldiers (a serviceman or woman without parents in Israel) on a kibbutz in August. After a three-month “absorption period,” she and the others will begin their IDF service in November.

The Wolkowitzes, who met in Israel, say while they brought their three daughters up to be Zionists and love the Jewish State, Talia developed a compelling connection to it after spending a semester there as a junior in high school. During that time, she met madrichim (counselors) who had made aliyah and/or were just out of the army; hearing about their experiences made a lasting impact on Talia.

“When Talia came home that May, she was very enthusiastic about Israel,” says Rich Wolkowitz. “She was interested in applying to this one college, IDC Herzliya. As it turned out, I was on a trip to Israel that summer, so I looked at IDC and was impressed with it. We told her to pursue that as an option as well as apply to colleges (in the United States).”

“Then one night we came home and there was an envelope on our pillows with the same letter in each,” adds Jenny. “Talia explained how her real goal was to make aliyah and serve in the army like most every other Israeli her age. The letter was very well written and gave a good rationale. She felt just because she was born in the United States doesn’t mean she is exempt from her obligation and responsibility to serve in the IDF, since Israel is the homeland to all Jewish people.”

Lone soldier preparedness

Like the Serotas and the Wolkowitzes, Brian and Cheri Lopatin would have liked their daughter, Amanda, 17, who graduated from Parkway North High School in May, to attend college in the United States before volunteering with the IDF. But Amanda, like Danielle and Talia, was determined to go now, in part because she wanted to be the same age as most Israelis entering the army.

“Of course we’re nervous, and it’s not so much the distance as it is the unknown,” says Cheri.  “Bottom line,” adds Brian, “it’s the military and it’s dangerous.”

One thing that has helped, say these parents, is Garin Tzabar. Administered by the Israeli Scouts, the program provides support to young Jews living outside of Israel who want to join the IDF. Danielle, Talia, Amanda and the others in St. Louis attended the required four Garin Tzabar weekend seminars in Chicago over the course of six months; two of these included meetings where parents got to ask questions of the kibbutz coordinator, the aliyah coordinator and representatives from the IDF.

“Garin Tzabar is meant to provide mental and emotional preparation and give participants time to fully understand exactly what they are applying for and to make a final decision before going to Israel,” explains Adi Elias, Midwest Director of the Garin Tzabar program.  

“Another purpose is for them to bond as a group because whoever is attending these seminars will (eventually be on the same kibbutz) during their whole army service, essentially becoming one another’s family. They can serve in different units, but will see each other when they come back to the same kibbutz on the weekends.”

Elias understands how unnerved and fearful parents can be, but says their cooperation is integral. 

“I explain to them that I do not work for the army and I am not here to enlist their kids,” says Elias. “I am here to help and support their children if they have made the decision to join so that they will not have to go through this process alone. I work hard to give parents the feeling that their children are in good hands.”

Elias says he has received a lot of support from parents who understand that their children are following their dream to go help the Jewish State. And of course, he adds, some parents are thrilled by this decision — among them, native Israelis Orna and Guy Dar, whose son, Yonatan, a recent Marquette High School graduate, will also leave for Israel this summer to join the IDF. Elias says that about half of the Midwest Garin group has at least one Israeli parent. 

The Dars have been living in America for 19 years, and their three sons were all born here. Although Yonatan, the eldest, has dual citizenship, his decision to serve in the Israeli army is voluntary and one he came to on his own.

“For me, this is the way of life,” says Orna Dar. “After finishing high school in Israel, you either do national service (like she did) or serve in the army (like her husband). You learn the value of giving to your country and community first, then you go to university when you are more mature.”

Will they stay or come home?

Marian Gordon jokes that when her son, Ezra, told her he planned to volunteer with the IDF after graduating from Parkway North High two years ago, she said, “If you knew this was your plan, why did you have us pay all that money for the ACT review class?” she says. “He went through the whole course and didn’t say a word.”

She admits that at first she wasn’t so thrilled with her son’s decision. On the other hand, her husband, Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation, says he was “90 percent proud, 5 percent curious and 5 percent concerned.”

“My curiosity was satisfied when I asked Ezra why, and he answered me that he wanted to serve to protect the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Gordon. “I then asked him if he was afraid of being killed or wounded. He answered me, ‘I assume they will train me.’ ”

According to his parents, Ezra Gordon, who began his army service in the fall of 2013, first trained as a sniper. But after six months or so, he began having back problems, so he was taken out of combat. Now he has a desk job that has to do with security.

“I don’t think Ezra romanticized anything, but I do think it’s been harder and less glamorous,” says Marian. “Initially, I think he was planning to make a career out of the army. He now plans to put in his time in the service and then go to university there. He does not plan to come back to America.”

Elias, from the Midwest Garin, says after finishing their army service, about half of the participants decide to stay in Israel while the other half return home. About 30 percent of the families of those who stay make aliyah and reunite with their children in Israel.

Neither Danielle Serota nor Talia Wolkowitz knows if she will stay or return home after her army stint. “I have an amazing opportunity for pursuing my education here,” says Danielle, who was granted a three-year deferment to the University of California-Los Angeles. “I also know the Israeli government will pay for my education if I stay there. I probably will have a stronger connection to the country, which will be hard to give up. And if I go to college there, I will be the same age as most, whereas if I come back, I’ll be 22 as a freshman.

“But still,” she adds, “I honestly don’t know what I will do. I’m pretty sure after the army I will travel for a few months and relax. I plan to take it one step at a time.”

She also plans to communicate regularly with her parents. Given today’s technology, it’s a lot easier to stay current and in touch.

“I have a feeling I might be seeing more of her when she’s there (through FaceTime and Skype) because here, she has so much going on,” says Harvey Serota.

“Technology is one of the things that tempers missing her, knowing that I can communicate with her fairly easily,” adds Pearl Serota. “Of course I plan to visit her there. And I look forward to her coming home for a month every year, which is what the army allows.”