June 19, 2024
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IDF Volunteers to be Honored at Ahavath Torah

Englewood—Why would young men and women on the path to college and career volunteer to join the Israel Defense Forces, putting themselves in harm’s way thousands of miles from home? They have chosen to follow their ideals, heart, body and soul, to defend the homeland of the Jewish people—and 13 from Englewood are being honored for their choice this Shabbos, May 10 at Congregation Ahavath Torah.

“We realized that several members of our Congregation have served, or are serving, in the IDF and deserved to be recognized for their extraordinary commitment,” said Irene Gottesman, co-chair of Ahavath Torah’s Israel Engagement Committee, along with Anne Gontownik, “and what better time than in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

Overseas volunteers, known as Chayalim Bodedim or lone soldiers, serve shoulder to shoulder with Israelis, undergoing the same basic training and participating in the same missions as their unit, although they serve for 18 months instead of the required three years for Israeli men and two years for women. Lone soldiers are given some extra leave to visit their families at home and when their parents come to Israel.

Nathaniel Schlakman, who is attending Rutgers University, was one of the first volunteers in the Garin Machal unit, started by Kiruv leader Aish HaTorah to help overseas Orthodox boys with the process of applying to, acclimating, and serving in the IDF. His mother, Lori Schlakman, said her family spent many summers in Israel with relatives who had made aliyah, and Nathaniel was influenced by these “amazing people.” He told her: “I’m watching them serve and thinking, how could I go to yeshiva and not do obligatory service?” He left shortly before graduating from Frisch Yeshiva High School—after agreeing to write an exit paper—and enrolled in an Ulpan before beginning his service. He is considering a career in the public sector, possibly as an attorney lobbying for Israel.

Ariella Gluckstadt, who just graduated from the University of Maryland, said her time in the IDF was “the best and most rewarding experience of my life.” She also grew up visiting family in Israel, and though she did National Service while in seminary in Israel, she wanted to do more. “I would like to make aliyah and thought, why shouldn’t I be in the army?” she said.

As assistant to the commander of her unit, she was responsible for taking attendance and knowing where everyone was at all times. But she also became the go-to person to help the soldiers when they needed advice. “I was the person people came to about their issues and problems,” she said. When her service was over, the combat soldiers put together a scrapbook for her, thanking her for everything she had done for them. “I know I had an impact,” she said. Gluckstadt is now looking into a career in Physical Therapy. While she had thought of PT as a career before her IDF service, the experience has given her new focus. “I saw preventable injuries from not carrying equipment correctly, like back and knee problems. My dream would be to be a Physical Therapist in the army.”

With her army service completed, Gabrielle Kohlhagen was not ready to leave Israel and decided to enter IDT University where she is studying for a BA in businesses. Israel had always been a big part of her life but attending Tzosim, a summer camp in Israel, when she was 15 years old, introduced her to the IDF. The camp, for both Americans and Israelis, was run by the army, with soldiers as counselors. “I fell in love and wanted to come back,” she said. She made an extra effort to learn Hebrew speaking skills and worked out to be in top physical condition. In the IDF, she was an infantry instructor, a difficult to job to get, and served with very motivated girls. She said adjusting was hard in the beginning but once her Hebrew skills improved, integration was much easier. “The IDF was the best time of my life,” she said. She called Shabbat in the army an incredible experience. “On Friday night, everything stops. There is singing and peace.” Kohlhagen is undecided about what she will do after graduation. But the experience will reverberate into whatever choice she makes. “My IDF service made me extremely independent and strong,” she said. “It gave me a voice.”

David Moed, currently a paratrooper in the IDF, recently returned to Israel from visiting at home. “He wanted to be in the IDF from the time he was 3 or 4,” said his mother, Debra Moed. “Before he volunteered, he made a Power Point presentation to explain to us why he wanted to join.” Moed said some aspects of the experience have been different from what her son had anticipated. “It’s grueling, but he enjoys the physical part,” Moed said. “Getting used to the cultural differences and integrating with Israeli soldiers has been harder than he expected.” David Moed graduated from Frisch and learned in Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He participated in the optional Garin Machal pre-enlistment program and passed the Hebrew exam exempting him from Uplan. His parents have attended all his army ceremonies, such as the swearing-in after six weeks of basic training, and his “Tekes Kumta” at Ammunition Hill, when the tzanchanim (paratroopers) earn their red berets “after a week and a half of war games and a very long, arduous hike.” After completing his service, Moed plans to attend New York University.

Gottesman said that although many of the volunteers are not able to be in Ahavath Torah this Shabbos, the honor is also for their families. “We want to say thank you and recognize the parents for making the sacrifice.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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