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Tara Feldman: Serving Israel in Wartime

Tara Feldman with her dog Giza during her regular army service.

A little over one week after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, White Plains native Tara Feldman was riding a bus from her home in Tel Aviv to the Gaza border, on her way to report to reserve duty. Six years prior, she boarded a plane to make aliyah and one year later, she enlisted in the IDF’s Oketz Unit, which operates with specially trained dogs for missions in counterterrorism, search and rescue and more.. The more than two-and-a-half years she spent serving as a combat soldier in the West Bank had prepared her for this moment.

It was during her high school years at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania that Feldman began looking deeply at her Jewish identity. As a proud Jew and Zionist, she stood out in her school of mostly 400 non-Jews and she was frequently the target of antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric. She engaged in many conversations about Israel with her fellow classmates who scrutinized the Jewish State even though they had a very limited understanding of the facts on the ground. Feldman decided that to be an effective advocate for Israel, she would need to experience the country firsthand and not from the news or secondhand sources.

That is when she decided to make aliyah and serve in a combat unit. “I knew that I wanted to see combat, mostly because a lot of the conversations are around what happens on the ground in Palestinian homes in the West Bank,” Feldman explained. “If I was going to see combat, I was going to see the highest level of combat [for women], which at the time was Oketz.” During her regular service, she joined nightly missions in the West Bank with her dog Giza, searching for weapons and explosives. She and her dog were awarded various citations for their exemplary service.

Often Feldman was the only female embedded in a unit of men. Not only did these experiences push her limits, but she also felt that she was paving the way for other women who wanted to serve in combat roles that are typically reserved for men. “I often felt like I was carrying the name of women,” she said. “I very much felt I was breaking the ceiling in some capacity.”

After she was released from the army, she traveled abroad and then enrolled in a dual-degree program with Tel Aviv and Columbia universities in Middle Eastern studies and psychology. Only a few days after the semester started, she was awakened by a phone call on the morning of October 7 asking if she was safe. When she boarded a flight to New York later that day for her brother’s wedding, like most Israelis she was still making sense of the horrors that were unfolding.

During her week-long trip in New York, she was glued to her computer for most of the day, raising money for her friends’ army units and coordinating the purchase of supplies. She was not called up to reserve duty due to the makeup of her unit, so she tried every possible avenue to volunteer where her skills and experiences would be useful. Within 48 hours after she landed back in Israel, she received a call to join a mixed unit of men and women guarding communities on the southern border with Gaza from potential infiltration by terrorists.

Feldman spent two weeks protecting these frontline communities, standing guard every eight hours for four-hour shifts. During these two weeks, she experienced fears that she did not feel during her entire army service. Often she would see rockets overhead on their way to the center of Israel. When the siren sounded, she only had a few seconds to run for shelter, but one soldier always had to remain behind at the guard post. She was often left alone in the dark of night, with rockets soaring overhead and scenarios racing through her mind. Her thoughts were also often focused on her brother who flew from the United States to serve in Gaza, just a few miles from where she was patrolling.

Despite her fears, Feldman knew that this is where she needed to be. During her week in New York she was grateful to be with her family for such a joyous occasion, but she also felt that her responsibility was back in Israel. She kept hearing of more people she knew who were killed by Hamas, and she wanted to be on the ground and do her part. “When I was going down [south] I remember thinking, I was finally in the place I was supposed to be,” she said. “I was trained to be a combat soldier.”

After two weeks in the south, she was released from reserve duty. She spent the next three months as a logistics director at the Kol Ami Mechina or preparatory army program, where her responsibilities included providing support to 17- and 18-year-olds who were still in shock from the October 7 attacks. In March she began volunteering for her second round of reserve duty, this time with the Northern Command of the IDF Liaison Branch. Her role involves coordinating with UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping mission that operates in Lebanon, which she combines with her studies that she resumed last month.

The past few months have been a defining moment for Feldman in her quest to better understand her Jewish and Israeli identity. “I realized I was experiencing October 7th as an Israeli, not as an American Jew,” she explained. “It very much validated for me that my pursuits in life are a solution to the conflict and ensuring the safety of the Jewish people.”

Staying true to her commitment, Feldman hopes to continue to do whatever she can—whether in uniform or through advocacy—to make sure that Jewish people feel safe wherever they are in the world. She continues to engage in difficult conversations with peers back in the United States who see Israel through a critical lens, but unlike her communication during her high school years, she is now equipped with real-life experiences and on-the-ground facts. She hopes that this knowledge will educate her peers and also help to combat the rising levels of antisemitism and anti-Zionism so that the Jewish people can live in safety. “I live hoping that when I sit down and speak to my grandkids and kids, [I’ll] know that I have done everything for that mission,” she said.

Follow Tara Feldman’s journey in Israel at https://livingmyisrael.wordpress.com/


 

Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel over a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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