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'First Passover In Israel'

Jewish Volunteers From Around World Spend First Passover In Israel Serving In IDF

Twin Sisters From New York Complete Officers Training Course: 'We Gave Up Everything To Fulfill Our Dream & Serve In IDF'

Young Soldiers From U.S., Scotland, Sweden, Russia and Paraguay Tell Of How Serving In IDF Has Added New Meaning To Their Lives

 On April 28th at the Armored Corps Base at Latrun, twin sisters from Long Island, New York will be promoted to Second Lieutenants in the Israel Defense Forces, after successfully completing the officers training course. Sapir and Inbar Baumwohl, like many other Jewish young men and women from around the world, leave their families and come on 'aliya' to Israel in order to serve in the IDF. Their stories are as varied as the countries they came from. During the Passover holiday, reporter Sigal Arbitman in the newspaper 'Yisrael Hayom' wrote two articles on these 'solitary soldiers', who come on their own to Israel. IsraCast's David Essing sums up the interviews with these idealists.

 Every year there are hundreds of young IDF recruits who are spending their first Passover in Israel. They are volunteers, who grew up in dozens of countries around the world, but after finishing high school or college, decided they wanted to go to Israel to serve in the IDF. Be it from a deep desire or a strong sense of duty and Jewish patriotism, they come on their own, usually without knowing Hebrew and volunteer for IDF combat units and the grueling basic training. However, the case of the two identical twin sisters from the U.S. is a new record. Aged nineteen, Ofir and Inbar Baumwohl arrived in Israel in October 2009, and signed up for the IDF on their first day in the country. Only then, did the two twins separate for the first time in their lives. Both eventually served in two separate infantry units. Several months ago they were reunited after both were recommended for the officers training course. On September 28th, they will both receive their officer bars at the graduation ceremony to be attended by their parents and two other sisters, who have come to Israel for the occasion.

Interviewed by Yisrael Today, Ofir and Inbar said they knew from an early age they would go to Israel and serve in the IDF. In Long Island, the sisters grew up listening to the experiences of their father, who had served as an IDF officer and they were determined to make the best contribution they could to the Israeli army. They had not been sidetracked by 'the good and easy life' in the U.S. Their aliya process to Israel proceeded swiftly through the Zabar Project and then: 'We found ourselves amid a group of like-minded young people in Kibbutz Malchia in the Upper Galilee. We left everything behind - friends, family, studies and success. We gave up everything to fulfill our dream - to serve in the IDF'.

They knew it would not be easy and sometimes it wasn't, although they are frequently in telephone and skype contact with their parents and two other younger, twin sisters back in the U.S. At Malchia they were warmly received by their 'adoptive family' and naturally it is not easy for their parents, especially their mother. But Inbar and Ofir are not sorry and are certain they took the right step. 'At first, our parents were reticent about letting us go to Israel on our own but later they lent their blessing and are now proud of our achievements in the IDF'.

IDF troops near the Gaza Strip

The two new IDF officers sent this message to other Jewish youngsters in the Diaspora, who are considering aliya to Israel and serving in the IDF: 'We call on other young Jews in the world, who are considering coming to Israel and serving in the IDF, not to hesitate. Our existence as a people in Israel and in the Diaspora is possible only if we will know how to defend ourselves here in Israel - we must all serve in the IDF and do our part'.

In a second article entitled 'First Passover in Israel', Yisrael Hayom interviewed four Jewish young men who also came on their own from abroad to serve in the IDF. Matthew Barnes came from Scotland to defend Israel as a soldier and not just in arguments with anti-Israeli critics on the campus of Edinburgh, Yosef Kiako came to join an infantry unit with the consent of his mother, who once volunteered on a kibbutz, Sergei Ouzbi arrived to join an IDF search and rescue unit after discovering that his family in Moscow had Jewish roots he never knew about and David Maznievsky from Paraguay, now serving in the artillery, came for adventure and to see Israel's pretty girls.

Two years ago, Matthew Barnes, a smiling young Scot, felt something was missing in his affluent life of university studies, travel and having fun - something that served as a challenge or gave meaning to his life. He decided to leave his family and Scotland and join the IDF. He had grown up as a Jew but never really understood what that meant until he started his university studies and discovered how much hatred and misunderstanding there was about Israel and how Pro-Palestinian groups on campus were spreading their vitriolic message. He found himself defending Israel: 'During my studies I once had a room mate whose father worked in the UN and he was very anti-Israel. Actually, I became a solitary representative for Israel in discussions with other students and at one stage I even began to quarrel with them - I felt very isolated. On graduation with a BA, I realized that my student's life in Edinburgh was not to my liking. Faced with the anti-Israel atmosphere I decided to emigrate to Israel'. Matthew completed his MA at the Herzlyia Interdisciplinary Center.

'I thought there is only one place in the world that is the home of the Jews and that is Israel and I could no longer defend the State from my safe place in Scotland. As long as I had not served in the IDF I could no longer include myself when I spoke of "We". I always agreed with the saying that the IDF is the most moral army in the world but until I served in the IDF I did not really comprehend its significance, and how it is really true. Now I can travel to Scotland and tell people that I was really there and I saw it with my own eyes and it's not as it's described in the news. And besides, I'm a Zionist'.

Now aged twenty-four, Matthew has been assigned to the Armored Corps where basic training is one of the most arduous in the IDF. He is the only one in his company with a post graduate degree but that cut no ice in basic training - like everyone else he has had his share of nineteen year old female instructors shouting orders at him.

'It's tough, I'm tired all the time, all my body is sore and it's terribly hot here but the toughest thing is that I miss my parents. Although they supported my decision to make aliya they're somewhat scared, especially my mother. They don't really understand what it means to serve in the army and when I tell her on the phone that I was hurt in training or that I am about to start sleeping in my tank for two straight months, she doesn't really understand. They only know what they see on television, for example the Second Lebanon War, terror attacks, or IDF raids - it doesn't look good and that's an understatement. Nor do my friends realize how important it is to me to be serving in the IDF. There is now a wide gulf between us. They live in the most trendy part of Glasgow while I sleep in a tent with an M-16 rifle under my pillow'. When asked about Scotland, Matthew's smile broadens. He returned for six months after graduating from Herzlia and although he enjoyed being with his family and going out with his friends, he felt that something was missing.

'Relations between people are stronger here. In Scotland, money is very important and where you live and work - that's not my cup of tea. In Israel, everything is simpler. I still think of Scotland as the best place on earth, but I decided to give it up because something was missing there. Scotland is a picture for me and indeed a very beautiful picture, but still a picture. In Israel, it's tough, different, but it's a story, it's history. I identify with the people who came on the first aliya, I feel like I'm carrying on this history'.

I'll spend Passover with my girlfriend's family who live on the Golan Heights. She is half Moroccan, half Iraqi and has a huge family of more than sixty relatives. In my family there are twelve'.

Yosef Kiako, is a blond Swede with big blue eyes and looks more like a tourist from a Nordic country, but his khaki uniform exposes him as an IDF soldier. He is nineteen years old and is a type-cast for a handsome Viking in a Hollywood movie. However, Yosef left his mother in Sweden and came on his own to join the IDF and now he serves in a counter-terror unit in Judea & Samaria. His mother worked on a kibbutz during the seventies and fell in love with Israel. At age sixteen, he visited Israel with the Bnei Akiva religious movement, and the experience influenced him to join the IDF when he came of age. And he added: 'People here are terribly nice. It's a great country and I like the ease with which you can talk to people. It's not like that in Sweden where people are far more reserved.

My mother told me many stories about Israel from the time she volunteered here and always said it was a great place. She was very happy and proud when I told her that I was joining the IDF. However my friends took it harder and couldn't understand what had happened to me, they thought I had gone crazy. Why did I want to join the army? Did I want to get killed? They tried to dissuade me. They thought there is war here all the time and view it totally different than I do. They see only what is on TV and in Sweden the news about Israel is not really good. However I chose my way although it wasn't easy. I always knew I wanted to join the IDF but what really prompted me was the unpleasant attitude to Jews in Sweden. I am a Jew and my place is here in Israel. This is a state where I will not be hated. This is our only state and I have been welcomed warmly. For example, in Sweden it is not a good idea to go around displaying a Star of David. If you go into a club with a Star of David you may get beaten up. Here you can wear whatever symbols you want and be proud of it'.

Proud or not, for Yosef, like for every soldier, to sleep during Sabbath leave is a waste of time and despite his chronic fatigue, he goes clubbing with his friends until the early hours of the morning. Passover leave allows him to have fun and to rest. At the end of his interview, Yosef stressed how much he loves the IDF: 'The soldiers in my infantry unit - they're like my family now'.

Of the four soldiers, Sergei Ouzbi was the only one without a ready smile. When asked if everything was alright, Sergei mumbled: 'I hardly slept a wink last night. I had my birthday three days ago and we've been celebrating. Last night my mates gave me a bonfire party lasting nearly till dawn'. Sergei immigrated from Moscow in 2009 and joined the IDF to serve in a search and rescue unit. Until the age of twelve, he described himself as a 'typical Russian boy' but then a few days before his thirteenth birthday, his father told him he was Jewish. 'My father said his mother, that is my grandmother, was Jewish and lived in Odessa and that all the generations of the family there were Jewish. That's how I discovered that I had Jewish roots. I had no idea what that meant, I had never met Jews and had no Jewish friends, nothing. In grade ten I met the only Jewish girl in the school and she took me to a synagogue. Gradually I became exposed to Jewish life and I started going to the Jewish center in Moscow where I studied Hebrew and our traditions and history. Suddenly, I became very interested. I knew I had something different from the other kids, a feeling that's hard to explain. My parents encouraged me and I took great pleasure in it. After high school, I studied a year of law in Moscow but I quickly realized it wasn't for me. I searched for what I truly wanted to do for nearly a year. Then I decided to come on aliya and when I told my mother she replied: 'Tell me, do you feel well? She was really opposed but later she relented. My father only asked me how much it would cost'.

After arriving in Israel, Sergei studied at the Hadassah Institute for six months before he received his call-up orders. 'I volunteered to join a combat unit but the IDF first refused because I am an only son. (In families of one child the parents' consent is required for an only child to serve in an IDF combat unit). I insisted on volunteering, my parents gave their written approval but even then I had to fight with the IDF recruitment office. It took nearly two months before I got what I wanted'.

Question: Why was it so important for you to join a combat unit when you could have got a cushy job and been a 'jobnick'?

Segei replied: 'It was very meaningful for me. This country accepted me, gave me my first real home, the opportunity to study and I feel that I have to give something in return. That is not to say that non-combat soldiers do not contribute, but I fought to join a combat unit because only that would have satisfied me'. In his view, these were not the only things Israel has given Sergei. In Israel he has met his future wife and the wedding is set for this summer.

How have you been accepted by the other soldiers in your unit?

Sergei: ' Today I am connected with all the soldiers in my company. But before I was recruited I had very little contact with Israelis because I was studying with other new immigrants. I am now more fluent in Hebrew and I have the feeling that I belong just like everyone else'.

Unlike Sergei, nineteen year old David Maznievsky of Parguay, always knew he was Jewish. He studied in a Jewish school, his family celebrated the Jewish holidays and he lived in a town with twenty other Jewish families. He had few Jewish friends. His father served in the IDF paratroopers and David grew up listening to tales of bravery. After two of his sisters returned full of enthusiasm from a trip to Israel, David decided to come and join the IDF.

Was it not strange to get up and leave your previous life?

David: ' No, not really. Before I decided to come, I worked with my father in a jeans factory. Although I enjoyed the work, I felt I wanted to do more and get ahead in life. Joining the IDF appeared to be an ideal solution - to do something significant and to know a new country, a new adventure. I wanted to serve in the paratroopers like my father but that didn't work out. Instead I serve in the Artillery Corps'.

Were you not apprehensive about serving in the army and especially in a combat unit?

David: 'Believe me, it's no more scary than living in Paraguay. In Paraguay there is also a war but it's fought in the streets where you can walk out and be robbed or worse. You don't feel altogether safe walking the street. In Israel, the situation is far better from that point of view'.

Do you now feel Israeli?

'At first I didn't, but from the moment I joined the IDF I do. Life in Israel is good. You give and receive in return. That was exactly why I wanted to join the army. If I had only immigrated without serving it would have been meaningless. I am a Jew, all my life I have felt it and the time came when I knew I must serve in the IDF. Yes I may have been born there, but one day I will want a Jewish family and not one that is different and that must be located in a collective of Jews in a strange place. Here we are all Jews wherever you go'.

How do you plan on celebrating your first Passover in Israel?

David: 'Apparently at Soldiers House in Tel Aviv. My friends from South America are planning on going to the big Seder there and it should be fantastic because people will be there from all over the world - a real "Ingathering of the Exiles"' (The IDF holds special Seders for 'solitary soldiers' that are attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.)

What do you like doing when you're not in uniform?

'To travel, go to the sea, and have fun with friends. In Paraguay there is no sea only rivers. On weekend leaves, I go to parties at my cousin's kibbutz near Naharia'.

And what about Israeli girls?

'There are many pretty girls in Israel, really a lot!'

David Essing

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