Students in a classroom in Ritter Hall at Temple University listened with rapt attention as Shai and Nir shared their stories of service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
The two soldiers (last names withheld for security reasons) told about growing up and training for the IDF — as well as a few stories of hiding from rockets for hours with no shelter — on Feb. 15 as part of their tour with StandWithUs.
This is the ninth time StandWithUs is doing an “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” which features two reserve soldiers sharing their experiences in the IDF. Shai, 24, and Nir, 26, also spoke with students at Muhlenberg College and a group of 200 students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy before heading to other cities like Washington, D.C.
For the students, it was a way to hear a new perspective or even maybe learn about the IDF for the first time.
“We thought it would be a really cool opportunity for the students to be hearing two different stories,” said Sarah Wittman, Temple Hillel vice president and StandWithUs Emerson Fellow at Temple, “especially the students that haven’t been to Israel or had any interaction with any Israelis.”
For Wittman, the idea of hearing different perspectives is key.
“The whole point of reaching out to other students and having these different voices speaking,” said the junior studying adult and organizational development, “is for those students that haven’t formed any type of opinion about Israel or have never even heard about Israel or the conflict or the IDF so they can be exposed to it and start to formulate their own ideas and opinions and learn something new they didn’t learn before.”
Aviv Reif, Temple Hillel Israel chair and president of Owls for Israel, added that hearing from varied perspectives ties into their semester goals.
“It goes into the overall goal of the semester of Israel advocacy through Israel education,” he said, “just teaching people as much as possible about Israel through as many perspectives as possible so that they come to their own conclusions and ultimately hopefully support Israel.”
To him, it’s important to hear from different voices because it helps people look beyond what’s portrayed in the media.
“I don’t think it’s Hillel’s or anybody’s place to assert their political position and standpoint, and our purpose is Jewish education and Israel education,” said Reif, a freshman studying finance and supply chain management. “With education, people can come to their own political conclusions and therefore kind of build bridges instead of walls. When you hear from the opposite voice, you can come to a sort of middle ground and understand the other side, which leads to peace eventually.”
Shai and Nir shared slides from their time in the IDF and from their lives in Israel — including vacations with significant others and Shai’s cute cats — as well as from their travels after they completed their service.
Shai, who lives in Sderot and is in her second year of school studying communications, related tales of growing up on a kibbutz and being of mixed heritage: A half-Australian and half-Indian Jew, she is religiously mixed as well, having both Christian and Muslim relatives.
“Interesting Friday dinners, that’s for sure,” she quipped.
She talked about her first interaction with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while taking part in the Sulha Peace Project when she was 14. She learned firsthand through skits they did at the end of their four days about how people’s perceptions can be shaped based on what they read or see on TV — including how the Palestinians she was with viewed IDF soldiers.
“This is one of the main reasons I decided to go and study what I am studying, communications, because I really feel passionately about people, how they perceive reality through social media, through the television, because it’s very important for me that people look with a critical eye about what they see,” she said.
Shai, who was a drill sergeant in the Israeli Air Force Pilot Cadet Course, also shared her experience telling a Palestinian friend she works with at a restaurant about how when she was in the IDF in 2012, there was an aerial IDF operation in the Gaza Strip — Pillar of Defense — and she saw a flash of light that ended up being an Iron Dome missile.
She and her soldiers were in the desert with no shelter for hours as hundreds of rockets passed over their heads. After she shared this story and revealed how she suffers from PTSD, her friend left to go pray, reinforcing the idea of the possibility of mutual understanding.
“This incident, me telling him my story, actually gave me the hope that we can actually coexist with each other if we actually just talk to each other and feel each other’s pain and not ignore each other’s pain,” she said as a slide with an image of the word “coexist” with different peace symbols was projected behind her.
Nir shared stories from his five years in the service before spending seven months traveling in Central and South America.
Growing up with a family of Holocaust survivors on his father’s side who lived in Holland and his mother’s side fleeing persecution in Iran, he talked about starting out in the paratroopers brigade before eventually training in commander’s school.
He also explained a few differences between training to be an officer in Israel and in America, which more than a few audience members probably found interesting, as there were students training in Army ROTC at Temple.
“It’s like a huge salad bowl, throwing everyone together from every place and mixing them all together,” he explained of the diversity of where he trained.
He shared a few harrowing tales of returning to his unit after he came back from South America to take part in Protective Edge, the operation in the Gaza Strip in 2014.
But while he said he saw some “horrifying things,” he also learned how the IDF strives to protect civilians in the neighborhoods through text messages and communications to let them know when and where they’re coming so as to minimize harm.
This is what surprises people the most.
At some of the schools he and Shai have spoken at, he said, “people came after and told me that they were amazed by the things that I said because they never heard about it … so for me by now, the best experience is sharing these things and letting people know the morality and the values of the IDF, of the soldiers of the IDF and commanders of the IDF.”
They both enjoyed getting to talk with students — and run up the Rocky steps and see the Liberty Bell — and they hope that people heard things from a new perspective.
“A lot of times you get either from the history books or from the media,” Shai said, “and it’s very rare to actually hear it from people that are living it. I think that’s what’s pretty special about this.”
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Excellent article. Thank you so.much for writing this and sharing this. I did not hear any of this in the local media. I have friends who work at and also attended Temple U. and I go to Proclamation Church next to Barrack Academy in Bryn Mawr. I have a great deal of respect for the IDF and it is interesting to read of their first hand accounts of service. Again thank you, Ronald Samuelsen