Local Students Look Forward to IDF Service

Ariel Mashiah (bottom row, fourth from left) and Lihi Cohen (top row, fourth from left) at a Garin Tzabar seminar | Photo provided

A self-described “girly girl,” Ariel Mashiah always has her nails done. But, “ochlim hara b’tzavah,” she said.

You eat s— in the army.

Mashiah, a Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy student who graduated June 7, is one of several local high school students who will soon move to Israel and join the Israel Defense Forces. Mashiah, along with fellow Barrack student Lihi Cohen, will arrive in August and become lone soldiers through Garin Tzabar, a program that provides services to young adults, ages 18 to 24, who make aliyah and join the IDF.

“I’ll be lucky if I get to shower every day in the army with hot water,” Mashiah said. “It’s different. It’s unexpected, I guess.”

The idea of joining the IDF began to take shape for Mashiah last year when her college counselor recommended students begin looking at college choices. Mashiah visited a few with her father, who is Israeli and also served in the IDF, but higher education didn’t feel like the right path.

Ariel Mashiah

“I’ve never loved learning,” she said. “I know that not everybody loves learning, but school has always been something that has always been a little harder for me. I’ve always had to put in twice as much of the work as the other kids did, and I just knew that college wasn’t for me.”

At the same time, she has always had a strong connection to her Judaism.

“The idea of joining the IDF was in my head,” Mashiah continued. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do that, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do.’”

She kept the idea to herself for a while, just in case she changed her mind. She goes to private school and is the kind of person who always has new clothes; the dissonance between that and her dream of joining the army, she said, might come across as a little crazy.

But she didn’t change her mind.

“I’m just expecting to go there, just be myself and find who I really am,” Mashiah said. “I can’t imagine not being Jewish. It’s such a huge part of my life.”

In contrast, Cohen is following in the footsteps of her two older siblings, who live in Israel. Her brother served as a paratrooper, while her sister was an instructor in the IDF. So choosing this path wasn’t unexpected.

“I always felt that Israel is the place I need to go back to,” said Cohen, who emigrated from the Jewish state when she was 5 years old and wasn’t required to serve. “That’s the place where I want to live and raise my kids, and Hebrew is the language I want to speak. Because I want to live in Israel, I don’t feel I can truly be an Israeli, like everyone else there, without going through an experience like the army.”

Cohen’s parents weren’t surprised when she told them in the fall she wanted to serve in the IDF.

Last May, Mashiah told her parents that she wanted to join. Her parents were skeptical at first; her father suggested they go to Israel that summer and that she continue thinking about it. But the trip only solidified her decision.

In November, Mashiah and Cohen began applying for Garin Tzabar. They’ve attended four seminars in preparation for moving to Israel.

In January, they participated in the first Garin Tzabar session in New Jersey, where they got to meet others from across North America planning to take the same step. They talked about their Jewish and American identities and why they wanted to take this path.

That first seminar also overlapped with Cohen’s birthday.

“Knowing that I have the support of these people, who are just like me and want to make this huge step in their life but don’t know how to feel and are scared and are nervous and are also excited, knowing that I feel the same way was comforting,” Cohen said.

Ariel Mashiah (far right) and Lihi Cohen (second from left) at a Garin Tzabar seminar. | Photo provided

The second seminar took place in March, when they discussed different positions in the IDF. At the third seminar, they went to a campground in New York and talked about friendship and participated in bonding activities.

The fourth seminar took place over a three-day weekend in early June. They discussed what they need to do before moving to Israel and how to say goodbye. They also got to hear from the leader of the kibbutz where they will live for three months when they first arrive and saw some images of their new home.

When they arrive in Israel in August, they will study Hebrew in an ulpan at the kibbutz with the others in the Garin Tzabar program. The program also will match them with a host family for their time in service.

Then they will join the IDF. Both said they hope to have a position as an instructor.

Most other seniors at Barrack are heading to college and, unlike them, Cohen said, she has less of an idea what she’ll end up doing with her life after this next chapter.

“My friends who are going to college kind of know what path they’re taking,” Cohen said. “What they’re studying is what most of them are going to do in the rest of their life, what they’re going to work as. The army is a time for me to find myself and find what I truly love and what I’m passionate about so I can move forward and do the same things they are doing, just later on.”

High school seniors don’t often choose to go off to a different hemisphere after graduation and join the military, but they’re not really so different from fellow students around the country.

At the end of the day, they really just want to go on a journey of self-discovery.

“I guess I’m looking for something new but not so new,” Mashiah said. “I’m just excited to be in Israel already. I’m ready to eat it up. I just want to be there already and start a new adventure.”

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


  1. The IDF? if any of them are Americans, what about serving in the U.S. military?

    This is why many Americans, though they don’t say it, question the loyalities of Jews.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here