When Lieutenant Avi (Avremi) Leifer was 14, he never dreamed that 11 years later he would be a combat officer, and definitely didn't dream he would be chosen as the outstanding commander of the 300th brigade. When he was 14, he mostly spent his time wandering the streets.
"I grew up in a haredi family in Jerusalem, with its emphasis on Torah study," Avi said. "As a child with ADHD, I wasn't successful in school. I found myself at the age of 14 without a school or a family, without any place to call home."
Avi spent most of the day doing nothing and the nights with various family members, moving from home to home, and at times forced to sleep on the streets. From time to time he would go to yeshivas for at-risk youth, but he would soon leave or even be expelled.
"It wasn't that I was having doubts about my religious identity during that time. I simply needed to build a thick outer shell - of a tough person who's not afraid of anything - because that's the most essential tool you need if you want to survive on the streets."
At the age of 18, he was exempted from military service due to adjustment difficulties, and he felt that he had reached a low point in his life. "I was summoned to a number of police investigations and a criminal case was opened against me. I was fired from job after job. I was full of frustration about everything I've been through," he admits. "I couldn't remove myself from this vicious cycle which was just getting worse and worse. I decided that I need a change in life."
"I went to a coach who specialized in youth-at-risk and asked for help," Avi shared. "I began a regular job and learned how to stay there, I stopped smoking cigarettes, paid back large debts I owed to people, and even found a way to get my energy out through MMA, mixed martial arts."
A few months later, Avi heard bad news that changed everything for him. His friend from one of the youth-at-risk yeshivas he attended was killed in Operation Pillar of Defense when a mortar shell hit Nahal Oz.
"When I arrived at the funeral and saw his family and friends crying, I couldn't stop thinking about how he defended the State and did something significant," Avi said. "Meanwhile, I was immersed in things that suddenly seemed trivial and insignificant."
Avi continued to think about the funeral and ultimately decided that military service would help him put everything behind him and complete the life transformation he had initiated. His thoughts became reality and within two years he managed to cancel his army exemption through the Netzach Yehuda association (NPO which supports haredi IDF soldiers), which also gave him free use of an apartment for a month until he received the status of a lone soldier.
At first, Avi enlisted in Netzach Yehuda as a combat supporter but he was determined to become a combat soldier and didn't give up until he succeeded. He completed his course, went on to a squadron commanders' course, and four months later fulfilled his dream and enrolled in an officers' course.
"An officer is, as far as I am concerned, the highest level of self-realization," Avi says with a spark in his eye ."The image of an officer is someone with an important position in the State, someone who has influence, who leads others and isn't led," Avi said. "The idea of a commander - to be on the other side - is everything for me."
"My difficulties didn't disappear - army service as a lone soldier, struggling for years in the streets and prior to that in the haredi world - caused a gap in a common language and made it difficult to integrate into the army. But being part of something which most symbolizes Israeli society makes everything worthwhile. When I stood at the ceremony and they placed my rank insignias on my shoulder, I had tears in my eyes. To this day, whenever I sing Hatikva I get emotional thinking of that moment."
The first position which Avi filled as a lieutenant was the commander of a platoon of soldiers who came from a complex socio-economic background. "When I heard about the position, I understood that this was my chance to give back and be on the other side. But filling the position was a struggle because it evoked memories I didn't want to remember."
"I recognized my story in different variations. I saw boys at risk and from broken families, and it wasn't so simple to confront everything I ran away from," Avi recalls. "But it was also a reparative and wonderful experience. I was privileged to support my soldiers, to be there for them and to advise them from my personal experience."
At the end of the year, Avi left to serve as a commander of a security platoon in the Sirkin camp. From there he took up his present position as a security officer in the 300th Infantry Brigade. On Rosh Hashanah, he received a certificate of excellence from the brigade commander.
"It was the first time in my life that I've been told I'm good at something," Avi says proudly. "All my life I've failed at everything and I always ran away from frameworks. I was always the one who was yelled at and was constantly fighting with everyone. It was a momentous moment in my life."
This September, Avi will be discharged from the army in a very different place in life than he was when he entered. He's planning on studying at the Hebrew University next year, after completing all his matriculation exams.
"I feel my transformation every day when I get up and see my gun, vest and my office and remember the influence I have. I don't forget for one minute where I was, because the less pleasant things I experienced led to my achievements and brought me to where I am today." Avi ends his story with an important message: "Everything is possible with enough will power."