Lost on the Battlefield: IDF Identity Seminars
Lost on the Battlefield: IDF Identity Seminars

A few weeks after my son was born, I was called up for IDF reserve duty. Those first few moments after I received the call felt like an eternity.  I was paralyzed by a mixture of anxiety and fear.  It was hard wrapping my mind around the concept of leaving my family behind so soon after the birth, especially considering the fact that I would be putting myself in harm’s way.

Ultimately, feelings of pride and honor won over, and I set out to join my brothers in arms.  I served on the front lines for all full month, stepping up when my country needed me most.

Though I had heard about the push for identity seminars during IDF training prior to my service in “Operation Protective Edge,” it wasn’t until my return from the front lines this time around that I realized the critical importance of promoting such programming.  The tools gained in the classroom and on inspirational trips motivate and guide young soldiers through the greatest challenges of their army careers, painful dilemmas that present themselves in the heat of war, and help them shape their identities away from the battlefields, as well.

Outside of Israel, young men and woman begin to develop their identities during their formative post-high school years.  Whether expanding their horizons in university classrooms, on gap year programs or by traveling the world, these young adults are exposed to a host of new people, opinions, experiences, and influences that shape and inform their sense of self.

In contrast, our Israeli sons and daughters are drafted into the army immediately following high school and have little opportunity to truly find themselves outside of the frameworks of the IDF.  Once drafted, they are wholly occupied with finding their place among the collective that exists in their specific barracks.

To be sure, the army experience broadens our young adults’ world views, exposing them to individuals from a broad spectrum of religious and cultural backgrounds.  But this growth and development takes place in a much more “hostile” environment than their counterparts who are attending classes in universities around the world.  Because our young men and women are so caught up in becoming the best soldiers possible, they don’t have much time to develop into the best version of themselves, as individuals and as Jews. 

From my own experiences, I have found that identity development seminars, like the program run by the Gesher organization are essential to the growth process of every Israeli soldier, regardless of background.  The unique educational approach of these identity seminars confronts the obvious differences – religious, political or otherwise – while fostering commitment to Jewish identity and building skills for a shared future.

Dissecting questions like ‘What does a Jewish Israeli identity look like?’ and ‘What does a collective Israeli identity mean in our multi-cultural society?’ is an important exercise for soldiers who serve in mixed units or choose to lead in the army or later in life.  Our young men and women will most definitely be toying with these questions within their own minds.  The key is providing them with an opening to ask the questions out loud and work with them to reach the appropriate conclusions.

After participating in an identity seminar that was coupled with my officer training, I felt as though I had gained a true sense of purpose and was better able to cope with the harsh realities of war. Throughout the seminar, my fellow soldiers and I learned how to support each other through the toughest battles, as well as how to tackle the equally difficult personal challenges that awaited us upon our safe return home.

The young men and women of the IDF should be applauded for sacrificing so much for their country.  It is our responsibility to make sure that their service doesn’t inadvertently force them to miss out on crucial opportunities to come into their own as individuals and Jews.  For this reason, identity seminars for IDF are absolute essential and should be at the top of our list of programs to promote. 

Our soldiers should never be left feeling empty or underdeveloped simply because they found themselves in the battlefield during their formative years. 

Chaim Garber is a First Lieutenant in the IDF Reserves and a Graduate student in psychology at the Open University, has group facilitation certification from the Magid Institute. He leads the identity seminars run by Gesher.