By Alexander Tuerk
Jesse Berman wakes up at 6 a.m. almost every morning. He trudges over to Ritchie Coliseum, where he lifts weights, runs on the treadmill, or practices his new discipline—yoga. From there, he moves to his coursework: statistics and economics. Although he is a senior majoring in economics, Berman spends some of his time at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, part of the Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“I have a list of like, 200 business ideas I keep around,” Berman said.
Berman plans to start a business after he graduates in the spring, but not before he travels the world. He has already been to Peru, Brazil—where he became a certified dive-master—and Thailand, and he is planning a backpacking trip through Europe.
But first, he is pursuing a different goal: joining the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. He works out at Ritchie to pass the rigorous physical requirements and brushes up on his Hebrew with some help at Hillel between classes.
Berman has always wanted to join the armed forces, and became inspired to join the IDF when his childhood friend Netanel Felber, 21, was left in a coma after a Dec. 13 shooting in the West Bank.
“They were just sitting at the bus stop, and someone came by and shot them, like a drive-by,” Berman said.
Berman said his family and Felber’s have always been close, emigrating together to Israel when the two were nine. Even after Berman’s family returned to the U.S. while Felber’s family remained in Israel, the two remained in contact.
Berman also wants to serve because he connected to Israel during his experience on Birthright last winter break.
For now, Berman is focused on impressing at the preparatory seminars for Garin Tzabar, an IDF program geared towards helping “lone soldiers”—IDF recruits without immediate family in Israel—make the transition.
But not all IDF-serving students at this university are waiting until graduation.
Eitan Cohen, a freshman economics and Arabic major, joined right out of high school. He served for two years as a foreign volunteer, known as “Mahal.” The program allows Jews who do not have Israeli citizenship to serve in the IDF without completing Aliyah, the act of moving to Israel.
“The process to enlist in the IDF was long and miserable anyway, but supposedly a little bit ‘less’ miserable than actually making Aliyah,” Cohen said.
After serving in the IDF, he found that college was not as much of a jarring experience as it is for some freshmen.
“I already had my moving away from home experience, living in apartments with roommates and having all the responsibilities, freedoms and fun that come with it,” Cohen said. “I don’t exactly feel as much of a need to soak in the ‘college experience’ as much as just focusing on my studies.”
At times Cohen feels that his experiences separate him from other students, but he never holds it against them. Cohen said this feeling of separation stems from life choices that can’t be adequately expressed in a quick conversation. Even among other Jews, who may have gone to Yeshiva or Seminary for a year in Israel, Cohen said he finds less in common.
“I find that I don’t end up talking about my service that much, since it’s not the most relatable experience for most,” he said.
When Cohen graduated high school, he thought that joining the U.S. Army could be more practical because it is a career service. But his belief that Israel is “the one safe-haven for every Jew” prompted him to serve in the IDF.
“I felt like I still have a stake in the safety of the State of Israel, which made it a lot more meaningful,” Cohen said.
Josh Pike, a junior environmental science and policy major who was on Berman’s Birthright trip, says he has no intention of joining the IDF. Still, Pike says students like Cohen and Berman inspire his own faith.
“I’m proud of students that join the IDF because it shows a deep connection to the state of Israel and a devotion to defend a nation fighting for its existence,” Pike said.