From Philadelphia to Kmehin to Dog Handling in the IAF: Derech Eretz Graduate Ilana Hirsch
“Growing up in Philadelphia, I had always wanted to come to Israel. At Derech Eretz, I fulfilled my goal of learning Hebrew. By the end of the pre-military program, I was speaking, yelling, laughing, singing, and texting in the one language I’d never been allowed to study as a kid. Beyond the immersion in Hebrew and with Israelis, I learned to think on my feet, the tiyulim were incredible, and the mechina even had us running 10k by the end which really showed me what I am capable of. By the time the mechina ended, I was ready to be a contributing member of society and join the army.”
“My whole life I have wanted to come to Israel. When I was a kid, growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I learned about Israel and its history. I would hear about other kids going with their families – and loving it. I had many reasons to go: My parents met in Jerusalem while both on their year abroad, studying at Hebrew University, and I even had cousins in Tel Aviv. My brother and sister both got to go on school trips and learn Hebrew. But because I took longer on tests and was labeled as “different,” I was taken out of Hebrew class, the one connection I had to this mysterious land I kept on hearing about, and was put into an independent studies class to provide me with extra help on my schoolwork.
Finally, in 2011, I got my chance and went on a month-long program run by Tzofim and the IDF. I got to see for myself what the big fuss was about this teeny tiny country. And I wasn’t disappointed. I loved walking through the streets and being able to see the history that took place right where I stood.
I came back to the United States and Israel was all I could talk about. My friends all thought I was crazy. With what they saw on the media on a daily basis, I couldn’t blame them.
Attending public school, with people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, while growing up in a modern Orthodox community, and being part of a family with similar rules to that of my community, I often felt judged. I didn’t always understand why I followed all of these old customs. The one thing I was able to connect to was its songs. When everyone sang together, knowing the same beautiful tunes and harmonies, it somehow united everyone. It didn’t matter where you came from.
So, in 2012, I got to go back to Israel for my cousin‘s bar mitzvah, and back to Jerusalem where my parents met, where it all began. I was there for only 10 days, but by the end of my trip I decided I wanted to study in Israel for a semester during 11th grade. And that’s exactly what I did.
By that time, my sister was living in Jerusalem, and not yet an official Israeli but we all knew aliyah was the next step for her. My brother had made aliyah and joined the paratroopers in the IDF, so she was obviously next. During my semester abroad, I would go to her and to my brother every weekend I had free. It was then that I really started to connect to Shabbat, and began to appreciate it, to learn more beautiful Shabbat melodies and make my own way.
The semester program abroad took us to Poland. We visited all of the concentration camps and learned about the Holocaust; all of this during the week of Holocaust day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day in Israel. It was all so emotional and disturbing that by the time we all flew back to Israel, I felt like I’d come home and a weight was lifted.
I spent the rest of the semester studying hard and connecting to the land as much as I could. Then I got to go to my brother’s swearing in ceremony at the Kotel, and I was filled with pride. My big brother. A combat soldier. Protecting our country just as he had protected me when we were kids.
Eventually, the program ended, and I had to go home. Though I didn’t want to leave, I knew I’d be back. And sure enough, a week after graduating high school, I flew back on a year abroad program just like the one my parents met on. I had no idea what I wanted to study, where I was going to go to school, or where I wanted to live. All I knew was Israel was where I needed to be.
Fast forward to about a year and a half later, I decided I needed to make Aliya and join the IDF, just as my brother had; be a part of something bigger and contribute to the country I now called home. I said my goodbyes, got my Israeli citizenship, and started Kibbutz Ulpan so I could get more of a basis for the Hebrew language, something my school growing up hadn’t given me.
Though many of my friends back home feared and didn’t quite support my joining the army, it was of no surprise to my parents, the last of their children to make Aliyah. Though my brother would return to the United States upon his release from the army, having his support, along with my sister’s and her boyfriend’s (now husband), I knew I’d be just fine. There was a strong community for a lone soldier like me; I had a new family. A family of Lone Soldiers.
But getting to this point was not easy. After my Ulpan, my Hebrew was still very mediocre.
That’s why I chose to join the Derech Eretz pre-military program (mechina). If it wasn’t for the mechina, I wouldn’t be who I am today. When I made aliyah I was already 19, so by the time I started mechina I was the oldest of the group, the only non-Israeli, and I could barely communicate with anyone. But I’d come for a reason, and I had to learn Hebrew. So I made sure everyone knew to speak with me only in Hebrew and nothing else. Even if it took longer for me to get pretty much everything people said, and I felt like a complete idiot at times, I knew it would help me in the long run.
With every day and every tiyul (trip), every class discussion and group activity, came different and more complex challenges. In class if I didn’t understand something, people would have to explain in Hebrew. If I had a bad day or was feeling frustrated, I couldn’t use English as a crutch. I had to learn to express myself in Hebrew. If I felt sick, wanted to contribute to a group discussion, cry to my Madricha, make friends, anything at all, I had to learn all the slang and express myself in Hebrew. It was really tough, but by the end I was speaking, yelling, laughing, singing, and texting in the one language I’d never been allowed to study as a kid. Learning Hebrew was my dream. At the mechina, I had fulfilled my one goal.
In addition, my favorite and most meaningful part of the mechina was the tiyulim. I was faced with so many challenges out in the wilderness and had to explore new things, talk to new people I normally didn’t when we were back on the moshav. And this taught me a lot. These tiyulim also taught us a lot about being handy and what to do when you’re out in nature.
Then there was ‘madas’ and running marathons. The mechina had us running 10k by the end which really showed me what I am capable of. In this way it truly prepared me for the army. There were also many group activities and throughout my time there, I was constantly in situations where I’d have to think on my feet and learn to problem solve. I will never forget that.
By the time the mechina ended, I was ready to be a contributing member of society and join the army. I am one year into my IDF service, as a Dog Handler in the Israeli Air Force. I am training to be a veterinarian, and if I had to do it over, I’d it all again just the same.”
Dog Handler in the Israeli Air Force
Derech Eretz Kmehin graduate, 2016-17