In a world where anti-Semitism increases by the day, I now stand as a proud Jew. However, this was not always the case. I had a great childhood in Los Angeles, and nearly everyone I knew was Jewish. That all changed when my comedy-writing father, stuck in his 1950s idea of what adolescence should be, decided to move our family north of LA.
In this suburban wasteland, Jews were scarce, and there was little to do unless you played sports, which I did not. So naturally, as I got older, I descended into juvenile delinquency and drug experimentation.
I also veiled my Jewish identity. There is discomfort in being the “other.” Simultaneously, my grades took a nosedive. I was never particularly interested in school due to a strong desire to join the military from a young age. On the verge of flunking out of school, my family reached its suburbia breaking point, and returned to LA after six years.
I was placed in a program designed to prevent students from dropping out. I completed it fast, graduating three months earlier than my twin sister. In LA, I was acquainted with Jewish friends, one of whom was from an Israeli family and had a sister who had served in the Israel Defense Forces. She happened to be visiting from Israel and showed me a PowerPoint about joining the IDF. I began to wonder if this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Ultimately, I decided to join the Israeli Army after attending a Birthright trip to Israel, despite having no contacts or family in Israel, and no knowledge of Hebrew.
Six years ago, I boarded a flight determined to defend the Jewish people.
I arrived at a five-month Hebrew immersion program on a kibbutz in the north. I always felt uncomfortable on the kibbutz. The standoffish personalities of the kibbutzniks and their aversion to strangers caused my uneasiness.
Despite my unwelcoming arrival in the Promised Land, I began my 2½ year military service in December of that year.
I had a tenuous grasp of Hebrew, so the Army placed me in their Hebrew immersion course. It was there that I found my tribe. During this program, I had the opportunity to meet Jews from every corner of the globe, including India and China. Despite making lifelong friends, I never really learned Hebrew; who can in 2 months? However, I did establish a foundation, which helped during infantry training with the Nahal Brigade.
Immediately, I volunteered to attend a grueling five-day selection process for Nahal’s prestigious reconnaissance battalion. About 15 percent of those who start are picked for the unit. Two close friends and I were selected; however, I went to first platoon, and they went to second. I was the only American in my platoon, and I didn’t find young Israeli men particularly welcoming or understanding. I had a challenging time communicating in Hebrew, and I quickly became a loner. I felt like a pariah. So six weeks before we finished our 14 months of training, I was dropped from the unit.
I ended up on a five-month rotation in the West Bank with a regular infantry platoon, comprised mostly of misfits and screw-ups. The new unit was the polar opposite of where I was previously. Here, soldiers prided themselves on doing the absolute minimum, and morale was extremely low. This was not the experience I wanted, and this is not how I had envisioned the Israeli Army.
I did have the opportunity to participate in some exciting military operations, including apprehensions of terror suspects. This is what I came here to do. Despite the low morale, there were some great people in the new unit, and this was by far the most meaningful part of my military service.
Shortly after our rotation, I fractured both my wrists, which left me in two casts for several months. I returned to my unit, now on the Gaza border, with atrophied arms. I assumed I’d receive extensive physical therapy. However, my company commander had another idea in mind: fire watch.
I was to sit and look out for fires, thieves, or any other problems in our company’s living quarters. I did this three hours on/six hours off, 17 days on, four days off, for four months. I was verbally assaulted by members of other platoons regularly. They accused me of faking my injury or having inflicted it myself. One soldier used to shoot rubber bands at my face while on duty. I endured all this while complaining about the pain in my wrists, yet never received treatment. I still have pain in my wrists three years later.
I honestly can say this was the most miserable period of my life. I did learn a valuable lesson, though: Eventually, all suffering comes to an end. And it did. I was released from the army at the end of my service with an honorable discharge and a bitter taste toward Israel. I returned to LA three days later, determined to make some sense of my experience.
I began attending Santa Monica College, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed learning. I was doing well in school. I had a 4.0 GPA. A chance encounter on campus completely changed the trajectory of my life. I ran into someone I knew from Israel wearing a Columbia University shirt. I approached him and asked him about it. He had been accepted and suggested I should apply, stating that I may have a good chance due to my good grades and intriguing story.
It was late spring, so I assumed applications were closed. I went home and checked the website, and to my amazement, the applications closed the following month. I became obsessed with getting into Columbia, and I was going to do it in one month.
I submitted my application two days before the deadline. I knew my chapter in LA was over, so I decided to move to New York preemptively. Six weeks after arriving, I received my acceptance, one of the happiest moments of my life. I did it. I was officially an Ivy League student. Not bad for someone who couldn’t read until the third grade and nearly failed high school.
Columbia has been a difficult transition for me. The academics are at a level that I’ve never encountered. It is daunting. But I love it, and I know it is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It took me three years to make sense of my experience, but I finally figured it out. Every positive thing in my life, I can directly attribute to my time in Israel. The amazing friends I made, my acceptance to Columbia, and my amazing Israeli girlfriend, Lizie. Today, my life is better than I ever imagined it could be, and I am excited about the future.
I owe it all to the state of Israel and the IDF. It may sound crazy to some, but I would gleefully do it all over again if given another chance. During these trying times, with anti-Semitism increasing worldwide, I now find myself supporting and yearning for Israel more than I ever did before.
Miles Rubin writes from New York.