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2 modern-day Jewish heroes entering the IDF reflect on what’s different this Hanukkah

US-born college grads Alexa Schnaid and Max Kaller recently immigrated to Israel with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, and are getting ready to defend the Jewish state

Alexa Schnaid, right, and Max Kaller immigrated to Israel and will be serving as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. (Photos courtesy)
Alexa Schnaid, right, and Max Kaller immigrated to Israel and will be serving as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. (Photos courtesy)

Hannukah is a festival that honors Jewish warriors who defended the Land of Israel almost 2,200 years ago. In honor of the holiday, we’re checking in with two modern-day Jewish warriors: Alexa Schnaid and Max Kaller, who are now drafting into the Israel Defense Forces, to talk about where they were last year at this time, and what they’re up to today.

The new recruits are both 23-year-old college graduates from Los Angeles, who have made aliyah — or immigrated — to Israel this past summer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Both of them also were active in Jewish groups and pro-Israel activism on their respective campuses. But even though they share these similarities, they also reflect the diversity in the Israeli armed forces.

Max is an outgoing schmoozer who recently completed a Masa internship in the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Department for World Religions and World Jewish Affairs. He hopes to join the IDF International Cooperation Unit, which handles external relations with other militaries. Max first came to Israel for his bar mitzvah and has been smitten ever since. In conversation, his idealism and desire to defend the Jewish state appear front and center — though this doesn’t cloud his belief that in his case, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Alexa is drafting into the Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue combat unit. She majored in education and had a tough first year of teaching, weathering the tumultuous pandemic with her fourth grade class. Articulate and wise beyond her years, Alexa also exudes a grim determination that together with her empathetic side makes it seem like a combat role rescuing and saving others was tailor made just for her.

While getting through the bureaucratic process, signing up for the IDF, and taking leave of their families was extra challenging due to this year’s tougher-than-usual circumstances, that’s not the only challenge facing these two, as well as thousands of lone soldiers like them. With no family or other close support system in Israel, many new immigrants face logistic, financial, and emotional stress as they work to defend the country.

IDF lone soldiers pose with volunteer driving instructors at an annual ‘Errands Day’ event in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2020. (Shahar Azran/ Nefesh B’Nefesh)

The Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program, in partnership with Friends of the IDF (FIDF), provides support and assistance to IDF soldiers hailing from across the world. It acts as the address for every lone soldier in Israel before, during and after their military service, providing resources, support and guidance for successful service and acclimation to sabra life.

“There are currently over 3,000 lone soldier olim [new immigrants] serving in a range of positions throughout the army, and our Nefesh B’Nefesh-FIDF Lone Soldier Program provides holistic support for them,” says Noya Govrin, the Nefesh B’Nefesh-FIDF Lone Soldier Program Director.

“This past year has been especially challenging for many lone soldiers, as they have been unable to celebrate many holidays and milestones with their families and friends, and we are constantly trying to find ways to look out for them. Serving in the IDF far away from the comforts of their home is not always easy, but is something to be very proud of,” she says.

“We salute these young men and women this Hanukkah — they are our true heroes,” says Govrin.

Alexa Schnaid, right, and Max Kaller immigrated to Israel and will be serving as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. (Photos courtesy)

The Times of Israel caught up with the very busy Alexa and Max as they prepped for their upcoming draft. We hit them with eight questions, in honor of the eight nights of Hanukkah. The following interviews have been edited.

You guys recently made aliyah in the middle of the pandemic. What have you been doing in Israel since your big move, and what has the experience been like?

Alexa: It’s probably challenging to make aliyah anytime, but especially during corona it was really hard to leave at a time when I couldn’t spend much time with my family and friends, and the only people I could hug goodbye were my parents and my sister because I lived with them.

I’m in Garin Tzabar, a program for lone soldiers who are drafting to the army together. We all knew each other before coming here — we had several preparation seminars in the United States. But when we arrived, the real preparation started: I’ve been doing immersive Hebrew language courses all day every day, and different programs to get physically and mentally ready for the army.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time getting to know the kibbutz where I live, which has been really nice. It’s in a really beautiful area of Israel, and I really love where I live, and I owe a lot of that to making aliyah during a pandemic. Living here during a lockdown and not being able to go anywhere — it’s made me appreciate my home a little bit more.

Illustrative photo of young American olim who plan to enlist in the IDF as lone soldiers, August 17, 2015. (Nefesh B’Nefesh)

Max: I officially made aliyah on July 30 of this year, but I’ve been living in Israel since the August before. It has been an amazing experience, but also stressful and hectic. I think the coronavirus crisis delayed things and made the process a bit more difficult and lengthy.

Right now I’m in Garin Tzabar, a preparatory program for the army, and it’s been a life-changing experience, but we’ve also missed out on some of the trips and interacting with the other families on the kibbutz. But life goes on, and we’ve adapted, and I think that because it’s been such a challenging experience it’s also been more rewarding, and it’s brought my group closer together.

Why did you decide to make aliyah? Do you have a personal history with Israel, have you visited before?

Alexa: My love for Israel is something I’ve always had in my life, I just think I didn’t necessarily know it, I didn’t have it as strong until I came to Israel. The first time I came here was on a Taglit-Birthright trip in the summer of 2017, and it’s not like I knew right away I was going to move here and serve in the army and so on, but it was definitely a journey and it definitely started with Birthright.

I’ve spent many years, especially in college, being involved in Israel advocacy. I was always thinking about how to defend Israel with words, and I knew that the next logical step was to move here and to serve in the army. And those things go hand in hand — I knew that if I wanted to live here I had to serve, and if I wanted to serve I had to live here.

I don’t know what will be in my future, but I know that right now I’m just extremely happy to finally live here, to finally be a citizen of the country that we fought for so many years to have, and I think my ancestors would be really proud of me — the ancestors that I knew and the ancestors that I didn’t know. I think what I’m doing is for them, and I hope it makes them proud.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes a selfie with a soldier during an event for lone soldiers in Tel Aviv, on January 24, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Max: I decided to make aliyah after participating in my Masa program called Israel Government Fellows, where I lived in Jerusalem for the last year working in the Foreign Ministry in the department of World Religions and World Jewish Affairs, and after feeling like the only way to really integrate into Israeli society and to fulfill my desire of serving the State of Israel in my maximum capacity, I felt the need to make aliyah, become officially Israeli, and draft to the IDF. It’s extremely important to me that I do my part in defending the Jewish state and the Jewish people around the world.

I’ve visited Israel many times before — my first visit was in 2010 with my family and my congregation, Kehilat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California. We came for my bar mitzvah and a few others in the congregation. Something just spoke to me about coming to Israel, doing my bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. I also came on Taglit [Birthright] with my university in 2018, made a few personal trips with friends, and came last summer for my brother’s bar mitzvah. And then I decided to move to Israel, participate in the internship program, and now I’m officially Israeli.

You guys will be inducted into the army soon. Where do you plan on serving, and why did you choose that unit?

Alexa: Actually, in a few hours — tomorrow morning — I’m drafting to Palchatz, which is the search and rescue unit. This is a unit that I’ve always kind of known about and heard about, because they’re the ones that when there’s a natural disaster abroad they tend to be some of the first people to respond to help and to offer aid, so I’ve always been kind of moved by that and moved by the idea that these are soldiers that are trained to save lives. And when I found out that this was something I could do, I really became excited by the idea. I knew it would be challenging — it’s a combat unit, it’s not something that’s easy, but I knew it would be really meaningful.

Several immigrant soon-to-be lone soldiers, pictured during a pre-Independence Day barbecue (Photo credit: Sasson Tiram/ Nefesh B’Nefesh)

Max: I draft on December 28, first to do a language course and basic training. After that, we’ll get our deployment details, and I’m hoping that I’ll get the option to go to the international cooperation unit. I think that based on my studies in university, my experience working in the Foreign Ministry in Israel, and my love for talking with people, forming relationships and collaborating — as well as my native English, which can be an asset for the unit — I think it will be a great fit for working with foreign militaries in the region to better defend the State of Israel and also work to potentially create peace in the Middle East.

The two of you are a bit older than most Israelis are when they first enter the army. Is your service mandatory as new citizens, or are you volunteering?

Alexa: So I’m 23, which is quite old in army years. It’s especially crazy because I finished my bachelors degree, I worked, I had a career for a year as a teacher, and I essentially left it all behind to come here and do this, and it’s not mandatory for me. I volunteered to do this.

A lot of the Israelis in the army say “ad matai — until when, when is this going to be over?” but for me, I’ll never say that. And you can mark my words in this article, I don’t care, I’ll never say “ad matai” because I chose to do this, I’m making this decision. It wasn’t an easy decision to make given where I was in my life, but I couldn’t be more sure of it.

Max: I’m a few years older than most of the other soldiers entering the army. I feel like it brings advantages and disadvantages. I think because I’m older I have a bit more life experience, I’ve been to college, I’ve just done a bit more. But it also makes me a bit more nervous because I feel maybe I won’t fit in as much, and that combined with me being a lone soldier — my Hebrew is improving, but it’s not perfect — I think that socially it will be challenging for me in the army. But I’m a people person and I hope that I find my people and that my unit works great together. Also, my service is not mandatory, I’m volunteering because I’m 23, and I have to serve two years.

Lone soldiers dance at a Thanksgiving dinner event in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

A lot has changed since last Hanukkah. Where were you one year ago at this time, and can you tell us a bit about your journey since then?

Alexa: Last year around Hanukkah time I was actually here in Israel. I was with my sister — we had gone on a sister trip together and visited a few places and ended our trip here. And it was a very different feeling because I had just made the decision to move here and I kind of looked at Israel with a different set of eyes when I came, and it just made it a little bit more special.

To think that a year ago, I didn’t know any of the people I’m currently living with, the people I call my family, that’s crazy in itself. If you told me a year ago that I’d be drafting to a combat search and rescue unit, I’d probably also think you’re crazy. So it’s been a journey, and I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’m really happy about where I’m at now.

Max: Last year at this time I was in Jerusalem participating in my Masa program. I think I still felt the shock at moving to Israel, not even being a new immigrant, but also just being an intern here, feeling very out of place but also finding my footing and finding my people here.

It’s kind of a surreal journey that I’ve been on so far, I think I certainly thought last year that I couldn’t wait to come home, I couldn’t imagine staying here much longer. But now it’s an amazing feeling to officially be Israeli, to be joining the IDF soon, to really be following through on this dream I had and seeing it come to fruition, and it’s really perfect timing — right in time for Hanukkah, and it’s very meaningful for me and I’m excited for this next chapter.

Lone soldiers get help dealing with government bureaucracy at an event sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, Friends of the IDF and Israeli government ministries in 2015. (Courtesy Yonit Schiller/Nefesh B’Nefesh)

How did the aliyah process go? Can you tell us a bit about what Nefesh B’Nefesh and others have done to make your transition easier?

Alexa: I have a lot of appreciation for Nefesh B’Nefesh. I had a wonderful aliyah adviser — she actually served in Search and Rescue, too, so maybe it was fate that I also ended up going there. Nefesh B’Nefesh was really helpful, whether it was with guiding me through the aliyah process, or helping getting things expedited in time. The Jewish Agency was also helpful.

During corona this became an extremely difficult process, even more so than usual with bureaucracy stuff, and everyone who helped, whether it was Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Jewish Agency, they were all very helpful and patient with me and I’m really grateful for that. I think that a lot of the benefits that you get for making aliyah are really attractive and help make me feel a bit more secure about making such a big decision at this point in my life, and made the transition a lot easier.

Max: Nefesh B’Nefesh definitely helped me a lot over the last year — shout out to my aliyah adviser Sydney Smith in Jerusalem! She was amazing, she helped me the whole way. Even when I went home to LA we were in constant contact.

Can you speak a bit about the Lone Soldier Program you’re in?

Alexa: They’ve been extremely helpful throughout the preparation process in getting me ready and providing me with a home, a nice place to live and guidance. I think it’s really important to be part of a program, and I’m happy to do that. I live at Kibbutz Geva in the north of the country, in a house with about 15 other people who are also in my group who also came from the US to be a part of this.

Max: I’m also in Garin Tzabar, so they’ve helped tremendously on the army aspect of things getting stuff that weren’t all finished by the time I made aliyah like setting up bank accounts, helping with my health insurance, stuff like that.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with a with delegation of mothers of lone soldiers from North America on August 1, 2019. (Haim Zach, GPO)

Where do you see yourself next Hanukkah?

Alexa: Well, I hope I’ll see myself in an orange military beret that I worked really hard to get. I’ll be done with my training by then, and I’ll have been in the army for a year, halfway through my service. I hope that by then I’ll have gained a lot from the army and that I can see the positive in everything that I’m doing, and that this country will be in a good place — that there will be no more corona! But more for myself, I hope that I’m stronger physically, mentally, and that I’ve seen the good in this experience, and yeah, I hope that it’ll be a nice Hanukkah.

Max: By next Hanukkah I see myself as a soldier in the IDF just finishing my first year of service, hopefully in one of the jobs in a unit I want, but if not, still doing my best serving the country and the Jewish people.

Potentially next year I’ll be able to take my first extended furlough and see my family, or maybe they will come visit me in Israel. Yeah, I’m very excited to see where I am in one year and see how much progress I’ve made.

I think that this year I’ve made an incredible amount of progress as a person and on my journey as a Zionist, and in the next year it’ll just be even better, and I’m very excited to see. It’s interesting to see how it’s going to be after all the stress of going to the army, and dealing with all the logistics, and I feel like in a year I’ll be looking back and saying, “Wow, it wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t that hard, and look at what I’ve accomplished. I can do anything.”

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