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A Boy From the Philly Burbs Tests His Strength in IDF Boot Camp

February 7, 2008 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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American-born Steve Rubin (left) said that making aliyah wasn't enough -- he had to join the Israel Defense Force to really feel like a sabra.
While many recent college graduates seek the comfortable atmosphere and free food found at home, or shack up with a couple of roommates in an apartment, Steve Rubin chose a different path entirely.

The 23-year-old from Bala Cynwyd instead traveled across the world to enlist, voluntarily, in the Israel Defense Force, serving a nation that seems to be at a constant state of high alert, if not full-scale war.

With no close family there or personal ties to the country before serving in the army, Rubin is classified as a "lone soldier."

In recent history, the most famous "lone soldier" from the Philadelphia area was perhaps Michael Levin, a 22-year-old Holland, Pa., native who was killed in the summer 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Strengthened the Connection

For Rubin, the decision to make aliyah and join the IDF seemed a complete reversal for a kid who'd mostly joked around during Hebrew-school classes at Har Zion Temple, rather than focusing on learning about his heritage. Part of the transformation occurred at the University of Oregon, where he said that his roommate freshman year was blatantly anti-Semitic.

While defending his religion and Israel to his roommate and a number of others, his connection to Judaism strengthened.

He finished out his career at Oregon, majoring in journalism and romance languages.

Another experience that "got the blood pumping a little bit," he said, was a yearlong stay in Madrid, where he toured sites from the Spanish Inquisition and was struck by how Jews throughout history have managed to thrive despite persecution.

Then came a Birthright Israel trip in 2004 -- but, before he even stepped foot in the Jewish state, Rubin said that he had already decided to make aliyah and join the army.

"Sometimes, you feel passionate about something, and you don't even need to see it," he said. "It's more about the values and the idea and the foundation of Israel, and everything it stands for."

Rubin said that he's "not a militaristic person," but thought a stint in the army was the best way to really become an Israeli.

"In order to find my groove in this country and connect as quick as possible with the average Israeli, the army was the way to go," he said.

He also stressed that defending Israel played a large part in his decision-making.

"You read what's going on down in Sederot -- no one should have to live like that. Kids can't even go to school!" exclaimed Rubin about the town that is being hit almost daily by Hamas rockets being fired from Gaza. "We've had so many problems in our history. Now, we have this country, and we can defend ourselves so it's important."

As Rubin packed up to move in July 2006, war erupted with Hezbollah in the north. Just one month out of college, Rubin was flying directly into a war zone.

But it would be three months before he was able to join the army; by then, the war was over.

Upon entering Israel, Rubin got help from a program called Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a group that assists Diaspora Jews who want to move to Israel and join the IDF. Along with helping him with the bureaucracy involved in joining the army, Tzofim helped ease Rubin into Israeli life by, at first, setting him up at a kibbutz in the north.

By October of 2006, Rubin was training with the 50th battalion, and he couldn't help but notice that his Israeli counterparts had some preconceived notions about Americans who travel across the world just to fight in another country's army.

"A lot of people in Israel see Americans come [to fight in the army], and they think we're all like Rambo," he said, noting that they affectionately call him and other lone soldiers by that fictional character's name.

Rubin's current assignment is patrolling the border with Lebanon in the north, which often entails surveying the land just across the way.

"You see guys on the other side observing you" at the same time, he recalled. "There's this eerie silence going on."

Rubin recalled enduring difficult conditions, like nighttime training sessions in the freezing cold and waking up at odd hours to work.

"You come back from training exercises and the heater in your tent doesn't work and you're curled up in fetal position knowing that you have to wake up in a couple hours," he said. "It makes you appreciate everything you take for granted."

All indications are that he will be stationed in Hebron by February, he said.

"Now, when we get to Hebron, it's going to be arrests every day, foot patrols, Jeep patrols and working checkpoints," he predicted.

While he doesn't like the concept of forced checkpoints or a security wall, Rubin said that these measures are necessary.

"People come to these areas with explosives trying to harm Israeli citizens," he said. "Would I love for that wall not to be there? Yes, but the fact is, people are trying to harm Israeli citizens."

Rubin's service ends in October, and he hopes to move to Tel Aviv to begin civilian life.

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