I have always had a love of Israel. Having a father from Israel and a mother who was very involved with Jewish causes and traveled frequently to Israel, it was in my blood. But as a 14-year-old attending an all-girls overnight camp, something happened to change my life during the summer of 2006 -- the summer that Gilad Shalit was captured.
I remember hearing that a war had broken out, and all I could think about was my beloved Israel and how I wished to be there fighting beside those brave Israeli soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. In America, growing up in Wynnewood, I sometimes felt like an outsider; yet when I stepped onto Israeli soil, I instantly felt a sense of belonging.
It was then that I knew that after graduating from high school, I would enlist in the IDF.
During my senior year at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, I joined Garin Tzabar, a program founded in 1991 and run by the Israeli Scouts. The Garin Tzabar members are Jewish young adults living in the Diaspora who choose to move to Israel and serve in the IDF. I spent one weekend a month at a retreat with others from the East Coast who felt the same way I did.
In the summer of 2010, my journey began. While my friends were leaving for college full of dreams and excitement, I chose to leave my family and the comforts of home to travel to Israel and enlist in the Israeli army.
I arrived in Israel with my mother and sister, and we spent five beautiful weeks together. But on Aug. 5, one day before my 19th birthday, I said goodbye and moved to a kibbutz, which was to be my home away from home during my military service. Next began the process of deciding which unit to join.
In 2008, my mother, sister and I had spent an afternoon on an army base in Modi'in -- located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv -- where the independent canine special forces unit of the IDF, known as Oketz, is based. We watched a special demonstration showing how these specially trained dogs can sniff out explosives and other chemicals. It was fascinating and I remember thinking that this would be the unit I would love to be a part of.
After much hard work, physical endurance and many emotional challenges, I succeeded in becoming a combat soldier serving in the Oketz unit.
My dog's name is Gula, a 4-year-old Belgian Shepherd. She is highly trained in sniffing out bombs and other chemicals as well as search and rescue missions needed in the wake of earthquakes or other disasters. She is my companion and gives me a reason to return to base after an occasional weekend of rest and relaxation.
As one of only two "lone soldiers" in my unit (meaning we don't have family living in the country), it was sometimes difficult to see the Israeli girls getting packages almost every day. They received food, clothes, bedding and shampoo from their families and friends living in Israel.
One cold night during basic training, after returning to my tent, I was surprised and happy to find a package on my bed. Inside, I found winter socks, a hat, long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt, pajama shorts and a neck warmer. The package included an envelope full of letters from people from all over the world thanking me for leaving behind my life and my family and friends to serve as a lone soldier in the IDF.
My journey continues to challenge me both physically and mentally in ways I never thought possible. But through it all, I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a proud soldier protecting our Jewish homeland.
Shoval Dorani was a speaker at the first annual gala of the local chapter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which, among other things, supports Lone Soldiers in Israel.