There are special moments in a man’s life that not only help define him but also leave him with memories of accomplishment and fulfillment. In my life of 46 years those moments have included: the day I made Aliyah and became an Israeli citizen, the birth of my “Sabra” (native born Israeli) children, the marriage of my daughter, winning the Israeli National Boxing Championship, being sworn into tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces) as an Israeli soldier, and serving as a Jewish Educator at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). One of the most emotional moments in my life was an event that occurred just a few days ago at an Israeli Army base near the West Bank. It was there that I was honorably discharged from miluim, the Army Reserves of the Israel Defense Forces, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 45. It was an evening full of emotions and memories, gratitude and pride. It was an evening I will never forget.
First, some background: The miluim are the backbone of the Israeli Army and have played a crucial role in the defense of the Jewish State in all of the nation’s wars. The system of miluim was adapted from the Swiss in 1950 by Israeli Gen. Yigal Yadin, commander in chief of tzahal in the War of Independence and later, the famous archaeologist who uncovered Masada. Yadin realized that our tiny country, surrounded by millions of blood thirsty enemies seeking our destruction, needed a larger combat force to stand on the field of battle in the time of need, and so he created the miluim. Israeli men, after completing their service in the compulsory army, are assigned to a reserve unit where they serve until the age of 45. Combat reserve units are called up for active duty usually twice a year for a total of approximately 42 days. This service is usually in 2 stints; 10 days for training and then, later in the year, for an entire month guarding one of the country’s many volatile borders. At time of war, the miluim are called up for Special Service for unlimited lengths of time. The concept that developed was that in the event of an Arab attack, the 18-21 year olds in the compulsory army would hold the line for 48 hours while the Reserves were called up from civilian life. Once organized and armed, the miluim would then be at the forefront of the defense and counter- attack. They have proved themselves in all of Israel’s wars, particularly in the 1973 Yom Kippor War, where they turned the tide of battle and saved the Jewish State. Reserve soldiers come from all walks of life in Israel. My buddies in my unit are a mosaic of Israeli society. They include secular and religious Jews, Likud and Labor supporters, SABRAS and new immigrants, lawyers & farmers, bankers & janitors, insurance agents & mechanics, Ashkenazim & Sepharadim, Yemenites & Druze, a Welshman and even a couple of us crazy Americans. These citizen-soldiers sacrifice so much when they are called up, leaving behind for long periods of time their families and friends, their jobs and businesses, and their studies in the university. Many reservists will serve in the same unit with the same guys for over 20 years, as i have been privileged to do, and thus the bonds of brotherhood in miluim are often thicker than blood. We have danced at each other’s weddings and mourned at each other’s funerals.
In 1978 I graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and made Aliyah to Israel. Like most Israeli citizens, I was drafted into tzahal and served my allotted time in the compulsory army. After my discharge, I was assigned to a reserve unit, the 602nd Reconnaissance Unit of the Israeli Tank Corps, where I have served for the past 22 years. As I recall my years in uniform, so many memories pass through my mind-memories of Gaza and Hebron, Lebanon and the Golan, the Jordan River Valley and the Arava. I can still feel the biting cold of the Hermon and the dust and sweat of the Negev. I will always remember the long nights of political arguments, dirty jokes, and soul-baring talks while trying to remain alert on the Watch at a lonely border outpost with my fellow reservists. These true friends have stood by me not only in battle, but also in my personal trials and tribulations. Four years ago, I began divorce proceedings, after suffering through 20 years of a bad marriage. I quickly came face to face with an unjust legal system and an ugly mixing of Church and State. When legal and financial difficulties seemed insurmountable, it was my miluim brothers who stepped forward to give me moral and practical support. Today I have my “Get”(divorce) and freedom, much due to the kindness and generosity of my fellow miluimniks. I owe them an eternal debt of gratitude.In my 22 years of reserve duty, there have been moments of fear and fatigue, moments of victory and pride but, most of all, there will always remain in my mind the memories of brave, committed brothers at arms who proved that “Zionism” is more than just a cliche, Jewish heroism is no lie and true friendship is forever.
This past Tuesday I was ordered by my commander, Lt. Col. Leibela, to report to a training base near Bet Guvrin, with my good buddy Haderwho had also just reached the army retirement age of 46. When Hader and I entered the base dining room we were greeted with the cheers of a hundred soldiers from our unit who had gathered to honor us on the occasion of our “retirement” from tzahal. There, in the room, were old friends from the past and also young soldiers who were our replacements including a young American, named Brian Bebchick who made Aliyah after attending AMHSI. He was a former student of mine and destiny had brought us to serve in the same unit together. In him and the other young soldiers I could see the strength and future of Israel. Lt.Col. Leibela made a short speech, gave us a small gift and a certificate from the army and a plaque with our unit’s symbol. On the plaque were inscribed the following words:
“Thank you for the friendship for the rough and beautiful days… and remember-that there is life after miluim!
From true friends! ( reconn-602 )”
I know in my heart that there is life beyond miluim but I will miss that life in uniform. I am grateful for the privilege of having served in the world’s finest, bravest and most moral army. I am grateful for the honor of taking an active part in the renaissance and defense of the Jewish State and People and I am grateful for the true-friends I have gained along the way.
Yossi Katz, 46, was born in Philadelphia and made Aliyah to Israel in 1978. He is a Jewish Educator at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and resides in Hod Hasharon, Israel.