By SARAH CHANIN

When I was 17, my priorities were my boyfriend, prom and, sometimes, college. Truth to tell, I couldn’t care less what was happening outside my social circle.

flagNow 22, I recently was on a Birthright Israel trip with “Israel Outdoors” and I learned just how different life can be for teens living in Yokneam, Atlanta’s sister city in Israel. Just over halfway through the 10-day trip, our group made a pit stop in the city for a visit with Aharai!, a youth group dedicated to preparing Israeli teens for service in the IDF, the Israeli army.

In Israel, everyone is required to serve in the army, usually when they turn 18; girls for two years, boys for three. Just a few days earlier on our trip, we had six current and past Israeli soldiers join our birthright group, so we had naturally been grilling them relentlessly about their service and life in Israel in general.

But our visit with Aharai! was different. These were kids who hadn’t yet joined the army, who were still in school, and who reminded many of us of younger siblings.

When our bus pulled up to Nahal Keret Park, a beautiful green space in Yokneam, 40 high school students greeted us. We were divided into four groups and were immediately thrust into training activities with the Israeli teens. It’s worth noting that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing and many of the girls in our group were in long skirts and dresses since we’d just visited Yad Vashem and Mt. Hertzl.

The activities in Yokneam included walking on a tight rope, making a human pyramid, and carrying a “mini” stretcher filled with about 150 pounds of sand bags.

Though the activities seemed a little silly, especially when performed by grown women in dresses, the silliness created a bond between all of us.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but the kids who sat in front of me weren’t it. They looked, well,  just like me and my friends when we were teens; but there was one big difference: an enthusiastic sense of purpose.

I was amazed how two cultures can be so similar and yet so different at the same time. In our eyes, these teens were fearless. After all, they were preparing to enter the army without so much as a second thought. But then again, in Israel, the army is simply a fact of life.

Our Israeli comrades explained that the army is not something to be feared, but a civic duty that most everyone feels obligated to perform. It was pointed out that in the U.S. there is a track that most of us follow from birth: School, college, job. It’s pretty much the same in Israel, except army service is added to the mix.

I must admit, as an American, I simply don’t have the strong sense of nationalism that Israelis feel for their homeland. After talking with other on my trip, I realized we all share this feeling.

Many of the Israeli soldiers that I met on Birthright are now preparing to travel the world, some planning to visit India, others journeying all the way to Australia. So, what’s next for me?

I’ll be out looking for work soon and a place to live, all the while remembering my amazing trip to Israel and how I learned that Israelis are different, yet similar to me and my American family and friends.

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