December 08, 2011
By Michael C. Duke
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
Katie McCants and Daniel Schmidt visited Houston in November.
Why are young Jews willing to say goodbye to their families, friends and comfortable lives and move halfway around the globe to live alone in a country where they must learn a new language, integrate into a new society and serve in one of the world’s most battle-tested militaries?
“When I was 8 years old, I told my parents that I was going to live in Israel,” said Katie McCants, now 27, who grew up in Allentown, Penn., and decided to make aliyah in 2008, two years after graduating from Tufts University near Boston.
“I might not have been completely aware of it when I was a kid, but I think my decision to make aliyah came from a sense of belonging to something greater than myself, to the greater Jewish community, being a part of living Jewish history in a Jewish country,” she told the JHV.
McCants was a lone soldier in Israel – someone who immigrates to the Jewish state alone and serves in the Israel Defense Forces. She visited Houston last month with another former lone soldier, Daniel Schmidt, a native of Brazil, to share aliyah stories and to educate Houstonians about Jewish Agency programs that support lone soldiers before, during and after their military service.
The Jewish Agency’s local partner is the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which allocated nearly $2.1 million to Jewish Agency programs in Israel, according to the Federation’s 2011 allocations report.
“The Jewish Agency has a very large and active role in Israeli society and is especially important to lone soldiers,” said McCants.
Schmidt made aliyah through a Jewish Agency immigration program for teens, Na’ale, when he was in high school.
“I was very active in the Jewish community in Sao Palo. I went to a regular school, but I attended Jewish summer camps and was part of a Zionist youth movement,” said the 23-year-old.
“When I made my Bar Mitzvah, my mom explained to me that I’m a man now and I can make decisions for myself. So, when I turned 16, I decided I want to go to Israel – and I did,” he said.
Schmidt had never been to Israel before making aliyah.
He finished high school on a kibbutz near Gaza, then lived for a short time in Ashdod. When he turned 19, Schmidt enlisted in the Israeli navy, serving as a paramedic and an electronic warfare specialist for three years on active duty.
Eight months into his service, during Operation Cast Lead, he was deployed off the Mediterranean coast to help defend Israel against rocket attacks from Gaza.
“I was 20 days in the middle of the sea, fighting and protecting Israel without any contact with the outside world,” he said.
In November 2009, Schmidt was part of an Israeli navy team that intercepted the Francop cargo ship that was smuggling 500 tons of weapons, disguised as civilian cargo, from Iran to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.
Schmidt also participated in the deadly May 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, in which armed anti-Israel activists attacked a unit of Israeli commandos while the activists attempted to break the maritime blockade of Gaza.
“As a paramedic, my job was to take care of the injured soldiers, and I was obligated to take care of every one, not just the soldiers,” he said.
Schmidt completed his active duty assignment earlier this year. He currently is part of a Jewish Agency program called WINGS that is helping him transition to civilian life, aid with job placement and earn acceptance to college.
“I want to study computer science. Right now, I’m working for a large mobile communications company and improving my test scores to get into Ben-Gurion University next year,” he said.
Schmidt said he’s lost his Portuguese accent and takes pride in the fact that he is mistaken for a sabra, a native-born Israeli.
McCants visited Israel multiple times before making aliyah, beginning with a Birthright Israel trip during her freshman year in college. That trip took place during the Second Intifada.
“This was the first time I experienced the resilience of the Israeli people,” said McCants, who is of mixed African-American, Russian and Polish decent. “I definitely came back with a greater appreciation and a greater drive to go to Israel. And, that’s what I did – I found every and any way to go over the next four years.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies, communication and media studies, McCants lived and volunteered in Israel for 10 months through a Jewish Agency/MASA program. Her airplane landed on the day Israel and Hezbollah signed a cease-fire agreement during the Second Lebanon War.
“I went right up to the north to help with the reconstruction of Kiryat Shmona,” an Israeli community near the Lebanon border that was devastated by Hezbollah rocket fire, “rebuilding playgrounds, schools, fixing up apartment buildings, helping children deal with the conflict. Anything they needed, I was willing to help with,” McCants said.
During that time, she also worked in Haifa at a school for children with mental and physical disabilities.
McCants returned to the states, and then came back to Israel, twice, to lead Birthright trips. She turned down job offers in New York and Atlanta and made aliyah. She moved to a Jewish Agency-run absorption center in Jerusalem, Beit Canada, and enrolled in an intensive Hebrew immersion program, Uplan Etzion.
“I studied Hebrew for eight hours a day, five days a week, for five months. And then, I volunteered for the army,” said McCants, who, then 24, was past the age of obligatory military service.
“It was really important to me to give back to the community, to give back to a country that does so much for us as Jews, to be a bigger part of Israeli society. If I was going to make aliyah and be Israeli, I was going to do it 100 percent,” she said.
“I also was aware of the fact that, like it or not, my children, if I stay in Israel, will probably go to the army, and I didn’t want to have to tell them that the army is important for you, but it wasn’t for me,” she said.
McCants, now a reservist, served one year of active duty as an officer in an IDF intelligence unit.
“I was in a very unique situation, because I was much older,” she said. “Most women don’t go into the army at my age, so I really had to fight to get in.”
McCants currently is looking at graduate school programs in Israel. In mid-December, she’s traveling to Nepal for four months, through Tevel B’tzedek, to work on HIV-AIDS education and family development.
She said she now feels Israeli. She thinks in Hebrew and even sometimes dreams in Hebrew. McCants loves that Israel has allowed her to give back.
“In Israel, all of my friends, we’re constantly looking for ways to help and volunteer and build a community together. I very much feel like I’ve built something meaningful for myself and for others there. And, I’m hoping that by helping to do that, I’m giving back as much as I’ve received,” she said.
McCants and Schmidt said they faced a lot of challenges as lone soldiers. The hardest part, they said, is not having family in Israel.
“When you’re a lone solider, it’s very hard, because you need to do everything by yourself,” Schmidt said.
McCant said, “Most Israelis have their parents there to help or to answer questions or to find out where to go for help or questions. I didn’t even know where to begin to get my questions answered. So, I had a longer process and a little harder of a fight, but it’s all worth while and an experience that I’m that much more proud of.
“That was the hardest thing – sometimes at the end of a long day, you just want to come home to your family,” she said.
The Jewish Agency, McCants and Schmidt said, helps lone soldiers overcome such challenges. For example, the agency pairs each lone solider up with an adoptive Israeli family.
“I have an adoptive family and, even today, though I’m no longer [an active duty] solider, they really support me – it’s just beautiful,” Schmidt said.
McCants said, “The Jewish Agency provides support and makes the introduction to the country as easy as possible. Israel isn’t the easiest country in the world. We say, ‘It’s a hard life, but it’s a good life.’ …
“I didn’t move to Israel completely alone, in a sense,” thanks to the Jewish Agency, she said. “It’s the beauty of moving to a Jewish country – we’re there to pick each other up. If we need a place for a holiday, there’s someone to call. There are programs through the Jewish Agency to find meals for lone soldiers, to find host families for lone soldiers, if you need one. It’s really about creating a support system, which is more important than words can explain.”
McCants and Schmidt both participated in Nativ, a Jewish Agency-backed college leadership program in Israel. Both said they plan to stay in Israel. They each now volunteer for programs that support lone soldiers.