"I hereby swear…"

IDF (Zahal) Spoeksperson

A female immigrant soldier who volunteered to enlist in the IDF (Zahal) was sworn in as a Search and Rescue team commander

Date: 04/02/2010, 9:57 PM     Author: Elana Kieffer

It was a routine swearing-in ceremony which took place Wednesday (Feb. 3) at the Zikim military base, situated between Ashkelon and the Gaza Strip. Aside from the instructions to the hundreds of guests at the beginning of the ceremony about what to do in the event of a Color Red missile warning siren, which has become commonplace in the region, there was nothing out of the ordinary. But one of the solders swearing her loyalty to the State of Israel and its Defense Forces is not your average Israeli soldier. She immigrated to Israel from New York, decided to do her part to serve the country by volunteering to enlist in the IDF (Zahal), and is training to be a Search and Rescue team commander. This ceremony marked the end of her nine weeks in basic training. She will now go off to a three month course after which she will be instructing soldiers from the very same command that has been in the news lately for undertaking extraordinary missions rescuing people from the ruins in Haiti.

Penina Ross grew up in Monsey, New York, in a family of 7. She always felt a strong connection to Israel, and at the age of 22 she decided to immigrate there. This decision was perhaps not so surprising to the Ross family. “When my father was younger and got more religious, he came to Israel and thought that the Zionism he saw here was so inspiring.” However, he returned to the United States to pursue a medical career, met Penina’s mother, got married, had a family and was settled. But together Dr. and Mrs. Ross raised their children with the knowledge of the importance of Israel. Perhaps this importance was felt even more so by the Ross children, as their grandmother is a Holocaust survivor and they appreciate the fact that with a Jewish state, Jewish people all over the world will always have a place to call home. In fact, Penina was the third of the five Ross children to decide to make a life in Israel. But she was the first to join the IDF (Zahal), and her family is very proud.

Actually, Penina’s two families are proud of her. She joined the IDF (Zahal) as part of the Garin Tzabar program run by the Israel Scouts movement. The term Garin refers to a group of soldiers who experience army service together and Garin Tzabar is a program for immigrants to Israel, and children of Israelis who left Israel. These soldiers are not obligated to enlist, but they volunteer to do so. The program places Garin members together in a kibbutz, where they have their own living quarters but are also adopted by kibbutz families. The program begins in the kibbutz where the Garin members work and learn about the IDF (Zahal), and once each participant is enlisted to his or her respective unit, the Garin members meet again in the kibbutz during weekends off from the army. Penina had always thought about joining the IDF (Zahal), but her plans became more real when Tziki Od from the Center for Lone Soldiers came to speak to residents of the Ulpan Etzion Absorption Center where she lived when she first immigrated to the country in July 2008. When she began looking into her various options, she decided that the Garin Tzabar program would be the right fit for her.

Penina’s adopted kibbutz family came all the way from Kibbutz Sasa near Safed to the Zikim military base, a distance of 229 km or 142 miles, which is almost half the distance of the entire State of Israel. They drove all that way just to see Penina be sworn in. Her kibbutz mom, Gila Rachevski, found the ceremony to be very emotional. “It is understood that we are born here and we serve here. But to come from across an ocean, from New York, to enlist in the IDF (Zahal)…for us it was very moving to be here for this.” Gila was accompanied by her husband Uri, 15 year old Corrine and 12 year old Tom. The Rachevski family in Israel and the Ross family in the United States are in touch with each other, and Gila made sure to take pictures of Penina so that she could send them to Penina’s mother.

Appreciative Comrades

The Rachevski family was not alone in its admiration for Penina’s choices and determination. In her entire Company, Penina was one of only two lone soldiers, a categorization given to soldiers who do not live at home, most often because they have immigrated to Israel without family. And so in such a large group of soldiers, Penina stood out. “Random people were always coming up to me and saying hi.” Early on during her basic training, the entire company slowly found out about Penina’s story, and they each responded in different ways. Some people would only speak with her in English despite her fluent Hebrew. Some people would stare at her in amazement. But there was one common response. “Everyone had a billion questions, about why I came and where I came from. They all told me how much they respected me.” Penina laughed, remembering a few rainy nights during which the soldiers were sitting in their tent and the water was leaking through. “All the girls would complain and be really uncomfortable, and then everyone would look at me and ask if I regretted coming.” Penina was quick to emphasize that despite the difficulties she faced during basic training, she never regretted it for a minute. In addition to her fellow soldiers, Penina’s officers realized that they had a unique soldier on their hands. “Anytime I went to the Welfare Office or asked anything from my commanders, they always did everything they could to try to help out and make sure everything was ok.”

One of Penina’s favorite experiences so far was the challenging march that her company had to go on in order to earn the special brigade berets. She was chosen to carry the portable transceiver radio which weighs 6.2 kg, almost 14 pounds, and at the same time she was taking turns carrying the stretcher, which is an additional weight of 5.2 kg, or 11.4 pounds. These responsibilities meant that her commanders believed in her. It also meant that she had to keep pace next to the platoon commander during the entire trek. “I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing how much I learned and how I was able to put it into action.”