Staff Sergeant Israel Seidenfeld is a soldier in the Kfir Brigade. In his teenage years, he was a high school dropout and in trouble with the law. He turned his life around and was recently recognized as an excellent soldier in his company. Here he agreed to answer a few questions.

An IDF Soldier’s Turnaround Story

Tell us a bit about your childhood.

I was born in Israel in 1991 to American parents. When I was six weeks old, we moved to Russia. I know it sounds a bit backwards to be moving to Russia in 1991 at a time when a lot of Russians were moving to Israel, but my dad was a rabbi, and that’s where he found work. We moved around a lot. When I was seven years old, my family moved back to Israel for a while. Then we moved to Belgium. Around this time, my parents separated.

My mother made aliyah in 2001, when I was 10 years old, and I came with her to Israel. By age 14, I had dropped out of school.

What was life like as a high school dropout?

For a few years, I worked at various jobs — restaurants, construction, painting, giving haircuts. Then my mom, who had moved back to the United States, got me a job there, and so I left Israel when I was about 17 to go live with her. But it didn’t go so well. I was doing a lot of drugs. I got arrested and I was on probation.

How did you decide to return from the United States and try to get drafted again?

I remember I had a talk with my older brother. He wanted me to go back to Israel and join the army so that I would get out of the drug scene in the United States. He even said he’d pay for my ticket. I knew that I needed a new start. I also wanted a change in my life. I wasn’t learning anything, I was in trouble and I didn’t want to work at basic jobs for the rest of my life. I renewed my passport, and a few days later, I landed in Israel.

Was it easy for you to join the IDF (Zahal), given your background?

No, not at all. In August 2009, I visited the draft office for medical checkups and other tests. Two days before my draft date, I got a phone call and was told that I couldn’t get drafted in August and that I would have to wait until November. When November came, the same thing happened. And then again in March. I was getting frustrated with the delays. I got a letter saying that I needed to have a psychological evaluation. When I got to the office, I was told that I was supposed to get an exemption from the army, due to my criminal record.

The evaluator told me that there was another option for me. I could go to a base called Chavat Hashomer, which is a training base for at-risk soldiers. I wondered, could I ever get into a combat unit from there if my overall army profile was so poor? I knew the base had a tough reputation, and I didn’t know if it was for me. But I said yes.

What were your first days like in the army?

On April 26, 2010, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and sent to Chavat Hashomer. The discipline there was very hard for me. And it was difficult to deal with a lot of the guys around me — many were unmotivated and did not want to be there. Some were like me — they had exemptions but managed to get drafted anyway. I was there for two and a half months. I chose to be on the path to a combat unit. I didn’t give anybody any problems, and I proved myself. I was awarded as an excellent soldier on the base, and I tried out to be a combat soldier. Unfortunately I was having back pains at the time, and that lowered my physical profile.

What happened next?

I went back to the IDF (Zahal) induction base and tried to get into a combat unit. I was told that I would be in a tank unit. But even though it’s a combat role, it wasn’t what I wanted. Since I was 14 years old, I wanted to be in infantry. I went back to the induction base again. I was told — in typical army fashion – that I had to wait. In the meantime, I was assigned to work on a paratroopers base. Eventually I tried out to be a paratrooper, but I didn’t pass the test. A short while later, I made it to basic training for the Kfir infantry unit.

How did you fare in combat training?

Basic training for combat soldiers was very different from anything that I had dealt with before. The discipline is very strict. It was hard both physically and mentally. After only a month, I had a breakdown and wanted to leave. I talked to my commanders about it, but they did not want me to leave because they knew what I had been through in my life.

At this point, I was summoned to speak with the commander of my entire company. It was clear from our conversation that he could have kicked me out of the unit. That would have been it for me — no more infantry, after everything I had done to get where I was. But the company commander gave me a choice: I could stay or leave.

After our talk, I continued with my unit and finished training as an excellent soldier. I owe all my officers my life. They knew that if I got transferred somewhere else that I wouldn’t succeed, because my new officers wouldn’t know how to deal with me. I would have had to start from the beginning again even though I had been in the army for so long.

Where are you now?

I’m on active duty in the Kfir Brigade, one of five main infantry brigades in the IDF (Zahal) — the others being Golani, Paratroopers, Nahal and Givati. My day-to-day duties include operations in Judea and Samaria, including guarding checkpoints, making arrests, going on patrols, sleeping in the field and more. It’s very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but somebody has to do these things.

Soon I’m heading to Michve Alon, which is a base where I’ll be for about six months while I complete my high school education. Then I’m back on the line of duty.

Any advice for aspiring IDF (Zahal) soldiers?

If you want to be a soldier in the IDF (Zahal), there is nothing standing in your way. You can succeed. It doesn’t matter what you did in past or what happened to you before you will get drafted. You can do it.