Shira Siegel fell in love with Israel during her first visit there at the age of 15. “Since my first time visiting Israel, I have had this enormous love and just wanting to give back – feeling a responsibility to do as much as I can and give the most I can of myself,” she says.
Her “wanting to give back” resulted in her drafting into the Israel Defense Forces at the age of 19. She is currently halfway through her 2 years and 8 months of service.
Shira is in a program called Garin Tzabar that helps lone soldiers and facilitates their integration into an Israeli community. This includes living on a kibbutz for at least one year. She lives on Kibbutz Sa’ad located near Sderot.
She spent the first three months learning the language and then drafted into the combat search and rescue unit since she didn’t come into the IDF knowing Hebrew.
“I wanted to give as much of myself as I could, but I also wanted something that fits who I am best. Not just combat,” says Shira. “We specialize in search and rescue – we are not part of the regular combat units – we are part of the home front command, so we have a different specialty.”
If there is a rocket attack or a natural disaster, the search and rescue unit responds. Everyone in the group has been trained in using specialized machinery that can lift giant slabs of concrete or metal out of the way during a rescue. They also build their own destructions sites and hide dummies for retrieval underneath rubble to further hone their skills.
When they are not responding to emergencies, the unit guards the border, “Just like everyone else,” says Shira. “It’s not just combat, it’s helping people, and there is that humanitarian aspect to it – which really drew me to it.”
Her unit also performed various humanitarian support at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel. They packaged food and delivered it to those who were unable to leave home, and they also went into hospitals and other places infected with the virus and sanitized the areas.
As restrictions are starting to lift and Israel is opening up, she hopes that she will be able to visit her family this winter. Shira says that she is grateful for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces who helped pay for her flight home to surprise her parents before the virus hit.
FIDF staff in Israel has also distributed snack and sweet packages, hygiene kits, yoga mats, gym equipment, and more to the lone soldiers, and it is working closely with the IDF to support the soldiers’ increasing well-being needs as the situation progresses.
“I try to talk to my parents every other day if not every day over the phone or WhatsApp,” says Shira. “It’s hard for them because I’m really far away, but they know it’s meaningful and that I’m doing a good thing, and it’s what I want, and they are happy.”
She has three brothers – two older and one younger – who all live in Arizona and have no desire to be lone soldiers. “They think I’m a little crazy,” she jokes.
Shira feels that being in the IDF has taught her so much, and she has grown as a person. She currently holds the rank as sergeant.
“I feel like it’s pushed me to my limits, and it’s taught me when things get tough to remember your values and your reasons why you’re here,” says Shira. “I’ve learned how not to give up if something is important to me – to go all the way through with it. I was surprised to see how far I could go.”
She was also surprised at how she has become “more Israeli.” She was told about the cultural differences before she arrived in Israel and about how Israelis are not afraid to speak their mind.
“I feel like being around them so much has taught me to do that – how to speak my mind,” she says. “How to stand up for myself and how to be tougher.”