From students to soldiers: leaving Arizona to fight in Israel

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Israeli Soldiers at the top of Mount Herzl—the cemetery for the fallen soldiers of Israel. Photo by Leah Cresswell

Gahl Schuster was a sophomore at the University of Arizona when he packed his bags and moved 7,500 miles from home to fight for a country he also calls home.

“Every other hour I thought I needed to be in Israel,” said Schuster, who joined the Israeli Defense Force to fight alongside other American Jews who felt as equally connected to Israel as he did.

According to statistics from Nefesh B’Nefesh—an organization that provides people with the opportunity to make Aliyah (immigration to Israel)—there have been 40,000 Olim (new immigrants) from the U.S., UK and Canada since the group was founded in 2002.

UA sophomore Ryan Armendariz has a similar pull. She has no intention of quitting school, but is determined to move to Israel and become a citizen once she earns her political science and Spanish degrees.

“I officially decided I wanted to make Aliyah when I was there in July,” said the Nogales native, referring to the process of getting Israeli citizenship. “I went on Birthright in January and thought it was a great place to visit but not to live. When I went back in May, I completely fell in love with Israel. I went back again in July and was like, ‘I’m doing it’.”

Armendariz plans to return for a three-month internship next summer.

Schuster was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but spent his first 11 years in Israel. When he was 11, his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Scottsdale in 2003.

“Ever since, I knew I would come back one day,” he said in an email interview.

Schuster was in Israel over summer when a violent conflict arose between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic organization with a military wing. His family was relieved to learn that he was not fighting at the time and was not involved in the ground operation.

Gahl Shuster, in uniform, takes a picture with a view of Israel in the background. He has one year left in the arms and plans to finish his schooling in Israel once he completes his military service.   Photo Courtesty Gahl Shuster
Gahl Shuster, in uniform, takes a picture with a view of Israel in the background. He has one year left in the arms and plans to finish his schooling in Israel once he completes his military service. Photo Courtesty Gahl Shuster.

“It was hard for the whole family when the war broke out this summer,” said Schuster’s younger brother, Eden. “I was on a cross-country trip with a girl and about two weeks in, I called it off and flew home the next day because I was worried that my mom was having a hard time. I wanted to be close to the family in case something happened.”

Daniel Schuster, the youngest of the three brothers, said that he had a “Red Alert” application on his cellphone that would signal every time a rocket was fired into Israel over the summer. The family would call or text Schuster every time a siren was near.

“It was very surreal spending a summer under fire in Israel,” Schuster said from Israel in an email interview. “People around me were scared. Thousands of rockets were fired into Israel. But the love of life that I find unique to this people, the Israelis, could not be dissipated.”

Schuster lives in Tel Aviv and said that people during the attacks went about their ordinary daily lives. The beaches were packed as usual; the city was buzzing.

Schuster said that the fighting did alter people’s travel decisions. No one dared drive down to the south for fear of rockets flying. During the conflict over the summer, businesses in the south collapsed and the agriculture was devastated because farmers feared tending the land.

Everyone throughout Israel had to ensure that they were within 10-15 seconds from shelter at all times.

“One cannot live a normal life in such conditions,” Schuster said.

Eden Schuster said last summer was especially difficult when people he thought were his friends bashed Israel and its part in the conflict while knowing his brother was fighting there.

“I constantly had to deal with people talking (expletive) about Israel and I got in many debates with former friends about it,” the younger Schuster said.

Eden Schuster launched a Facebook campaign to defend Israel’s right to defend itself that garnered mixed and passionate reactions.

“Some people told me that they checked my page every day for the news during the conflict, which is great, but really I was just feeling guilty that I wasn’t there alongside Gahl to defend what I believe in,” he said.

Armendariz, a former cheerleader, said her decision to make Aliyah would require her to spend up to two years in the Israeli military.

Ryan poses for a picture before a parade in her Nogales High School cheerleading uniform. Photo by RC Paez
Ryan Armendariz poses for a picture before a parade in her Nogales High School cheerleading uniform. Photo by RC Paez.

“I would be joining an army that is constantly on alert and fighting. It is a little intimidating, but it is not like it will drive me away,” she said.

Armendariz, whose grandparents are the only members of her family who have been to Israel, was there during the ground operation over the summer. She remembers hearing sirens and explosions; she said she was always on the lookout for the closest shelter and had her glasses and shoes nearby when she went to bed in case of rocket fire during the night.

“I was just like … ‘I’m in a war right now.’ It was so scary,” said Armendariz, 19. “I really don’t know how to explain it.

“When I landed in July, there was a dark cloud over Israel, in a way,” she added. “But I was so happy to be there. After realizing how happy I was despite everything, I knew that it was the place I wanted to be.”

Armendariz’s family is mostly on board with her choice to move to Israel.

“My dad thinks I’m being dumb, but my mom is totally supportive. She just wants to be sure that I am not missing out on any opportunities here if I go,” she said. “My grandparents even said that they might make Aliyah with me if the timing is right.”

The only kink to Armendariz’s plans would be if she is accepted into a master’s program, she said.

Schuster said no one in his family was on board with his decision.

“We were all very worried about him and wanted him to continue with his studies and get a degree first,” Eden said. “However, once he made his definitive decision to go, everyone was very supportive and proud of him.”

“I have chosen to leave everything I know, everyone I know and the life I once had to move to Israel,” Schuster said in the email interview. “Many call me crazy, here as well as in the U.S. They may be right, but my love for this country outgrows every other. My family was the toughest part about leaving.”            

Eden Schuster, a junior at Arizona State University, and Daniel Schuster, a high school senior, both said they plan to follow their brother’s lead and move to Israel to join the military.  

Armendariz said Israel is home for her.

“It might sound cliché, but that’s the truth. It’s a place where I’m happy, where I’m comfortable,” she said. “It’s the place I want to be. It’s home.”

Leah Cresswell is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona. Reach her at leahcresswell@email.arizona.edu

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