Suburban teens' journey from Buffalo Grove to the Israeli army
While most of their former classmates are adapting to life on leafy college campuses, two recent Stevenson High School graduates from Buffalo Grove are in Israel preparing for a minimum two-year commitment to the Israeli armed forces.
Arielle Shemesh, 18, and Mai Sraibman, 17, joined 73 fellow "lone soldiers," as well as numerous civilians and children, on a flight of immigrants to Israel last month coordinated by the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization.
Since 2002, the agency has facilitated the immigration of more than 50,000 citizens of the U.S., Canada and the U.K. to Israel.
Arielle and Mai, though born in Israel, are called lone soldiers because they're leaving their families behind in other countries during their service in the Israel Defense Forces.
Apart from a few brief visits, Arielle hasn't lived in Israel since she was 4. She will spend the next few months learning the culture and improving her Hebrew before officially joining the defense forces.
Though she expected to feel out of place at first in Israel, Arielle said she was surprised by how quickly she found herself feeling at home on the kibbutz where she's living and working before transferring to military training in November. The communal settlement sits about 12 miles north of Beersheba, a city in southern Israel
"There really is a lot to do, and personally, I love it," Arielle said.
She harbored the idea of immigrating to Israel to serve in the defense forces for years through discussions with her father, Jackie, who served in the defense forces after growing up in Israel.
Arielle said that while there are many Jewish people in Buffalo Grove and Lincolnshire, most residents of the suburbs are oblivious to the challenges facing Israel and the need it has for assistance in its defense.
Mai moved from Israel to Buffalo Grove at age 12. She is following in the footsteps of her older brother, who is nearly finished with his three-year commitment to the defense forces.
Though she, too, has some cultural learning to do over the next few months, landing in Israel last month felt like a homecoming.
"It feels just like I left it," she said.
Jackie Shemesh said he feels some sympathy for the his daughter and Mai, saying their initial experiences might feel something like life on another planet. But the experience of taking on such great responsibility at their young ages rather than going straight to college is going to shape their lives in profound ways, he said.
Such a commitment is the universal experience of young people in Israel, for whom mandatory military service precedes higher education. In his case, Jackie said, his service gave him more confidence to handle the challenges of young adulthood.
Arielle thinks she'll return to the U.S. for college -- most likely at the University of Arizona, which other family members have attended.
Mai, on the other hand, said she'll more likely remain in Israel for college, even though her family still lives in Buffalo Grove.
Yael Katsman, director of communications for Nefesh B'Nefesh, said about 90 percent of those who've immigrated to Israel through the program over the past 14 years have stayed.
The same flight that brought Arielle, Mai and the rest of the lone soldiers also brought 158 civilian immigrants. Among them were 24 families, including 78 children, and 10 medical professionals. Ages ranged from 3 weeks to 85 years old.
Katsman described it as modern day Zionism.
"What's amazing about Israel is that it's built by immigrants," she said.
Organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh help ensure that the nation's tradition as a melting pot continues, she added.