Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Yoel Berkowitz, 21, knew from a very young age that he will spend his life in the ultra-Orthodox community of the Satmar Hasidic dynasty in Brooklyn, like the rest of his family members. But a visit to Israel with his friends changed the course of his life completely.
"What started as an innocent visit to Israel, the country I was taught not to love, turned into a love story that hasn't stopped to this day," Berkowitz says.
Yoel was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, in a closed Satmar community, where he was raised to believe the State of Israel and the Zionist Movement are the root of all evil and the leading cause of the trouble that has befallen the Jewish people over the last century.
Six years ago, however, Berkowitz's views completely changed after a visit to Israel.
He decided to take off his shtreimel (fur hat worn by Hassidic Jews), make aliyah to Israel and join a combat unit in the IDF.
"My parents are very angry with me, to this day. It's hard for them to comprehend the move I made. My entire life I was raised to believe Israel is something bad," he says. "It's only when I got here that I discovered how far their truth was from reality on the ground: I discovered a beautiful country with great people, that is fighting for its life every day in the Middle East."
Yoel was excommunicated from his community but keeps in contact with his family, despite their anger.
He made aliyah with the Friends of Israel Scouts' Garin Tzabar program, which facilitates service in the IDF for children of Israelis and Diaspora Jews not living in Israel.
Berkowitz is currently living in the Kvutzat Yavne religious kibbutz, where he's preparing for upcoming tryouts to elite combat units in the IDF. His biggest aspiration is to be accepted to the Duvdevan Unit. He will be enlisting with the IDF in March.
When asked why he came to Israel, Yoel speaks with Zionist fervor, as if he was never a part of the Satmar community. "This is the only country of the Jewish people, and it's very important we protect our home at any cost. All Jews must stand together and remember that if, heavens forbid, something grave happens to Israel - no state will stand by its side. The responsibility for our own fate is solely in our hands."
While Berkowitz renounced Satmar, he remains religious. He continues laying phylacteries and praying every day, and keeps Shabbat and kosher. He did, however, change his black Hassidic suit to a T-shirt, jeans and a crocheted kippah.
"I want to build my home and raise my children here," he says. "The Israelis are much more warm and lovely than the Americans. There's unity you can't find elsewhere in this intensity. I hope that thanks to this unity, I'll be able to find a wife here so I could build a loyal home in Israel."
Israel Scouts Global Division Executive Director, Gary Vitkin, says that "The Friends of Israel Scouts' Garin Tzabar program was created exactly for recruits with a sense of mission and a goal like Yoel, who choose to leave their lives in their home countries to make aliyah to Israel and to serve a meaningful service in the IDF. Yoel is a part of a family of 400 young Jews from across the world who immigrated to Israel only over last year that we closely accompany so they could feel the Israeli embrace, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, while they're in Israel."
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