By Michelle SchneiderSeptember 18, 2019
The U.S. Military Academy had the honor and privilege of hosting nine Israeli Defense Forces officers during their first visit to North America Monday with Taglit-Birthright Israel. The visit was facilitated by the United Church of Christ Chaplains at West Point.
Taglit is the Hebrew word for discovery, and it was a day of many new experiences for the IDF officers. Cadets from West Point have visited Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel's program, but it was the first time in the nonprofit's history IDF officers have visited North America in what they call a reverse-encounter.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is an international nonprofit that started in 1999 and hosts Jewish students from all throughout the world. The goal of the organization is to immerse people into the Israeli culture and way of life while building friendships.
Orifa Bino, the director of Mifgashim, the Hebrew word for Encounter, helped oversee the events that took place during the IDF officers' 10-day tour in the United States. The purpose of their visit to West Point was to engage in learning opportunities and build cross-cultural relationships.
"They are learning about America not only from the Jewish perspective, but all perspectives," Bino said. "I want them to learn and to know their similarities to Americans and to know the other Army's ways through listening to the cadets."
Several representatives from Taglit-Birthright Israel, West Point personnel, Jewish cadets and the IDF officers met in the morning and learned about the history of the academy as they walked around campus.
They eventually regrouped at a foreign language classroom in Washington Hall where a map of Israel was projected onto a screen.
The IDF officers introduced themselves and pointed to the areas they are from. They shared their names, ranks and background and some cadets practiced their Hebrew by doing the same.
As the day progressed, the IDF officers had the unexpected opportunity to learn about the United States Army during Branch Week, a time of year when representatives from different career fields set up static displays to help cadets determine their future Army careers at Diagonal Walk on The Plain.
"It's serendipity that they have those booths and different tents because they show all of the different parts of the military," Taglit-Birthright Program manager of North America Andrew Kasdan said. "Each of those static displays spoke to people based upon commonality, whether it was intelligence, paratroopers or something else."
The heart of the IDF officers' reverse-encounter trip was to strengthen the bonds between Israel and the United States by developing friendships with Jewish cadets at West Point. Class of 2021 Cadet Max Weisman is a member of the Jewish choir, chapel and a participant of Taglit-Birthright Israel in 2016.
"It was an incredible experience to see their culture, how their military works and all the things that make us alike and different, but at the end of the day it's really cool to see how similar we all are," Weisman said. "Today, they can do the same and see how we operate. We are great allies with Israel and work with them, and we will probably continue to work with them for a long period of time."
After touring Branch Week, the Israeli officers and West Point cadets were led by Chaplain David Ruderman to the West Point Cemetery where they viewed Col. David "Mickey" Marcus's grave.
He was an American Jew and West Point graduate widely credited for helping Israel gain independence during the Arab-Israel War of 1948. They visited his grave to honor his contribution, dedication and sense of volunteerism.
The day ended at the grave of Col. Marcus where IDF officers saluted his tombstone before parting ways with the cadets to continue their journey of discovery in North America.
"I want to see the budding of individual personal relationships and for our cadets and visitors to share some mutual understandings about military service," Ruderman said. "Our countries and militaries share many values, so it makes sense for us to get together and build these relationships."