As some of their peers prepare to head to college this fall, two Valley graduates have opted to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces.

Danny Wilder, a graduate of Phoenix Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva High School of Arizona, attended a Hesder yeshiva in Israel after his high school graduation in 2014. That year, seven of the school’s eight graduates opted to attend yeshiva in Israel after graduation. Wilder chose to attend a yeshiva that combines army service and Torah study, deferring his admission into the honors college at Arizona State University, where he was offered a full-tuition scholarship.idf-logo

After his first year in yeshiva, he returned to Phoenix for the summer and contemplated staying. However, since his nonrefundable airline ticket was already purchased, he decided he’d go for one more semester and return to Phoenix if things didn’t work out.

Within a week of returning to Israel, “he said, Mom, I want to make aliyah and I want to join the IDF,” said his mother, Lana Wilder of Phoenix. He had only been to Israel one time before he started yeshiva – to visit his older sister in seminary – and had never before expressed an interest in joining the military. “This was not on my radar at all,” his mom said.

He started the process of making aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh and joined the military through Machal (a program for overseas volunteers) and the Hesder program as a lone soldier. Lone soldiers are IDF soldiers who have no immediate family living in Israel. There are currently more than 6,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, according to The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an organization that is dedicated to helping the physical and social needs of lone soldiers.

Next he decided that he wanted to be a paratrooper so he began training for the tryouts. “When he decides he wants to do something, he does it,” said his mom. He started eating healthy and getting up around 4 a.m. to run and get conditioned, she said. “He put his mind to it and he did it. It was quite an experience. They really push them physically. ”

He was officially sworn in to the IDF in May and is scheduled to complete his paratrooper training in October. Through the Hesder program, he will have 19 months of active duty and then plans to attend college in Israel after his service.

“This is a kid who gave up a full scholarship to an honors college in the United States,” his mom said. “So this is someone who has really sacrificed.”

Wilder said that although she’s always paid close attention to Israel news – she lived there as a child, from age 9 to 15 – she’s much more sensitive to it now. “Every time things heat up, I start worrying,” she said. “He’s a legitimate target because he’s military. He’s not a civilian, he’s not a child. When people say they shouldn’t target non-combatants … he’s a combatant. He’s a combat soldier. He’s chosen to put his life at risk to protect Israel, to protect his people.” She said that although she’s worried about him getting hurt, “it’s far more likely that he’ll have to shoot somebody and I don’t want my son to have to live with that. … He’d be devastated.”

Her advice to other parents whose children make a similar choice, is to find support from others who understand; she’s joined Facebook groups for parents of lone soldiers. “I made so many friends and I feel like I know them. … They get it.”

Wilder would like to see support from the local Jewish community for the lone soldiers. (His Hebrew name is Daniel Yonatan ben Elana Yehudit if anyone wants to say a blessing or tehillim for him, she noted.)

“I think we as a Jewish community should have so much pride in our young people … that we’ve instilled in them this spirit and this pride that they’re able to step up and say, I need to do this for my people. I think it’s amazing.”

Sara Turner, another PHA graduate, graduated from Bioscience High School in Phoenix last year then headed to Israel to attend Midreshet Lindenbaum, a religious seminary for girls. She made aliyah and joined a program called Hadas, which is for religious Israeli girls who will serve in the military, as opposed to doing national service, which is what religious girls previously did, said her mom, Tzipi Turner of Phoenix. She was assigned to a mentor through the Lone Soldier Center to help her with the process.

Sara’s parents, who met through Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement, said the message they have tried to transmit to their children – Sara and her two younger twin brothers – was “that the IDF is the first Jewish army in 2,000 years, and that it is an honor and a privilege to serve in it.”

Her father, Ian Turner, served in the IDF as a young man and later as an older reservist.

The Turners made aliyah when Sara was 5 months old lived there until she was 6, when the family moved to Phoenix.

“She always felt a strong connection to Israel and always considered it her place,” Tzipi Turner said via email about her daughter, “so, it was not a surprise when Sara decided to return to Israel and serve.”

During a recent summer visit to Phoenix, Sara told Jewish News that she always knew she wanted to return to Israel, but the decision to join the military was fairly recent.

“It’s very scary, but interesting and different than what I thought it would be,” she said. Her advice to others who may be interested is: “It’s going to be frustrating and you’re going to have good days and bad days, but it’s an interesting experience.”

Says her mom, “All I can say is that I feel incredibly proud of her desire and commitment to move to Israel and join the IDF.”

This article first appeared in the Aug. 5, 2016 issue of Phoenix Jewish News