Life & Culture

Why I joined the IDF at 65

Michelle Huberman joined an IDF volunteer programme much later than the average olah


I grew up in a family that felt enormous gratitude for the State of Israel and its defence forces. So enormous that I would dream about joining the IDF myself one day.

But although my sisters both spent long periods in Israel in the 1970s, I never did.

Instead, I got married at the age of 19, and after we divorced three years later, I moved to Paris and became someone who went to Israel for my holidays. Holidays for which I saved hard so I could stay in lovely hotels and buy Michal Negrin jewellery.

Ten years ago, when I was 55, I heard about the IDF’s volunteer programme Sar-El. Participants release soldiers from the menial tasks of army life such as checking medical kits and packing rucksacks so they have more time for the tougher military gigs.

The programme sounded ideal, not least because there is no age limit. All that was required was fitness.

But great as it sounded it would be another decade before I actually applied for a place on the programme. By which time I was 65.

When I got my acceptance letter earlier this year, it came with a list of rules: no discussion of politics or religion on the military base and no photographs to be taken of specific parts of the base.

There was also a list of to dos. Do bring strong comfortable shoes, mosquito repellent, below-the-knee trousers (above the knee is prohibited in the IDF) and white vests to wear under your uniform. Uniform!

After all these years, I would finally don an IDF uniform. Private Huberman, here we come.

My friends weren’t so sure. What would the army make of my turquoise hair, glittery nails and funky glasses? Would I be marched off base the moment I turned up?

I was not. The only thing for which I got into trouble at Mishmar Hanegav base in the Negev, where I spent five days in April, was my white vests. Turns out the IDF meant T-shirts. Lost in translation etc. No matter. I was quickly issued with Sar-El printed T-shirts.

There were around 40 volunteers on this year’s programme, but only nine of us were stationed at my base. The others were sent to a medical supply base in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

In my women’s group, there was Felice Nagelberg from America, our British coordinator Leigh Humpage and retired teacher Judy Bahar, 79, from Australia (I will get back to her.)

The guys in the neighbouring dormitory were a mix of Americans, one of them originally from Russia, and a Brazilian chap. Their showers were down the corridor but ours were on the floor below.

It was a bit of a pain if you needed a nocturnal wee and I’m sure I can’t have been the only woman from my dorm who sneaked into the mens’ loos at 3am.

Four and a half hours later we were dressed in our IDF uniforms and en route to the camp restaurant for breakfast.

After that, it was back to our block for the daily flag-raising. During the ceremony, the Hatikvah was played. I felt a lump in my throat every time.

And then it was time to go to the warehouse where it was our job to check the contents of endless dusty duffle bags packed with emergency supplies that had been in storage for two years. Each one weighs around 20 kilos.

We also had to clean the shelves where they had been sitting and gathering dust. It wasn’t the nicest of jobs to do in the blinding heat, but we were there to help the IDF so no one complained.

After that, it was lunchtime followed by another stint in the warehouse.

After dinner we’d swap our uniforms for civilian clothes and get to know each other and the programme a little better.

This included learning about the founder of Sar-El, one Aharon Davidi, and Israel’s Lone Soldier programme, which supports some 7,000 young men and women in the IDF who have no immediate family in the Jewish state on whom they can rely. About half come from Israel, and are, in many cases , orphans or from broken homes.

But they also number strictly Orthodox soldiers whose families forbid them from doing military service.

I was also touched to see special needs soldiers on base, their carers in tow. That’s IDF inclusivity for you.

Yom Hashoah took place during my IDF stint, and the evening before, my dorm mate Judy shared that when she was a baby she had been in Strasshoff and Floridsdorf concentration camps, near Vienna.

Her mother also survived the Shoah and after the war they moved to Israel, followed by their native Hungary and then, in 1957, to Australia.

Her father was sent to a labour camp when Judy was five months old. His family never saw him again.

It was a reminder, if one were needed, of why at the age of 65, I was volunteering for the IDF -- and why I will be again.

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