By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
Two weeks after Kayla Mogil arrived in Israel to volunteer with the Israel Defense Force, she experienced her first major challenge.
She got lost in Tel Aviv. And her cell phone service got cut off, because she didn’t realize she needed twice the money in her account to pay the bill. She ended up being three hours late to her first lone soldiers meeting.
“Who could take me seriously with the IDF if I can’t even figure out the bus system?” she asked in the first post to her blog.
Kayla, who is almost 19, graduated from Mercer Island High School in 2013. Instead of shipping off to college, last October she joined Mahal, a Hebrew acronym for foreign volunteers doing Israeli army service.
Kayla is not the only local teen to push off college for this path. Nathan Luper, a graduate of Issaquah High School, joined Mahal last fall. Both serve in combat units — Kayla in search and rescue, and Nathan in anti-terrorism.
Why would two kids from Washington pick up and join the IDF — in combat, no less?
For Kayla, it might go back to middle school, when she did a school project on her grandfather, a World War II veteran. It was then, her mother recalls, that Kayla began looking to the military as a future. As a high school freshman, she worked out with Marines a few times a week.
“The whole time my husband and I were a nervous wreck,” said Denise Brown-Mogil, Kayla’s mother. “As a young woman, she has other opportunities.”
Kayla’s interest in the military collided with an unlikely force: Hebrew school. She began attending Hebrew High at the Stroum Jewish Community Center during her sophomore year, which led her to the high school youth group NCSY. Without alerting her parents, she got a job at Outback Steakhouse and saved enough money to go on an Israel trip. Soon Kayla began to set her sights on the IDF. And she wouldn’t settle for anything less than combat.
“I did everything I could to change her mind,” said Denise. “We visited colleges. She’d say, ‘That college is nice, but I’ll go to college when I’m done with the IDF.’”
Denise found out through Facebook that her daughter had registered for Mahal.
“She was going to be 18, and there wasn’t much we could do about it at that point except support her, which we did,” she said.
Brenda Luper, Nathan’s mom, traces her son’s interest back to his Bar Mitzvah trip in Israel, an emotional time following her mother’s sudden passing from pancreatic cancer. Fast-forward to his junior year of high school, when Nathan attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel for eight weeks.
“Nathan is an engineer at heart,” his mother said. “He said, ‘I want to go to Israel and I want to work on the Iron Dome,” Israel’s defense system against rockets.
“Probably half way through his senior year, we said, ‘What are you going to do after high school, kiddo? He wasn’t ready for college. He said, ‘I think I want to join the Israeli army.’ We said, ‘Okay, how?’”
After talking with Kayla, whom he worked with at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, Nathan had made up his mind to join the IDF, too.
Both are thriving. At her swearing-in ceremony, Kayla’s commander honored her out of the entire battalion as the best soldier — an enormous honor, both in spite of and due to her struggle to pick up Hebrew. Nathan is still in training, and according to his mother he met another lone soldier, and they have been dating for the past nine months.
It didn’t occur to anyone, however, that they would be serving in a war, one that has claimed three lone soldiers’ lives.
“I am so proud of my son, and [my husband] Steve feels the same, for the really brave and committed choice this 18-year-old made last year,” Brenda said. “But I worry about him every day. Even before [the war] when your children aren’t near you and you can’t make sure they’re safe, as a parent you worry. Any overprotective Jewish mom will tell you the same. I am an ‘O.P.J.M.’ and I have the t-shirt to prove it.”
“Thank God for social media and texts,” said Denise, Kayla’s mom. “I live for her texts and her phone calls. I can’t imagine what people did a long time ago without that connection.”
The Mogil family recently visited Kayla in Israel, where they experienced firsthand the sirens and 15-second bolt to the bomb shelter.
“Before all of this happened I really didn’t pay attention to everything going on there like I do now,” Denise said. “Because of this experience I’m changed forever.”
“I would almost call it a new level of relationship with your child,” said Brenda. “Sometimes when they’re here…you still have the same day-to-day fights. You don’t appreciate what an amazing human being they are and they’ve become.”