Josh Tresser, nineteen, of Cleveland, Ohio, had plans to graduate public high school, go off to college in Colorado and snowboard to his heart’s delight. Becoming a Torah-observant Jew and a soldier in the Israeli army was definitely not on his itinerary. As the saying goes, God laughed.
Josh’s life dramatically changed direction at the end of his junior year of high school. While working at a sports event, he bumped into a long-lost childhood friend, Raphael (Raffi) Glickman, who was participating in the game with a group of NCSYers. Josh hit it off with the friendly assemblage, who convinced him to come to the next Shabbaton. He went, loved it and signed up for NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), a program which took him to Israel for the summer. He came back home with the resolve to return to Israel to learn in a yeshivah for a year and then sign up for the IDF.
“It was the best summer of my life,” he says. “It gave me a greater appreciation for Judaism. And when I saw the soldiers, I knew I wanted to help fight for and protect my country.” That fall, he returned to public school wearing a kippah.
Josh’s parents supported their son as he took each new step on his Jewish journey. “When I told my mother that I was going to join the Israeli army, she was nervous,” says Josh. “My Dad figured it out by himself [that I was interested in joining]. He said, ‘Listen, if you are thinking about joining the army, I’m totally supportive of it and think it’s a great decision.’ I was so surprised and happy.”
After a year of learning at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, Josh enlisted in the IDF through the Nahal Haredi track. Initially, things didn’t run as smoothly as anticipated. “I went into the army not knowing a word of Hebrew,” he says.
“The three months of basic training were difficult; it’s hard enough on soldiers who speak the language. It didn’t matter what you did; you were always doing it wrong and had to pay the consequences, like doing scores of pushups for coming one minute late, when they set it up so that it was inevitable you’d come late. I wouldn’t want to go through that again.” He now appreciates the method behind the seeming madness. “Out of stressful situations people either shine or they don’t,” he says.
Apparently, this soldier shined. By the end of basic training, he felt he was in the right place. “I love it here,” he says. “Everyone is religious in the unit, so you don’t feel weird putting on tefillin; there are a lot of good chavrutot. I’ve maintained my Yiddishkeit, whereas in other units, my Yiddishkeit would have suffered.”
“I joined the army hoping to mature, to fend for myself and gain life experience,” says Josh. “I hope to become a better person from this. You grow more by giving than by taking. By giving to my country and to the Jewish people, I am forming a bond that I’ll have for the rest of my life. It’s a powerful experience; I don’t think anything else will compare.” He plans to make aliyah one day.
When Rabbi Betzalel (“Tzali”) Freedman, Central East NCSY regional director, brought a group of NCSYers to Israel recently, Josh grabbed the chance to join them at a Shabbaton. “I owe my life to NCSY,” he says. “I don’t know where I’d be without it—probably in Colorado going to a secular college.” He plans to attend Yeshiva University when he returns to the US after he completes his army service this fall.
“Here was a goodhearted Jewish kid who had a limited Jewish education, lost in a sea of secularism,” says Rabbi Freedman. “All it took was a kiddushHashem by a group of NCSYers, and he was ready to soar.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.