Tucson teen preparing hard to volunteer in Israeli army

“If I didn’t have that experience, I wouldn’t feel like a complete Israeli,” says Shoham Ozeri, left, who has dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship and will serve in the Israeli army. Here, Ozeri applies mosaic pieces to a flowerpot at the Sonoran Glass Art Academy. (Photograph by RON MEDVESCEK/ARIZONA DAILY STAR)

Tucson teen preparing hard to volunteer in Israeli army

June 16, 2012 12:00 am  •  Cecelia Marshall For The Arizona Daily Star

Shoham Ozeri says she has been to every corner of Tucson.

It’s her home.

But that wasn’t always the case. Israel was once her home.

In 2002, when she was 8 years old, her Israeli father, Tidhar Ozeri, and American mother, Nancy Ozeri, moved the family of five back to her mom’s hometown of Tucson.

Now, at nearly 18, Ozeri is returning to her first country to volunteer in the Israeli army.

“I’m more of a hippie deep down than anything,” she says as she sits cross-legged, her Birkenstocks tucked underneath her, outside at her favorite Tucson cafe. But in preparation for her next move, she shaved off her dreadlocks and now sports a close-crop that looks military-ready.

The change may seem drastic, but it did not surprise those who know her best.

“When Shoham puts her mind to something, she is full steam ahead and nothing stands in her way,” her mother says.

Ozeri is one of about 350 people worldwide joining the Israeli army through Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a program developed by the Israel Defense Forces for Israelis who left the country as children. There are nine Tzofim Garin Tzabar groups throughout North America, each with about 30 members.

Ozeri’s decision to join the Israeli army is rare, says Orit Mizner, leader of Tzofim Garin Tzabar’s southwest chapter.

Propelled by a strong calling to Israel, the nation she identifies with the most, Ozeri graduated from Tucson High Magnet School a year early, in 2011.

Shoham Ozeri works with other teen volunteers at the Sonoran Glass Art Academy, mounting mosaic art to a garden fence. (Photograph by Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star)

She spent the past year working fulltime and volunteering in community organizations like Forever Wild Animal Rehabilitation and Sonoran Glass Art Academy.

It’s been rewarding, she says, but she’s ready to head out once she turns 18.

“I feel like I’m just chugging along until August,” she says.

Ozeri’s path to the Israeli army was set during her 10th-grade world history class. Bored one day, she mapped out the rest of her life on a piece of notebook paper. Since then, says her friend Cassidy Johnson, “It hasn’t been an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ ”

Once she shared her decision with her parents, they researched programs to find one that fit with her goals. They picked Tzofim Garin Tzabar, which has intense preparation and group support. After completing basic training, participants are treated like regular soldiers.

Ozeri is among 31 students in her Tzofim Garin Tzabar group. They’ve had five seminars to learn about the Israeli army’s rules, policies and procedures. From August to October the group will transition into the Israeli culture and continue their Hebrew classes. Members will live in a kibbutz, a communal settlement. After they’re assigned to an Israeli army base, they’ll return to the kibbutz on weekends.

Military service is mandatory for most Israeli youths, but not for dual U.S.-Israeli citizens, like Ozeri, who do not live in the country. Because she is volunteering, in exchange for her service she will get four years of study at an Israeli university rather than the customary one year.

The free education is a nice perk, but the real draw is doing something that is so much a part of life in her first country.

“That’s the reality of every Israeli. It’s the thing you do,” she says. “I’m doing it to feel like an Israeli. I know if I didn’t have that experience, I wouldn’t feel like a complete Israeli.”

Ozeri’s father agrees. “It’s a fundamental experience in Israeli society, and you can’t truly feel that way without having that experience,” says Tidhar Ozeri, an Israeli army veteran.

The army will require a lot physically, and Ozeri is working to get into shape this summer, including a backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon.

Not everyone has supported her plans. Some people have launched into political speeches and accused her of perpetuating war.

But having people challenge her decision has only reinforced it.

“I don’t believe in war and I don’t believe in fighting,” she says. “You’re not fighting for you, you’re fighting for your country.”

Coming Sunday

Shoham Ozeri’s father, Tidhar, brings metalwork to life.

Cecelia Marshall is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com or 573-4117.

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