By Carrie Ann Salvi
It’s not unusual for a high school senior to join the army, but when Zoe Vatash announced that she would be joining the Israeli Defense Forces at Pierson High School’s awards ceremony this year, “you could hear the pride in the room,” said Leah Oppenheimer, the director of the Hebrew school at Temple Adas Israel. “She was representing us.”
“She is alive to what Israel means, and she always has been,” Ms. Oppenheimer said. Ms. Vatash attended the Hebrew school since she was 5 years old, and she, her mother and aunt have taught Hebrew, so members of the community can read scripture and say their prayers in Hebrew.
Ms. Vatash’s language skills will now be perfected and used to serve the country she loves. “I love America and I loved growing up here,” she said on Sunday before heading off to her summer job at the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton, “but I’ve never felt the patriotism that I feel toward Israel.”
It’s kind of like a second home to me,” she said, “I’ve been there a lot. My grandparents, and most of my uncles, aunts, and cousins are there.”
Ms. Vatash said she came to her decision about a year and a half ago when she and her friends were all thinking about where they wanted to attend college. Her parents and siblings grew up there, she said. “When you grow up in Israel, the thing that you do after high school is go to the army—girls for two years, boys for three.”
“I just felt like I really do believe in Israel, the country itself, and it fights so hard to be here every single day,” she said. “I felt that the least I can do as someone who has family there and has a deep connection to it is to give up two years.”
Her mom was surprised, she said, but proud, and her father, who owns the East End Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Riverhead, asked her to apply to colleges in case she changed her mind. She applied to five colleges, but half way through the process she told her guidance counselor, Margaret Motto, that she had made up her mind.
Ms. Vatash said she thought she was the first Sag Harbor student to join the Israeli army, and said that Ms. Motto helped her in any way she could. “The plan is to come back here for school, so we’ll see what happens,” she said.
Ms. Vatash said her friends were a little confused at first, and a little scared, but they are supportive and happy for her now. “I keep telling them to visit,” she said, “but it’s an expensive plane ticket.” Because she is an American, she said that the army would pay for her flight home and a month off once each year.
“I think we we’re all kind of blown away, said Eileen J. Moskowitz, the administrator of Temple Adas Israel who was also Ms. Vatash’s third grade teacher.
“She’s not just serving in the army, she is making Aliya, which means she is formally emigrating, she explained. “She’s not just serving as an experience, she is making a total and complete commitment to being a citizen in the State of Israel.”
Ms. Vatash will leave in August, and will take three months to get used to the culture, work on her fitness, and practice Israeli Hebrew. On the hottest day yet this summer, she said “this is nothing compared to the heat in Israel.”
“I’m not totally by myself,” she said. She will travel and live with a group of other young Americans. The group currently chats virtually via WhatsApp, and has met in person, too.
“I’ll be living in a kibbutz,” she said, painting a picture of an agriculturally based, leaderless community. “Everyone works together, they make decisions and eat together, and go to school together,” she said.
“She went to Israel with a group of kids and I think she found part of her soul,” Ms. Oppenheimer said. Having taken a similar trip, she said that Ms. Vatash’s climb to the top of Masada, one of the last holdouts before the Romans conquered the Jews and enslaved them, is a powerful experience. “You can still see the outline of the Roman encampments down below, “ Ms. Oppenheimer said.
“Jews have been persecuted for 2,000 years, Ms. Oppenheimer explained, “To be a Jew, free, in our own state on the mountain of Masada, is an amazing thing.” “A great deal of Israeli families went through the Holocaust,” she added, “a good portion of the country are survivors. That is another reason that a return to our homeland is so important.”
Ms. Vatash photographed her experiences in Israel, and some of her work is on display at Temple Adas Israel, with a silent auction planned by Ms. Oppenheimer to raise money for the kibbutz Ms. Vatash will stay at scheduled for Thursday, July 30, from 4 to 6 p.m. Her framed photographs include one of the moment when she reached the top of Masada just after sunrise.
Photojournalism is the subject she would study in college, Ms. Vatash said, and she has a preference for portraits and candid captures.
“She’s young and talented and beautiful and we’re losing someone who is very precious to us in our community,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “I’ve seen her grow up and she is a lovely, lovely woman,” she said, “I want to support her dream.”
“I’m hoping I will get some good shots out of it,” Ms. Vatash said with a smile. She is in the process of setting up a website to share her experiences, and to stay in touch with those who care about her.