“Everyone wondered where I came from,” explains Pvt. Menusa Ben Israel, an IDF soldier from the African Israelite Hebrew community in Dimona. “They thought I was born outside of Israel, but I was born in this country and grew up here.”
Pvt. Menusa Ben Israel always knew she would join the IDF at age 18. Like most soldiers, she missed being away from home during basic training, and she gradually adjusted to life in the Israeli military. About four months ago, she enlisted in the army. Today she serves as a military police officer in southern Israel.
Basic training in the IDF exposes new recruits to the diversity of Israeli society. For Menusa, the experience was like discovering a completely different world. “I grew up in the African Israelite Hebrew community of Dimona,” she explains. “Until grade 12, I went to the community high school with the same friends, and the only people I knew were from home.”
During her first week in the army, Menusa kept mostly to herself. She remained quiet and alone, and her fellow recruits assumed that her upbringing was similar to theirs. When she began to talk, the soldiers were surprised by her accented speech. Occasionally, she would use words in English instead of Hebrew, which is not her native language.
“Everyone wondered where I came from,” she recalls. “I explained that I’m a member of the African Israelite Hebrew community. They thought I was born outside of Israel, but I was born in the country and grew up here.”
One of Menusa’s brothers recently finished his IDF service, and another serves as a combat soldier in the IDF’s Golani Brigade. Her father, Ben Ami Ben Israel, serves as the leader of her community in southern Israel. The cultural group was founded in Chicago, and in the 1960s, its members immigrated to Israel and settled in the city of Dimona.
Until today, the community celebrates its journey to Israel as a defining moment in its history. “We celebrate both Jewish holidays and community holidays,” Menusa explains of the group’s traditions. “We observe Passover in our own kind of way by marking our ‘exodus’ from the United States. For us, the holiday represents our own journey to Israel.”
Joining the IDF
Menusa’s father encourages the children in her community to join the IDF, and Menusa was no exception. “At home, [my parents] always wanted me to enlist, even though it was difficult for them to see their daughter go so far away from home,” she says. “My father contributes to the country, and he wants to see us to do our part like he does. He wants us to integrate in Israeli society and meet people who are different.”
Menusa says that her background has helped her adapt to certain aspects of military life. “In our community, honor is very important,” she explains. “That’s the reason that I never react or get angry, even when a commander upsets me. At home, I was taught to control myself. My father says that we need to listen and obey all of the army’s rules, because we are all serving the country.”
The military, she explains, has contributed significantly to her personal growth. “My Hebrew has really improved,” she says. “Thanks to the army, I’ve begun to open up and start speaking with people. Now I can’t stop talking,” she says with a laugh.
At first, Menusa was anxious about joining the Israeli Military Police, but she has no regrets about her decision. She wants to serve eventually as a civilian police officer, and she says her path in the IDF has only just begun. “I want to start the IDF’s course for sergeants and then enter officers’ course. Later on, I want to serve as an IDF officer.”