The Schacker sisters were on a family trip to Israel in December 2014 when their life paths literally sent them in different directions.
Sheli, who was on her way to begin serving a two-year stint in the Israel Defense Forces, went to the entry lane for Israeli citizens at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Maya, who had been forced to renounce her Israeli citizenship when she became a U.S. Navy officer, was shunted to the line for foreigners.
Two flags, two uniforms. One very unusual set of sisters.
“I think we right away realized it would be much cooler if we joined two different militaries,” Maya said, “because there are plenty of siblings in the same military.”
The sisters, who grew up in Piedmont and celebrated their bat mitzvahs at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, say their decisions about which country to serve were based on personal preference.
Maya, 24, had always envisioned serving in the IDF — just as her mother, Adi, had — but decided during her senior year of high school that she wanted to go straight to college. She enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Loyola University in New Orleans, which led to her Navy commission.
She also knew that military life in the Middle East was not for her.
“I don’t think of it as picking one country over the other,” she said. “I don’t think [the IDF] would have been a good fit for me. I don’t think I could sleep in a tent and have donkeys surrounding me. I like taking a shower every day.
“I really don’t want to admit this, but I think Sheli had it much tougher than I did. I am so pampered, I don’t sleep in the desert or anything,” said Maya, who spoke by video conference from San Diego.
Sheli, 23, tried college for a few months and realized the time was not right. She had done a gap year in Israel, working at a special-needs school and in an afterschool program in Akko, and decided to go back to Israel to do her military service. She was a mashakit tash, or social worker, in her IDF unit for two years. Now that her commitment is done, she’s thinking of going back to school.
“I don’t really see it as we both joined the military, I see it as we both decided to do things that were more meaningful to us and it just happened to be the military,” she said. “l don’t really see what I did as a patriotic act. I see it as an experience, and it just so happened to be in the military.”
Their parents, Adi and Curt, were surprised when Maya decided to join the U.S. military instead of the IDF. But both said they tried hard not to influence either of them (they also have two younger daughters, 18-year-old Anna and 16-year-old Roni).
“I think what I felt really good about is they both felt empowered and free to take their own path, they each did something quite different, and yet they followed their heart,” said Curt, a software company executive. “My greatest ambition for my children is that they do what they want with their lives.”
For Adi, a Hebrew teacher who grew up on Kibbutz Magal in northern Israel, it was hard to stay silent — especially when U.S. military rules prohibited Maya from maintaining dual citizenship.
“When Maya had to give up her citizenship, that was hard for me — I left Israel and then I had to tell my parents and my family that Maya was giving up her citizenship,” Adi said. “But they were great about it, and I don’t think they are more proud of Sheli for serving in the IDF than Maya serving in the U.S. military.”
Adi and Curt met at a Tel Aviv fish restaurant in 1988. He was in Israel on a business trip, and she was his waitress. The family makes one or two trips a year to Israel and spent the 2012-13 school year there. They have brought up their four daughters as many American-Israeli families do — Adi speaks Hebrew to the kids and Curt speaks English — so language was not a limiting factor when Maya and Sheli decided which military to enter.
When the sisters compare their military lifestyles, Maya envies her sibling’s hairstyle — U.S. regulations require a tight bun, while the IDF allows a side braid. (“It’s so uncomfortable,” Maya says of the bun, “it gives me headaches.”) Sheli is jealous of Maya’s shoes (“we get all the old U.S. stuff,” Sheli says) and complained that her gun, an M-16, was a leftover from the Vietnam War.
For now, Sheli says, IDF soldiers have less time to focus on their uniforms and hairstyles than their U.S. counterparts.
“People are more focused on the chaos on the West Bank than wearing your hair in a tight ponytail,” she explained. “Israel has to deal with more real things on a daily basis.”
For Maya, whose military commitment is another 2½ years, the most important thing is that the two countries are allies.
“We’re all lucky that Israel and the U.S. have such a good relationship. We’re not enemies, so supporting one means I can still support the other,” she said. “Sheli serving in Israel still supports the United States. We’re supporting the same cause of trying to pursue peace.”
Curt, whose father was a U.S. Air Force pilot, went to the Coast Guard Academy but got kicked out because he’s colorblind. He points out that having a Jewish daughter in the U.S. military is almost as “improbable” as having children represent two different countries.
“Jews in general as a demographic are very underrepresented in the U.S. military, and the number of female Jews in the U.S. military is very small. I’ve always felt a little bit sad about that,” he said. “There’s probably more American Jews in the Israeli military than in the U.S. military.”