Thursday, January 31

The Making of an IDF Soldier

by Mindi Epstein

Twenty-year-old Maya Boukai, an Israeli who grew up in Indianapolis, recently enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces and is well on her way to a new and exciting life. This vibrant young lady, who was once too shy to speak in the classroom, will soon become a combat fitness instructor leading fellow soldiers in exercise and group fitness programs as part of their combat training.

Maya arrived at her new life via the JCC.

Fourteen years ago, her parents, Michele and Gadi Boukai, moved from Israel to Indianapolis with their two young children and just a few suitcases containing the entire family’s personal belongings. They settled in a neighborhood on the north side near the JCC because they knew the agency would be an invaluable resource.

It was while participating in JCC programs that Maya got her first taste of athletics. She took swim lessons and became the youngest certified Red Cross lifeguard on staff, taught private swim lessons and mom-tot aqua classes, and became a member of the North Central High School dive team. Her JCC tumbling and gymnastics classes prepared her for the Northview Middle School’s cheerleading squad and ultimately became a foundation for all of her athletic endeavors.

“It all started at the JCC,” Maya says, “where I had the chance to do so many different things.”

Upon graduation from high school, Maya participated in a one-year GAP program in Israel for students between their high school and college years. She was placed as a volunteer at Jordan River Village, a camp whose mission is to give chronically ill Jewish and Arab children the freedom to experience being a kid in the safety of a 61-acre camp compound with 24-hour medical supervision. The camp, which is 100-percent funded and free to the children’s families, is the only camp of its kind in the Middle East.

The children’s joy and the co-existence of Jewish and Arab volunteers, children and families made a lasting impression on Maya. By the end of her GAP year, she knew that she wanted to make aliyah (become an Israeli citizen) and serve in the Israeli army.

A soldier can be assigned to any number of jobs, but Maya had her heart set on one in particular, one that would call upon her athletic skills first developed at the JCC in Indianapolis, and one for which competition is fierce. Tryouts performed in front of a group of Israeli Defense Force officers could have been unnerving, but Maya succeeded in earning the coveted post of Combat Fitness Instructor.

For this young Israeli girl, the JCC was her home away from home during her formative years. It was her participation in a variety of the JCC’s youth programs that helped her gain self-confidence and become integrated into American society. Ultimately, skills she developed here set her on a path leading to the active and healthy lifestyle she is now living in her homeland. 

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