IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Haley Zimmerman was 17-years-old, she and her twin sister Hanah flew from Chicago to Israel.
Her dad sent the two to train as soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force.
“We had to completely take all of our civilian clothes and hand them to our ‘mi-fah-ked’ which means commander in Hebrew, and she put it away in a shed,” Zimmerman said. “And we were in the army.”
She was stationed at a military base near the northern city of Haifa.
There, she went through grueling runs in the desert, security patrols around base, and classes on using military guns.
“They’d teach us the different kinds of guns, show us how to shoot them, and went to a target range to shoot AK-47’s,” she said.
Zimmerman said at first, the training didn’t feel real and she didn’t take it seriously.
“At the end of the first day, everyone had to stand in a circle at attention,” she said. “I was messing around and nudging my friend next to me.”
Her commander noticed and told her she’d be running laps that night with a group of other “problem kids.”
After hours of running at two in the morning, she was ordered to spell out ‘respect’ in Hebrew with rocks she found in the dirt.
Her commander said she’d be allowed to sleep when she finished.
“When I was done, she kicked it and ruined it, and I looked up at her like, ‘What are you doing?’” Zimmerman said.
She says her commander responded with, “Now you see how hard it is to build up respect and how quickly you can lose it all.”
“I’ve never forgotten that,” Zimmerman said.
She says her time there gave her the chance to see a side of Israel that most people never will.
“We were in the military and we saw the not-so-touristy side,” she said. “And I think that’s really important because it shows what people are going through.”
After that summer, Zimmerman decided to pursue an international relations degree at the University of Iowa.
She credits her experience in Israel with helping her make that decision.
“It really changed my life,” Zimmerman said. “It really interests me to see how the international system works, how different states interact with each other, and how it works together as a system.”
Zimmerman’s parents and two younger siblings will be flying to Tel Aviv on Thursday.
They’ll be celebrating her brothers bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Zimmerman says she’ll monitor their safety and keep in touch through social media.