So, how did you spend your summer vacation?
That’s usually the first question once school starts back up in the fall. The usual answers range from family trips to long days at the beach to summer jobs.
Pretty standard stuff.
Ask Charlie Silberstein how he spent part of his summer, and his answer is anything but standard. Sure he went on a trip, but this three-week jaunt didn’t include family or a beach. Instead Silberstein spent 21 eye-opening days in Israel volunteering on an Israeli Defense Force base.
Not exactly barbecues in Montauk.
“It was really a great experience,” said Silberstein, a former football great at Horace Mann. “We were just essentially doing whatever they needed us to do. It might have been just moving boxes or cleaning warehouses, just whatever they needed we did.”
Silberstein’s daily routine kept him and the other volunteers away from any of the actual drills the soldiers went through each day. But in their off-hours, there was a lot of give and take with the soldiers.
“We had a lot of interactions with them and they were all super welcoming,” said Silberstein, who helped lead Horace Mann to a second straight Ivy League football championship last season. “I got to know a bunch of them, and I just talked to them about what they were doing on the base and just what their lives were like.”
It was during those talks Silberstein got a real insight into the lives of the Israeli soldiers and how they differed from his own.
“It was really interesting to see the difference in mindsets between the 18-year-olds there, who were joining the army, and us,” Silberstein said. “Their mindset was like, ‘OK, instead of going to university and studying and having fun, I’m going into the army.’ And our mindset is, ‘OK, we’re going to college to study and have some fun.’ It was a huge eye-opener.”
And it made Silberstein realize how fortunate he was to be heading to the University of Michigan later this month instead of a stint in uniform.
“It definitely put things in perspective, and it was a great experience because I got to see 18-year olds with completely different mindsets and who are more mature in some ways than us,” Silberstein said. “They were just cool kids, funny kids. We were a lot alike, but different at the same time, if you know what I mean.”
Military service is mandatory in Israel. Women need to fulfill a two-year hitch while the men are required to serve for 32 months. So how did the Israelis view their volunteers, who face no such military commitment?
“You would think that they’d look down on you a little bit for that, that your country doesn’t have this mandatory army thing,” Silberstein said. “But they didn’t because of the fact that we were volunteering. So they didn’t look down on us at all.”
In fact, Silberstein said several of the soldiers embraced the volunteers.
“A couple of the kids from their equivalent of combat unit, they were super open to us and they even took us to their house for Shabbat dinner and kind of showed us the culture a little bit,” Silberstein said.
Friendships were built, and now some of the soldiers are making their way to New York this fall. So what does Silberstein have planned for their trip?
“I’m going to take them to Shake Shack or something,” he said, laughing. “They love burgers. They were very big on burgers.”
Silberstein’s stay in Israel should help him with his adjustment from a small school like Horace Mann to Michigan, which boasts 30,000 students.
“I think it will help because it was a new experience and you met new people and made new connections, and that’s what college is in a nutshell,” Silberstein said. “I mean, the leap from high school to college is kind of crazy if you think about it. Just the magnitude of going from 180 per grade to 7,000 per grade in college, and from knowing almost all the kids in your grade to barely knowing any kids in your grade, percentage-wise, is really different.
“But I’m super excited to be going there.”
Most importantly, however, what about his football season tickets?
“I already have them,” Silberstein said. “The Ohio State game is home this year. It’s around Thanksgiving, and my family goes up to Michigan every other year because my grandparents live there. So we’ll definitely be there.”