Maor Shevah, Stephen Epstein and Oren Ivgi were once all pupils at Hasmonean Boys School in north London, racing for the school bus in their blazers, ties flying, and just about keeping their kippot on their heads.
These days, however, the three former school friends are wearing a different kind of uniform – that of the Israel Defence Forces.
Maor, 19, was born in Israel but his parents, Emma and Assaf, moved back to the UK when he was four. “We went back and forth,” he says, because by the time he was nine, the family was once again living in Israel, this time in Jerusalem. His mother is an author and English teacher, his father a silversmith.
Two years later, they were in Pinner, and this time stayed put, while Maor completed his schooling.
Despite all this shuttling between countries, Maor says English is “definitely my stronger language. I do still sometimes get stuck for the right Hebrew word”.
But he is now a sergeant in the army’s co-ed Caracal Battalion, signed up for two years and eight months.
“I wanted to serve in the IDF my whole life”, he says, “because I believe Israel is the home of the Jewish people and I was motivated to help keep it safe.”
Originally the plan was for Maor, Stephen and Oren to go on a Machal (volunteer) programme together, but that didn’t prove possible.
Maor and Stephen and I used to talk about going into the army, and saying it would be cool if we were all in together – but Stephen left earlier and we had to decide if we still wanted to do it.
“I wanted to go in the same unit as my friends, but to start with, the IDF wanted to put me in the navy. But I said I felt a lot safer on land than at sea, so I transferred to Caracal.”
His battalion is a combat unit comprising men and women, and it is currently serving on the border with Egypt. He’s just finished his basic training – and is loving every moment.
Stephen, also 19, is from Southgate, and is now a corporal in the IDF’s Armoured Corps. The eldest of four, he is the son of Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue. His mother, Ilana, runs the United Synagogue’s Living and Learning programme.
Stephen says: “In 2014, I was just about to join the sixth form at Hasmonean, and I saw the hatred directed against Israel in London. I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’”
His answer was a determination to sign up for the IDF: his decision slightly startled his parents but, “once they saw I wasn’t going to change my mind, they were very supportive”.
The family lived in Israel from when Stephen was three until he was 15, so he speaks and understands Hebrew fluently, and defines himself as bilingual.
He could have made use of his English by joining a unit such
as the Spokesman’s Office.
But, he says: “I wanted to be treated like any other soldier and to serve in an optimal way. Not a lot of people apply to the Armoured Corps, but it is phenomenal work.
“I trained as a tank driver and I’m now on a course to be a tank commander. You spend a lot of time in the tank with a group of four guys, so you become a very tight unit very quickly.
“It’s everything I hoped for and more. I’ve learned such incredible skills and made some amazing friends. I definitely want to live in Israel when I finish my service, and to have been in the army is such a large part of that.”
The third member of the group is Oren, 19, a corporal in the Nahal Brigade. Oren, from Hendon, was born in Israel, but his parents moved back to the UK when he was almost three.
By the time he was 16, Oren was travelling to Israel on summer holidays and began talking to soldiers, expressing his interest in serving
“I had a friend whose older brother was in Nahal, so I was curious about that. Maor and Stephen and I used to talk about going into the army, and saying it would be cool if we were all in together – but Stephen left earlier and we had to decide if we still wanted to do it.”
Oren’s mother, a nanny, was “like all mothers, very anxious” when he announced his decision, but now, he says: “She thinks it will be a good experience for me.”
He’s been in the Nahal Brigade for nine months as part of an 18-month Machal programme. “It definitely has met my expectations,” he says.
“I didn’t think I would make so many good friends so quickly, but everyone looks out for each other. My Hebrew is OK, not great. I learned it in Hasmonean but it has improved a lot since I’ve been here.”
Oren’s unit is based in the Golan Heights, while Stephen, who is also signed up for two years and eight months, has been serving on the Gaza border, so there aren’t many opportunities for the trio to meet. But one thing they are all agreed on – army life suits them down to the ground.