LATRUN, ISRAEL - Israel Defense Forces Sgt. Sergey Merson, 27, from Minsk, Belarussia, who recently completed a grueling tank commander course, says The Jewish Agency for Israel was an essential part of his success.
Merson and hundreds of his brothers in arms, in a moving graduation ceremony held at the tank corps museum at Latrun, outside of Jerusalem on February 14, finally received their coveted ranks and silver tanker pins - and the tremendous responsibility they symbolize - after months of tough physical training and technical instruction.
"The Jewish Agency really helped me before my induction, and afterward," he says of his military experiences, and the Hebrew-language ulpan, and professional studies that came before.
"My first stop was at Ulpan Sapir in Ra'anana … where I had a great teacher who had a dramatic effect on me. Thanks to her – I'm speaking Hebrew now," he says proudly, in near accentless Hebrew.
"He matured, and so did we - along with him, says Yigal Steinman, who directs The Jewish Agency's Youth and Lone Soldier Department, and who was one of the first to congratulate Merson at the conclusion of the ceremony, held at the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1948 War of Independence.
"I have to add here, that only with Yigal's assistance did I enlist - In my first induction letter and at the army induction center, they didn't want to take me because of my age! I really owe him a lot," according to Merson.
"I've led a lucky life, to find such friends – but especially in Israel," he says, beaming.
"I've accompanied him and other lone soldiers," says "big sister" Masha Travkina, who came to cheer him on.
"I'm really, really happy to have completed the course – and I'm not completing it alone," says Merson. "My family and friends are here – I'm really moved."
"We're here for him," Travkina says, simply.
"Only with the assistance of these folks here with me, am I here," says Merson, arm in arm with 20-year-old sister Lara, and supportive friends.
And Lara, who traveled all the way from Minsk for the proud ceremony, tells The Jewish Agency that she was so impressed with all that her older brother's accomplished, that she, too, wants to come volunteer in Israel, and later enlist in the IDF.
After he completes his year-and-a-half of service, Merson says he plans to continue his studies in either economics or sociology at Ariel University, previously known as the Ariel University Center of Samaria.