The first time former longtime East Brunswick resident Mark Blank went to Israel — to spend a semester of study during his high school years — he immediately felt at home.
“That experience just opened my eyes,” said Blank, now a 22-year-old sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces.
He spoke with NJJN by phone from Manhattan the day before he was to appear at the National Gala for Friends of the IDF on March 13 (see box).
Blank, who also now goes by the Hebrew name Maor, made aliya in 2009.
“I just felt such Zionism and such a passion for Israel even when I was growing up,” he said. “No one knows where it came from. I was just born with it and decided to live the dream.”
Blank’s parents, William and Pamela, moved to East Brunswick from Los Angeles, with their three sons when Mark was 13. The family are longtime members of the East Brunswick Jewish Center, and Mark was active in its Kadima and United Synagogue Youth chapters.
It was through Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim — a program affiliated with USY and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Camp Ramah — that Blank spent five months studying in Israel.
“I learned Hebrew, our people’s special language,” said Blank, who was already considering staying on at a kibbutz and joining the IDF when his semester ended. That plan was nixed by his parents. “They said I had to finish school first, so I reluctantly came back to the States” and completed East Brunswick High School, said Blank.
However, he rebelled against the notion that after graduation he had to go directly to college rather than join the military.
“I wanted to do both,” said Blank. So, on full scholarship, he enrolled in the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, SC, with the intention of becoming an officer in the Marine Corps.
“I had the best of both worlds,” he said.
But when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 in response to repeated rocket strikes from Gaza, Blank left the Corps. “I loved the Marines and would have made a good Marine officer,” he said, “but I went where I thought I belonged. Israel is where my heart is so I made aliya that spring.”
He joined the IDF several months later and is now a combat soldier and engineer in a special unit and is considering a career in the military.
“I actually really like it,” said Blank. “I actually feel like I’m making more of a difference than I think I would have in the American military.”
Blank was selected as one of a handful of soldiers to come to New York for the FIDF gala after an article in the IDF’s magazine about him was picked up by a local newspaper in his adopted hometown of Ashdod.
“Then FIDF saw it and called me up,” he said.
At the start of any visit to New Jersey, he said, he has to force himself not to speak Hebrew, but, he added, “I love the United States. It’s where I grew up and I still feel at home here.”
His family in East Brunswick, Blank said, is “extremely proud and happy that I followed my dream and they support me 100 percent.”