Granddaughter and grandfather Ronnie and Ariel Cohen. (Photo/Courtesy Friends of Israel Defense Forces)
Granddaughter and grandfather Ronnie and Ariel Cohen. (Photo/Courtesy Friends of Israel Defense Forces)

Survivor’s granddaughter from Livermore now a sergeant in Israeli army

When Ariel Cohen talks about his granddaughter Roni, the word “hero” comes up, like, a lot.

That’s because the 24-year-old from Livermore recently moved back to Israel — Roni was born there, but left at age 14 when her family moved — and enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.

Because she was under 16 when she left,  she was eligible for an army deferment and was not required to enlist in the IDF when she turned 18, despite holding Israeli citizenship.

But she volunteered anyway.

A large part of what inspired her to forfeit the comfort of the familiar for the thrill of the unknown were the experiences of her grandfather. Born in 1940 in France during the Holocaust, Cohen was just a few years old when his father, a leader of an underground resistance movement, was captured by the Gestapo and sent to his death at Auschwitz.

The idea of contributing to the defense of Israel appealed to Roni, she said in a Zoom interview ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, marking the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Before moving to Israel, a process facilitated through the IDF lone soldier program Garin Tzbar, Roni was living back home with her family in Livermore, waiting out the pandemic. It was a break from her life in Los Angeles, where she graduated from UCLA summa cum laude in 2018, and it provided an opportunity to reflect on what she wanted next. Among her parents and three brothers, she spoke Heb-rish, “a weird mix of Hebrew and English,” she said, evidence of her parallel identities. She wanted to reconcile her Israeli roots with her American self, she said.

So in November 2020, she volunteered for army service.

When she joined the IDF, she was several years older than the 18-year-olds surrounding her (Israeli men and women are drafted at 18). Her training was not easy, but she endured.

Ronnie Cohen (right), a 24-year-old from Northern California, has served in the Israel Defense Forces since Nov. 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Friends of Israel Defense Forces)
Roni Cohen (right), a 24-year-old from Northern California, has served in the Israel Defense Forces since Nov. 2020. (Photo/Courtesy Friends of Israel Defense Forces)

Seeking a leadership role with responsibility, she pursued the rank of sergeant, and she currently commands 11 soldiers, men and women, in the IDF Home Front Command, a search and rescue unit.

“You’re a guide, mentor, teacher, caretaker. You’re basically everything for your soldiers,” she said, speaking as her unit engaged in “ranges,” or nighttime shooting practice, in the desert.

Her two-year service will continue until November. What she’ll do afterward, she isn’t sure. Before moving to Israel, she was working in the mobile gaming industry. Passionate about narrative storytelling, she served as editor-in-chief of Kol Ha’Am, the literary section of UCLA’s Jewish newsmagazine, for about a year and a half starting in late 2017.

For now, she is rediscovering her Israeli identity as a lone soldier, a designation for a young person who chooses to leave the comforts of home and family to become an IDF soldier, and does not have at least one parent living in Israel.

According to Amarelle Green, executive director of the S.F. chapter of Friends of Israel Defense Forces, more than 900 lone soldiers from the U.S. are currently serving in the IDF, including 140 from California.

Founded in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, FIDF provides consistent support for lone soldiers such as Roni, including free airfare home to visit their families abroad, social support and assistance navigating Israel’s bureaucracy.

“We say ‘never again,” Green, a veteran of the Israeli Air Force, said. “We need to have a strong state of Israel so the Holocaust will never happen again.”

Roni’s grandfather, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, would agree about the sacred role of Israel in protecting the Jews. During World War II, when France was no longer safe for Jews, Cohen’s father helped him, along with his mother and siblings, escape to Switzerland. One of Cohen’s last memories of his father is donning tefillin with him before boarding a train. Eventually, members of the Haganah brought Cohen and his family to Israel, and he was there for the nation’s founding in 1948.

Today, Cohen and Roni’s grandmother, Ariella live together in Jerusalem. The two, he said, could not be prouder of their granddaughter.

“We admire her,” Cohen said. “We treat her as a real hero.”

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.