Native son and IDF officer visits home
By Deb Silverthorn
Sam Bam Zoller, now Commanding Sergeant Sammy Zoller of the Israel Defense Forces, returned to his native Dallas and has spent the last month visiting, traveling and representing Israel.
Just days prior to departing Israel, Zoller was on the northernmost border of Israel and Gaza near Ashkelon. Then his training turned very real during his first exposure to a red alert situation.body
“I was ready to come home, had been planning this month off, and then one of my officers came in and told us we were going to the border. It was real, it was 2 a.m. and we were at the border for the next two weeks. No one wants to go to war but we’re always ready and prepared,” said Zoller, happy that his 101st Battalion Paratroopers Brigade, returned safely to base the day after he left. “Hakol b’rosh — everything’s in your head — and you just tell yourself you can keep going. No matter what, I tell myself that and I’m proud to come out of each experience feeling stronger.”
Zoller stayed in touch, calling every three hours to his family in Dallas — his parents Kim Zoller and David and Sissy Zoller — and, in Israel, to his brother Benji and sister-in-law Leah. Benji and Leah, who will celebrate their first anniversary next month, each completed their own IDF service within the last year with Benji now studying at Ben-Gurion University and Leah at Hebrew University.
A 2017 graduate of Akiba Yavneh Academy, who was accepted to the University of Michigan, Zoller left for a gap year at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem. Once in Israel, he realized that making aliyah and service in the IDF was something he wanted to be a part of.
His weeks in the United States were spent catching up with friends and family, travels to Miami and Telluride, Colorado, and celebrating his sister Lia’s fourth birthday.
“There’s excitement to have Sammy in front of us and relief that he’s not in danger. We’re in awe of what both our sons have done and their commitment to the State of Israel,” said his father, David. “The level of maturity that exists for both boys is astounding. Sammy’s achieved so much and to see firsthand the self-confidence and recognition of his own potential? That’s what you want for your kid, even though I look at his face, his smile, and I still see his little-boy self.”
Zoller’s mother, Kim, misses her sons every day but is proud they’re following their own paths. “We give our children tools and it’s important they follow their dreams, not ours,” she said. “I’m so happy to have Sammy and so many of his friends in and out this month and I treasure the noise in the house but even more so I admire the strength and courage with which he is finding his way.”
While in Dallas, Zoller was featured on news channels in Israel, in interviews with Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Live’s Joel Chasnoff and Dallas-based blogger Lizzy Savetsky. He also participated in the May 30 Dallas Stands With Israel virtual event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
“Sammy is so adored and loved by so many in this community and his sharing his experiences with us was priceless,” said Peta Silansky, JFGD Israel & Overseas manager. “He and my son Brandon met in the fourth grade and are still good friends. Having watched him grow up, I couldn’t be prouder.”
While in town, Zoller visited Akiba Yavneh, where Lia is now in preschool, speaking to students of all ages.
“To bring an IDF soldier to campus, that’s a special occasion. To bring a former [Akiba Yavneh] Bulldog, now commanding sergeant and paratrooper — a beautifully powerful real live action hero to campus — that’s really a special occasion.” said Head of School Rabbi Yaakov Green. “For our students, future lawyers, doctors, business owners and yes, IDF soldiers, Sammy is an incredible example of putting one’s dreams into action.”
Zoller said he was happy to share his unusual story of life since high school graduation.
“My belief in God is strong, always, but the unity that I feel in Israel as a soldier, walking through the streets and knowing I’m a part of a collective people, is something that is so important and confirming to me,” said Zoller, who was scheduled to return to Israel Wednesday to complete his last five weeks of IDF service.
After his service completes in late July, Zoller will spend five weeks as a bus captain for Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach BaAretz Israel tour experience for rising high school juniors. Looking forward to then taking time off, he plans to scuba, to travel and to sleep before starting Hebrew University’s preliminary year program for new immigrants. After that, he plans to apply to medical school.
“Dallas will always be home, but my neshama is in Israel. I’m a member of the IDF — the Israel Defense Forces. We are defending our homeland, the people, the citizens — all of them, not just the Jews. You’re on the brink of war, watching your friends on social media at work or play or with their families, and I know that’s what I am defending; that’s why I’m here.”