Benji and Sam Zoller make Israel their home
By Deb Silverthorn
“Benj” and “SamBam” Zoller will celebrate Israel’s 72nd anniversary, on the ground, in their boots, as Corporal Benjamin and Corporal Samuel Zoller, now serving the land that’s become home.
The Zollers, graduates of Akiba and Yavneh academies and raised at Congregation Shaare Tefilla, were once-upon-a-time a 3-year-old jumping off the top of the bunkbed, and to a waiting couch from a second-floor landing who turned into a paratrooper and his year-older brother, studious to no fault, serves in Combat Intelligence. Young boys, turned men, Dallas natives who chose to make Israel their home.
“From my second month in Israel I knew I wanted to make aliyah. I wanted right away to contribute, to serve in the IDF and to integrate myself into the country,” said Benji, from his base in the West Bank.
Benji, who in 2016 began a gap year program at Yeshivat Har Etzion, made aliyah in 2018. He was originally planning a career in journalism and design, but his sights were set on the New School in New York. Instead he drafted into Yeshivat Hesder Otniel, which combines advanced Talmudic studies with military service. After 18 months of active duty, and three-and-a-half years of yeshiva study, he will pursue a college degree.
For Sammy, who has long followed in his older brother’s footsteps, while carving out his own path, it was at Yeshiva Orayta where he began his gap year. He then transferred to Otniel, meeting up with Benji for his last months there.
“I also knew in my first few months that I wanted to stay. I fell in love with the people and the culture and with the person I was becoming while living here,” said Sammy, now on deployment on the Gaza border until July. “I had to try out to become a paratrooper and the company that I’m in is very determined, very strong.”
Originally accepted to the University of Michigan, where he intended to pursue a medical degree, Sammy plans to still follow that career path, only doing so in Israel once he completes his IDF service and aliyah. “Everyone here,” he says, “even if they aren’t like-minded, they are like-hearted and with the same dream and goal for the Jewish people and our people’s land. I very much feel a part of that.”
The Zollers are the sons of Kim Zoller and David and Sissy Zoller, and brothers of Lia.
“I miss them, all the time, but my kids are happy and fulfilled and they absolutely love what they are doing with their lives,” said the boys’ mother, Kim, who travels to see them three or four times each year. “When I visit them, I see it, I feel it, and I know HaShem will take care of them.”
The boys’ father David, who also makes the transatlantic trek often, says he’s in awe of his sons. “I absolutely admire how they recognize the significance of what they are doing,” he says. “I know it’s important, they know it is important, but more so they feel connected, a part of where they are.”
That Zionistic connection, each of the boys says, came from their upbringing, schooling and early camp years at Camp Young Judaea, multiplied by experiences at Camp Stone in Pennsylvania.
In high school, Benji founded the Dallas chapter of the religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva, with which Camp Stone is affiliated. Summers became filled with letters home, the descriptions of Shabbat and holidays pouring off the pages.
Camp Stone provided the family with more than a deep relationship with Israel, it is there, while Benji was working as a counselor in 2017, that he met his bride-to-be.
“Israel is where I believe our future as a people is, and it is where we will, please God, raise our family,” said Benji, who is engaged to New York native Leah Nerenberg. She also made aliyah and serves in the IDF in a Foreign Relations unit on the Syrian Border; the two have plans to be married this summer.
As the coronavirus took Israel and the world by storm more than a month ago, the army had its troops packing to spend a minimum of 30 days on base. Just this week, the army is starting to let people out in shifts; for just a few days, the Zoller brothers just missed the chance to see each other by a stacked schedule. Supporting the Lone Soldiers with an array of services is the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) which recently opened a chapter in North Texas.
Dallas may be almost 7,000 miles from Jerusalem but the world is very small when one puts Jewish geography into play. In the last 10 years, the Zoller brothers are just two of many from North Texas to make aliyah — many of their former teachers, friends and rabbis and their families have also put down roots, where those of the Jewish people run deep.
“It’s amazing to be close to the teachers of our childhood who, in many ways, with our parents, raised us with the values we are now living,” said Sammy. “To have them here is a lifeline and it’s very special to now have a more mature relationship.”
Both Benji and Sammy have shared many Shabbat weekends and other occasions with those they grew up with in North Dallas.
“We have friends on every aspect of the political and religious spectrum here, not so different from in Dallas, and our home set an incredible example of connecting and respecting everyone,” said Benji, who feels blessed to be raised where and how he was, with the courage to create a community for his future.
The brothers, who talk almost every day and who live close to each other in Jerusalem when they are off their bases, see each other often. With Leah, they each consider themselves a close trio. “My brother is my role model and to have him, just a few months ahead of me in this process, and the confidence we have to share between us, is very special,” said Sammy.
He may be the role model, but to Benji, it is Sammy nearby that inspires him.
“No matter where we are, we have each other,” said Benji. “We’re here now, a part of a very strong community that is living and fighting for what Israel stands for and that’s striving for growth and always creating something better.”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” For the Zollers, the answer is yes. They are each other’s, and they are of the State of Israel’s finest.