With a beaming smile and pronounced Italian accent, Private Meir Ben Dror yelled, along with about 600 graduates of the Mikve Alon Hebrew Training Base, “I have no other country [but the land of Israel].” Meir, whose birth name was Matthew Pascualito until he moved to Israel, has taken a truly unique path.

Meir grew up in a secular Catholic family in Venice, Italy but never felt a special closeness to the religion he was born into. “I cannot say I left Christianity to convert. I simply joined the Jewish people,” he shares. “I feel like I was born Jewish, as if I was a part of this from the first day of my life. Throughout the holidays, I feel as if I’ve been eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting in the sukkah all the years of my life.”

As he tells his story, his strong Hebrew in no way resembles someone who was a stranger to the language until just two years ago. His journey to Israel began at age 20, when he traveled to Poland with a group on a guided tour of the Nazi death camps. “It was a blow to my mind,” he recalls. “I remember the feeling of terror in my throat. To be there and see it was terrifying and very upsetting.”

The following year, he visited Israel for the first time in his life. “It was just a week, but I really loved the place and wanted to return,” Meir said. And indeed he did. In March 2012, not long after he joined the kibbutz movement, Meir went to Israel to volunteer at Kibbutz Yotvata for six months.

After several months on the kibbutz, he realized that he could not simply return to Europe and see the time spent in Israel as a single chapter in his life. “I wanted to be here and take root here,” he explains. In August he decided that he wanted to stay and convert. The Italian native began the conversion process right away, flying to New York where he studied to prepare for his conversion. “I wanted to do it abroad because I needed to make sure this wasn’t just some passing excitement. I wanted to leave the country, to make the switch, and see if I felt the same thing all the time there too,” he shares. “I can honestly say that I missed Israel every day and night.”

Air Force planes fly over Tel-Aviv to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
Air Force planes fly over Tel-Aviv to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

A whole new meaning to Independence Day

For Meir, Israel’s Independence Day is doubly significant, for it is also the day he chose to complete his conversion. “I chose Independence Day because I wanted a date that’s significant for me–to join the Jewish people and join Israel as an active Zionist.” In June he returned to Israel and in August he reported to the recruitment office and put on an IDF uniform.

“I wanted to immediately join the military and start to pitch in and participate in our great mission: the defense of Israel and its continued development,” he says. “I think the army actually accomplishes this–it’s not just rhetoric. But beyond that, the army also provides culture, tradition and meaning. We are here as an independent Jewish nation, as sons and daughters continuing what our forefathers and foremothers did for Zionism… Thus, I’m really proud to be a Jew and an Israeli, and to be a private in the army.”

While in Europe, Meir studied history, and as a citizen he would like to be a teacher. But for now, he is requesting to serve in the IDF’s Education Corps. “I didn’t know that the Israeli military has a unit entirely dedicated to education. I didn’t think the military could be so invested in education and culture. I think it’s very important for the Jewish state to keep our culture, our tradition and our history. This is how we’ve survived 2,000 years in exile,” he explains.

Meir was placed as a non-commissioned officer in education development, and is already planning to become an officer in the IDF.

IDF soldiers read Torah in the field.
IDF soldiers read Torah in the field.

A New Name

On October 24, Meir received his new identity card which shows his new Hebrew name. The last name “Dror” is taken from the Torah, and for his first name, he explains, “I chose Meir because it has the [Hebrew] root meaning ‘light’. The discovery of Judaism for me was like going into the light.”

How does he foresee his life down the road? “I would like to have my children grow up in Israel, and serve in the military just like every Israeli.”

This article has been reprinted with the permission of the IDF Blog