The Kentucky Man Who Loves America but Also Feels One With Israel

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An American military man explains the benefit of Israel's mandatory army service

Meital Shapiro
Meital Shapiro
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Rob Heberly.
Rob Heberly.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Meital Shapiro
Meital Shapiro

Rob Heberly, 60, from Horse Cave, Kentucky; flying to New York

Hi, did you have a good time in Israel?

Yes. I’ve wanted to come here since I was 12, and now I’m 60. I love my country, but I would live here.


When I walked around here on Independence Day and saw the flags, my heart trembled the way it does when seeing the U.S. flag. And I have an Israeli flag at home. Ten percent of what I earn goes to Israel. When I got here and saw that my money is going here, I felt good. I want you to know that lots of Americans support you and feel a deeper tie with Israel than with other countries.

Can you tell me about yourself?

I have three grown children. My son is a masseur in Tennessee, my daughters are in college. I live in Kentucky with my wife. I’m a nurse and I served in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. I saw a lot of bloodshed that people don’t know about.

What was it like there?

I served two years as a military nurse as part of what was supposed to be a humanitarian mission. Reporters photographed hungry Somalis, the Red Cross sent food, but Somali pirates stole it and sold it on the black market. We were there to protect the ships, and the Somalis attacked everyone who got too close – they saw it as a declaration of war My task was to treat anyone who was wounded on land. It was ugly, because the Somalis used the AK-47 [rifle], which causes multiple wounds. There was tremendous loss of life.

You must have encountered appalling scenes.

One day we saw a group of armed Somalis ambush some Pakistanis who were on patrol. An American water truck passed nearby. Three Americans were wounded. The driver took a superficial wound, the second guy was shot in the thigh and the third was shot in the chest. There were also others with shocking wounds. It all happened in 30 minutes. The Pakistani government ordered its wounded to be kept alive and brought home, because in their culture it’s dishonorable to die on foreign soil. We kept the dying ones alive and sent them in a large aircraft with a team that kept them alive. I heard that when they arrived they were disconnected from the life-support machines.

Did the killing you saw affect your faith?

Not really. From my viewpoint, God created a perfect place for man. There is evil in the world because of man’s selfishness. We were given free will to love God by choice – despite the possibility not to love. Our life here is small compared to eternity God gave us the Ten Commandments, a tool that’s meant to keep us out of trouble. I can see the Lord’s hand protecting the Land of Israel, for example, in the Six-Day War, when we won despite numerical inferiority.

“We won”? Sounds like you really do feel you belong here.

I feel one with Israel. I have Jewish blood on my mother’s side, but I wore a Star of David even before I found out about that. There are fine things in Israel; one is compulsory military service. If we had that, I believe that the young people I see around me would have fewer drug problems.

If military service isn’t compulsory, why did you serve anyway?

In the United States there are families that are more military than others. Part of it is because my parents raised me to be proud of my country. My father was about to volunteer in World War II, but the call-up order arrived first. My brother served, my uncle served, my grandfather served. We served because that’s what we do.

Yonatan Ramot.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yonatan Ramot, 32, from Tel Aviv; arriving from Zurich

Hello. What were you doing in Zurich?

I was visiting family. It was my grandfather’s 93rd birthday.

Nice. What do they do for a grandfather’s birthday in Switzerland?

They go to the village where the grandfather was born for the weekend. We were 20 family members. The surroundings were green, full of flowers, with cows on the street. Drinking, relaxing and eating. Hearing yodeling, sniffing tobacco and having fun.

I get the yodeling, but sniffing tobacco?

It’s popular among farmers. Disgusting green, mint-flavored sniffing tobacco. It’s the Swiss version of khat.

Is it also good for sexual potency?

Apparently. They were very, very happy.

What’s your connection to Switzerland?

My mother is originally from there. My father is Israeli.

Does your mother live there now?

Yes. I get together with her every six months to a year.

Isn’t the distance hard for you?

We’re used to it. At first, we lived with Mom in Ra’anana, and 12 years ago, we moved to Switzerland together, and I wasn’t in touch with Dad for a long time. Now it’s the opposite: I see my father almost every weekend.

Did you go to school in Switzerland?

I went to college there and studied product management. I worked for 10 years in architecture, up to now. I quit and brought it back to Israel. I’ve been building 3-D models on the computer. Digital modeling. Simulations.

What are the simulations used for?

Since every building is really a prototype, there will be problems in construction, so we make a digital prototype so the problems are created first with the model.

A digital model that you can explore?

Yes. Virtual reality, layered reality. Like with Pokemon Go.

What problems does modeling reveal?

Slanted roofs that don’t work at certain angles, or railings that don’t work around corners. It’s beginning to be used now in Israel. Construction tech. There are 140 people in Israel fighting to introduce innovative technology into construction sites.

Why do they need to fight?

There are contractors who don’t like it because they like to cut corners, but you can’t cut corners anymore. Balconies collapse. In 2016, about 50 people died in construction jobs. Digital modeling allows inspectors a better opportunity to really inspect.

You seem to feel strongly about this.

I lived in Switzerland for 12 years, and saw what gems they build. In Israel, a brand-new 2 million shekel ($556,000) apartment can be totally defective.

What are Swiss accident statistics like?

I’m sure there’s more than one a year, but when it happens, it’s headline news. In Israel there are construction workers on the 40th floor without a guardrail or safety line. If a worker dies in such circumstances, it should be negligent homicide, say, on the part of the contractor. Not everyone should go to jail, but someone needs to take responsibility. Instead, they go to court, pay a small fine, and the case is closed.

So what’s our problem?

Unprofessional personnel, contractors who want to save money. Construction work is not a profession here. People do it because they have to, not because they want to. There’s also the matter of not learning correctly and then teaching the next person incorrectly. In Switzerland, there are professional construction workers who are well paid, also because of the danger they’re in.

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