11/14/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

The Power of One Woman's Quest: Everything I Ever Learned I Got from Serving in the Israel Defense Forces

In 1989, I was a sophomore at Suny at Albany. While my peers were declaring their majors, I felt I was wasting my time, which made me feel there was something wrong with me.

One night, I had banged my head against the wall of my room crying.
I've got to get out of here. If I continue to stay here, I'll suffer. There's got to be more than just this.

My father sensed my unhappiness at some point and we had a talk which I refer to till today as the "Aebi" conversation. Like me, Tania was going nowhere -- until her father offered her a challenge. She could choose either a college education or a boat. Tania Aebi, sailed around the world in a 26 foot sailboat at age 18. After her voyage, my father showed me a New York Times clipping of her heroine's journey. She was driven to circumnavigate the world alone, and although she was poorly prepared, she succeeded. It was her common sense and determination that had helped her on her quest. She became the first American woman and the youngest person at the time to sail around the world, and she'd written a memoir, published in 1989 called, Maiden Voyage.

I wanted to be Tania Aebi. I wanted to prove I could complete something heroic, but I didn't want to travel in a small boat around the world.

That summer of 1989, I volunteered on my aunt's kibbutz in the upper Galilee of Israel - my first worldly experience that took me out of the classroom. I traveled the country on my own terms, away from my paranoid mother, who was terrified I'd get blown up by terrorists. I met volunteers from all over the world. And I hitchhiked on my own. Yes, hitchhiked.

In the first chapter of my memoir, Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love, I eye an air force IDF soldier approaching the junction where I'm hitchhiking. As I look at his olive skin and black wavy hair, I contemplate my next move: serving in the IDF. As a soldier, I would fulfill the call to do something different with my life. I wanted to be my own heroine. I wanted to be a bigger version of myself.

So in August of 1990, I left my hometown of New York City and arrived on a kibbutz in the middle of the Negev Desert where I would join a garin, or a group of young people who work together on kibbutzim and settlements as well as on bases to fulfill our army service. It would be the first of three kibbutzim I would live on before I would finally settle on another kibbutz near Gaza strip with a new garin.

The next two and a half years were living hell. I had two and a half years worth of "dark nights of the soul," and yet, like most difficult experiences, that time taught me the following lessons that would last a lifetime.

1. Sometimes it helps to make friends with the enemy. My enemy's name was Svetlana, a Russian, who also happened to be in our garin. She spoke mostly Russian with her gal-pals in the garin and mainly "used" me as her friend. I hated her for it but I had no place else to go since I already committed to this new garin. Since there were only three of us on the garin for most of our service, we spent a great deal of time together. Whether we were on a base in Gaza or firing in basic training, I had to deal with her jokes, how she tagged along after me, and laughed at certain things I did in the army.

2. I learned to thrive with the conditions I had. Whether I was made to feel stupid because I didn't know I was walking on a "mine" due to a language barrier or appeared fifteen minutes late for an inspection, I was often ridiculed and scolded mainly by my fellow garin female members and other soldiers. I kept waiting for these foreign soldiers to be the garin members I wanted to serve with all along. When I realized I had to change, I stopped victimizing myself and eventually, stepped up to the calling as a leader.

3. I learned to "do it scared." There were many times during the course of my service when I didn't know if I was cleaning the gun the right way or understanding the officers' commands. When you're in the army, you don't have time to figure it out. Often I got so stuck in my own head, that I often ignored the other voices. I would think, Nah, nobody will listen to this stupid American anyway. I really wanted my fellow soldiers and officers to respect and praise me. "The do it scared" tactic was the only way for me to get over initial waves of fear.

4. I learned to trust myself. This was probably my most powerful lesson. I came from a household where I was conditioned to fear Israel and not take risks to honor the status quo. I often turned down leadership roles because I didn't think I had the power to be a leader. Until one day, I decided to ignore the outside voices and work with this group of foreigners and strangers without trying to "fix" them and to be the best soldier I could be.

This power of my quest of leaving my hometown of New York City as a young Jewish American to serve in the Israel Defense Forces is a personal story of transformation. Now I can say with conviction as I write each chapter of my memoir, I lived to tell a heroine's journey of transformation.

Each individual quest activates a journey. How one seeks to discover the magnificent gifts wrapped up in that journey is the key to unlocking the key of transformation.