TEL AVIV – Sophie Stillman was in Jerusalem in February of 2016, not far from where Hadar Cohen, a teenage Israeli border police officer, was killed in a terrorist attack. She was in the Old City when it happened and could hear the commotion that it caused.
That event, she told the travelers on the Experience Israel 2023 Mega Mission, was the catalyst to her making aliyah to join the Israel Defense Force. Stillman spoke to the group at the closing event of the trip on April 23.
“I was really impacted by (Cohen’s killing), because I sort of felt why does she have to give her life and I don’t have to do anything,” she said. “That was the catalyst to other things that I sort of understood, and one of them being that if I had at any time in my life wanted to live in Israel, have a successful career and life, and really integrate into Israeli society that I knew that army service was such an important part of that in the culture.”
Stillman finished her four-year stint in the Israeli Air Force in the fall of 2021 as a first lieutenant, a journey that largely started with that 2016 day in Jerusalem. But according to her mother Debbie who introduced her, she’s not just the oldest child of her and Jed Stillman.
“She’s your child, too,” she said. “She’s a product of the beautiful ecosystem that we call the Minneapolis Jewish community. She is a product of Temple Israel and Camp TEKO, and the Sabes JCC and the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, Herzl Camp, and Minnesota Hillel.”
The timing of the decision, right after graduating from the University of Minnesota, was because she wanted to be able to serve in the Israeli military when she close to the age of the Israeli teens who are drafted in for their mandatory service.
“I wouldn’t be okay with coming and saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m already 22, 23 years old, I don’t need to do the army,” she said. “I would have rather, while I was still physically able, to come do the army…and know that I gave my part when I could.”
Stillman moved to Israel where she became a lone soldier – someone who makes aliyah to serve in the IDF and has no immediate family in the country. The Lone Soldier Center says that there are more than 7,000 lone soldiers, with 45 percent of them being like Stillman – new immigrants to Israel who moved in order to serve. Her committment was intially two years long; it would have been two years and eight months but it was reduced because she was a new immigrant over the age of 20 at the time of joining.
Debbie Stillman pointed out that her daughter’s story is unique, the choice to serve is not.
“Lone Soldiers elect to serve but who do not have the support of immediate family in the country,” she said. “That number includes the following Minneapolitans who are currently or recently served: Yoni Lui, Sophie Goodman, Malkah Sokol, Grace Ansel, Noah Cherney, Ben Ribnick, and Shay Gilbert Burke.”
During Stillman’s pivotal 2016 time in Israel with the Nachshon Project, one of the rabbis on the trip suggested that she volunteer at the Lone Soldier Center, where she said she handled social media for the center and called soldiers to invite them to Shabbat dinners. But she saw that work wasn’t enough.
“I sort of quickly realized that for me, no amount of activism or donations was going to be enough,” she said.
That was when she decided she was going to make aliyah and join the army.
“It was not easy, but I knew that I wasn’t doing it because it was going to be easy,” she said. “I was doing it because I had to. I didn’t feel like I had an option.”
She then decided that she would take the combat officer’s test, which would extend her service another two years. The idea of the combat officer’s test was planted in her head on her first guard shift working 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on a Patriot missile battery in northern Israel.
“My commander at the time came and sat with me during that he brought me a cup of coffee and he started teaching telling me about this test that everyone needs to do the past combat officers course,” she said. “It’s crazy. You’ve got your entire gear on. You do an obstacle course which is like jumping over a wall, going through parallel bars, climbing up ropes. Then you run three and a half kilometers. And then you go up another three meters of rope. And then you have to do you do a sprint into shooting and to do six bullets, three laying down and three in a kneeling position. And you have to get three out of the six. If you get two, you’ve got to do the whole thing over again.
“So he’s telling me this in the middle of the night, and I’m like, ‘No. There is no way. And then he told me, and I remember this moment very, very clearly. He said to me, ‘Sophie, you can do anything. If that’s what’s stopping you taking that test that’s a bad reason.’”
Stillman successfully went through the commander’s course before attempting – and ultimately passing – the officer’s course. She called it the hardest thing she’s physically ever done.
“I just remember running and crying,” she said. “I was running and all of a sudden someone’s like, ‘are you okay?’ And I had tears streaming down my face like. It’s painful and it hurts, but you finish it it’s the best feeling in the entire world.”
She became a commander on a Patriot battery. Usually, the unit would have her last name – Plugat (unit) Stillman, but she opted to name it Plugat Hadar.
Stillman, before finishing her service, would become a basic training officer for Northern Patriot, and it gave her an opportunity to continue to share her – and Hadar’s – story.
“I’ve found that if I would share my story, my soldiers could connect with me without knowing my name, where I’m from, and what I do on the weekends,” Stillman said. “You have to have a reason to do what you’re doing, and if you don’t have your why, the how and the what can be really hard. So I was trying to show them what my why is and they really connected with it.
“I’ve had 75-plus soldiers directly under my command, and I’d like to think that my story and the story of Hadar have touched each of them in some way.”