Duty Deferred: After playing basketball at Cal, Avigiel Cohen must return to Israel to serve in the IDF

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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While returning to UC Berkeley for her senior year last summer, Avigiel Cohen contemplated her future.

Years earlier, at the age of 17, Cohen was granted the opportunity to postpone compulsory service in the Israeli military to play basketball and attend college in the United States. She says she was just one of two athletes to receive the annual deferral in 2010 from the Israel Defense Forces, also known as IDF.

Cohen is active in the school’s Jewish community. She co-founded the Berkeley Club of Israel, serves on the board of directors of UC Berkeley Hillel and helped organize a UC Jewish Alumni Group in Israel. Because of her involvement and volunteerism, Cohen and her parents thought she might be eligible to apply for a reprieve from the mandatory service. She was already acting in an ambassador-like position for the country, in her role as a basketball player and student at UC Berkeley. Maybe she could pass on the two-year IDF service.

“From day one, it has been on my mind,” Cohen says. “Knowing that I have to go back.”

Cohen says that, while she was spending last summer in Israel with her family, the deferral she received to come to the states was discontinued for future athletes 18 and younger. Even with her postponement still intact, Cohen and her parents feared that if she submitted paperwork to try and refrain from joining the military, she might be barred from leaving Israel all together and have to join the IDF, instead of finishing school. She waited until returning to Berkeley before making her decision. The process could take a year, so she needed to choose right away.

Cohen, 21, was born in Los Angeles to Israeli parents. When she was four, they moved the family to a city in Israel near the Mediterranean Sea called Ramat Hasharon.

She grew up in a basketball-loving family. Her father played. So did her two older brothers. And her younger sister and brother. She watched NBA games in the middle of the night and started playing the sport at the age of 6.

Even though she grew up in Israel, Cohen strove to return to her native country. In the sixth grade, she wrote an essay about her aspirations of playing American collegiate basketball.

Her dreams off the court matched her play on it. Cohen joined the Israeli National Team in 2006 and took part in the U18 European Championships three years later. Before the age of 18, she was already one of her country’s best women’s basketball players.

Recruiters from the United States paid attention and started calling her at home. Some even made trips to see her play in tournaments. At 16, she was offered a professional contract to play basketball for Ramat Hasharon, the local club team in her hometown, but she turned it down to stay eligible to play at an American college.

At the same time, her friends and classmates in high school were going through their own recruiting. In the years before their 18th birthdays, boys and girls in Israel go through physical and mental tests and weeks of training to figure out what branch of the military they will be stationed in. Women are required to serve in the IDF for two years, while men need three to fulfill the conscription.

“She didn’t do it because she knew she was going to leave,” says Dailt, Cohen’s mother, of the training. “She was so good in basketball, and she liked it so much.”

Instead of going through tests for the military, she pursued the postponement opportunity. She says she needed letters of recommendation and references from basketball coaches and administrators to show that she was deserving. Cohen says she also had to prove she was accepted to an American university.

She saw Cal as an ideal school: It had a strong Jewish community, great academics and high-level basketball. Cohen signed with the program after she was offered a scholarship by then-coach Joanne Boyle and was granted the deferral.

Before ever playing a game at Cal, however, she twice tore ligaments in her right knee. The first occurred in December of 2009 in a high school game in Israel and the second in a preseason practice for the Bears the following year. After missing her entire freshman season, her knee never fully recovered. With only the NCAA tournament left in her college career, she’s only played in 25 games.

Off the court, Cohen grew to cherish the diversity of values and beliefs in the Bay Area and became more open to the ideas of others and her own interpretation of Judaism.

”I know she really found a community within Hillel with other Israeli students,” says Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel. “It was sort of her alternate family outside of athletics.”

One of the students whom Cohen bonded with was fellow Israeli, and water polo player, Ayal Keren. He spent three years in the military before coming to the United States while also playing for the country’s national team.

He recognizes Cohen’s difficult decision. “It would be hard for me if I were to start here and go back there because you are just exposed to so many things in the world,” Keren says. But serving in the IDF, he says, is part of national culture, identity and duty.

“Everybody goes through it,” he says.

When Cohen returned from Israel in the summer, she did not even try to submit the paperwork to avoid joining the IDF.

“Sometimes in life you receive, and it’s time to give back,” Cohen says of her decision. “They were kind enough to me to let me pursue my dream — the least I can do is give back and go back home. Why would I be the exception?”

Whenever the college basketball season ends for her team this spring, Cohen will retire from the sport she has played for most of her life. After her service ends, she wants to join a human resource consulting or management firm, to continue the teamlike dynamic she experienced in basketball.

“I am sure whatever she will do, it will be amazing, and she will change things,” Keren says. “I’m excited for her — for the new chapter that she is going to go through.”

In late June, she will return to Israel, where she will have only a week with family and friends before joining the IDF. On July 1 at 8 a.m., with clean shoes and dressed in uniform, she will report for her first day.

Contact Stephen Hobbs at [email protected].