December 14, 2003, Updated September 13, 2012

Eva and Jimmy Ben-Sira in their adopted home in Israel.It’s a far cry from the frozen tundra of Alaska, but eighteen-year-old Eva Ben-Sira has become the first Eskimo to be inducted in the Israel Defense Forces.

Ben-Sira was born to a Yupik Eskimo mother and a Cherokee American father before being adopted by an Israeli couple. Her twin brother, Jimmy, will become the army’s second serving Eskimo, when he joins the IDF next year.

According to Ha’aretz, a check of the archives of the army’s Bamahane magazine, which for years has tried to track soldiers who come to Israel from remote places, indicates that she is the IDF’s first Eskimo soldier

“A few weeks ago, I was at an IDF base, at a preliminary meeting of candidates for the squad commanders’ course,” Eva told Ha’aretz. “We sat in a group and everyone had to introduce himself. I decided to forestall the curious questions, so
I said, `My name is Eva, and I’m not Chinese.'”

Eva says that at the IDF induction center she was asked to retell the story of her life to make sure they had the details right.

Those details are pretty remarkable. The journey of the twins to Israel began when their mother, Minnie, found herself unable to support Eva and Jimmy after their father walked out. Alaskan social services stepped in and, at the age of two, the twins were sent to live with their grandmother, who struggled to raise the children herself.

By chance, an Israeli couple, Meir and Dafna Ben Sira, came to visit Dafna’s mother who had emigrated to Anchorage in 1989. Minnie, the twins’ mother, lived next door.

The twins’ father disappeared immediately after the birth, and Minnie was forced to give up the twins, who were then two years old. The Alaskan social welfare authorities sent the children to live with their grandmother, who also had a difficult time caring for them.

“We got to know the children and they needed a home,” Dafna told BBC News Online. “We wanted to have a family and the children had no place to go,” she said.

The Ben Siras offered to adopt Eva and Jimmy, but had to overcome a welter of religious and cultural obstacles to get the adoption approved by both tribal elders and an Alaskan Orthodox rabbi. They remained in Alaska for five years until the adoption process was completed.

“Among their people, giving children to whites for adoption is absolutely forbidden,” Dafna told Ha’aretz. “Only after one of the tribe
checked us out and decided that the extended Jewish family inculcates values similar to those of the Inuit, did they agree to it, and the tribe gave its consent.”

Eva and Jimmy were brought to Israel (they learned to speak Hebrew in three months), converted to Judaism and integrated into Israeli society among the Orthodox community of Nir Etzion, a community of 90 families near Haifa. The twins attended religious schools and had bar- and bat- mitzvahs.

“They were accepted by the other children and by the community at Nir Etzion right away. There were no problems at all,” Dafna told ISRAEL21c. But she added that the twins did ask a lot questions about their heritage while growing up.

The children haven’t been back to Alaska since the adoption. “Their original family legally can’t have any contact with them. And my mother, as well as my brother and sister come here to visit, so we haven’t had a reason to go back,” Dafna said.

Eva is set on doing her army service and pursuing an ordinary existence at Nir Etzion.
“I have a good life in Israel and I don’t feel the need to dig into the past and know where I came from,” she explains.

On the other hand, Jimmy is the one would like to explore his roots in Alaska and the Cherokees, to learn more about his heritage. “I’ll travel around, I’ll learn where I came from, and then I’ll decide where I want to settle down,” he told Ha’aretz.

After nearly a decade in Israel, Eva has forgotten the smattering of Yupik she spoke as a child, but with her long black hair and almond-shaped eyes, she has retained her ethnic looks.

“People are very curious,” Dafna told the BBC. “When I take the children shopping and people ask which parent the children look like, I tell them they take after their father because he’s not there. “When my husband takes them shopping and people ask, he tells them they look like me because I’m not there.”

A week after Eva’s induction, her mother reports that army life suits her daughter. “Everything is fine – she’s excited and hasn’t had any complaints,” Dafna says.

The only complaint, in jest, comes from Dafna. One side effect of of Eva’s induction in the army has been the absence of her help at home taking care of her young siblings. In addition to a nine year-old, the Ben-Siras are parents to both an 18-month old and a 5-month-old.

“Eva is missing, and she was such a big help,” laughs Dafna. “But now Jimmy has taken over the babysitting role.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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