Editor's note: Aish.com congratulates IDF Major Keren Hagioff on her recent appointment as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's spokesperson for international media.  

Major Keren Hagioff’s remarkable rise through the ranks in the IDF has been powered by immense grit, determination and a deep commitment to playing her part in helping to defend the State of Israel.

Growing up in Finchley, a leafy suburb of North West London’s Jewish bubble, a career in the IDF was nowhere on the cards for Keren. “Far-fetched doesn’t come close,” she told Aish.com. Today, Major Keren Hagioff is the IDF’s Northern Spokesperson, busy day and night, responding to the most sensitive issues and threats facing the State of Israel. “When I think about it, it is the craziest thing to think this is where I am now.“

Spending a gap year in Israel when she was 18 opened Keren’s eyes to the reality of Israelis her own age serving in the army.

“Israel was important to me and I didn’t feel it was fair that others would have to serve in the army to ensure it could be a home for me as well.” The thought swirled and wouldn’t leave her. Rather than return to London at the end of the year, she signed up to volunteer in the IDF for two years.

Back home, Keren’s decision took many by surprise. “Some of my friends said it was a rash decision, and others told me to snap out of it, and that it didn’t suit the kind of person I was. To be fair, I was a normal North West London girl, and no one saw this coming.”

The doubters didn’t make her change her mind.

Keren joined the IDF after spending a year in Israel at the age of 18.

“It was very scary to step into the unknown. I didn’t know what I would be doing or how it would end, but I did know that what I was doing was worthwhile.”

She completed four months of basic training and then an advanced course familiarizing herself with kinds of ammunition, weapons and drills she had never heard of before.

“You always get something from stepping out of your comfort zone in life,” she says. “It wasn't that I was looking for adventure, I just really wanted to serve the country. We would spend hours on end during the night in the field, sometimes literally covered in mud, but I would wake up so grateful and excited knowing I was living a dream. I was literally defending the State of Israel.”

Keren was assigned to an adopted family on Kibbutz Lavi in the Upper Galilee. Shalom and Liat Ashkenazi have seven children of their own and a further six lone soldiers who they have opened their homes to. “They are amazing people, and have been such an extraordinary support for me over the years,” she says.

Becoming an Officer

Several months into her service and mulling her next step in the IDF, Keren plucked up the courage to ask whether she could take a course to become a commander in the unit.

“You don’t speak Hebrew and you are really unfit,” came the curt reply from her own commander. “The Officers Course is very physical.” With that the conversation ended.

“It kind of sucked to hear that.” Yet Keren’s friends encouraged her to persist, and eventually after pushing a few more times, she was given the green light to attend a one month pre-officers course, a kind of filtering process to weed out those who wouldn’t make the cut.

“I don’t think anyone thought I would pass,” she laughs, “but by letting me try, at least it would allow me to see that for myself!”

When the course began, Keren, along with her cohort of hopeful cadets, received a hefty book full of the material the soldiers needed to know. “We were given a week to learn its content for a test.” Yet Keren’s Hebrew was a problem. “I didn’t even understand the front cover.”

As a lone soldier, praying as she serves in the north.

With the book in her hands, mulling her pipedream of becoming an officer, Keren took a bus back to her host family and gazed out of the window. As Israel’s terrain, rich in color and history passed by, she remembered the reasons she had originally wanted to serve, and got up from her seat, walked down the aisle towards an officer she had seen earlier, and sat down in the empty seat next to him..

“Hello” she smiled, showing him the book. “I am trying to become an officer. Would you teach me?” And he did.

Arriving back to her host family, Keren’s enthusiasm spread throughout Kibbutz Lavi. Liat, her host mother, arranged a roster of volunteers to sit with her for two hours and plow through the material she would be tested on.

“It was give it my all, or give up,” she said. “I was busy, learning from 6AM to midnight every day.”

At the end of the week, exhausted, she returned to the base to take the test. To her complete surprise, the entire cohort failed except Keren who scored 85%.

“I thought they got it backwards – everyone passed but me!” Her determination had paid off.

Major Keren Hajioff is the IDF Spokesperson on the Northern Border, fielding questions from media.

Two kilometers in 11 minutes

Keren still had the biggest test ahead of her – the officers course requirement to run 2 kilometers in 11 minutes. Not known for her achievements on the running track, it was a tall order. Her first timed run took 21 minutes.

Refusing to concede, Keren threw herself at the challenge. “I ran whenever I could, on my free weekends and on the base. ln the one hour we had free at the end of our day, while others phoned friends or family, I would run.” By the end of the month, she managed a time of 12 minutes 20 seconds. Despite her progress, it wasn’t fast enough and Keren was notified that she hadn’t satisfied the requirements to pass.

Leaving the base

Packing up her bags, broken, and about to get on the bus, Keren was called for a conversation with the course’s commanding officer.

“I assumed they were just concerned for my mental well-being as I had been very upset and teary.” Instead, unbeknownst to her, other officers at the base had pleaded for Keren to be allowed to stay.

“We will give you a chance to continue,” a steely high-ranking soldier looked Keren in the eye, stipulating that she would still need to take 40 seconds off her time in the run – rules are rules. The course advanced, and two weeks later, after pushing herself to the limits, the best time Keren could manage was 11 minutes 15 seconds. It was again not fast enough.

Called into a military hearing to hear her fate, Keren was given the formality of a reply before being sent home. Suddenly overcome by the energy, drive and mission that had characterized her journey into the IDF, she looked the officer in the eyes and gave the speech of her life.

Returning as an Officer to the artillery corps. Keren has been driven by a desire to serve Israel.

“I have given everything in my power to get to where I am right now,” she fired, with tears in her eyes. “I have been running every morning, night and every weekend. When the other soldiers were relaxing or hanging I was out running.” And then, pointing to a picture of the State of Israel on the wall, her voice and spirit grew, “That is why I am here! Just to give to Israel.”

And then, pointing to the book she had learned about the history of the IDF, its wars and achievements which sat on the officer desk, Keren concluded, “Allow me to fulfil my potential. I want my name in that book, and you can give me the opportunity.”

Blown away, the officer said he had never seen so much motivation in a soldier. It was enough to compensate for the 15 seconds Keren had slipped, and she kept her place on the course. Ten weeks later she returned to her artillery unit as a commanding officer.

On the Northern Border

Following her service in the artillery corps, Keren’s military career continued to the IDF Spokesperson, its voice to the outside world. Today, as the IDF Spokesperson for Israel’s Northern Border, she is involved at the highest level, communicating and countering threats from Syria, Hezbollah, and other proxy Iranian groups.

“We are always ready for the threats that Israel faces,” she says.

Being in a high profile role in the IDF has made Keren an address for many other aspiring soldiers who look to her for advice and inspiration. “Not a day goes by without a message asking for advice on drafting into the army or from a lone soldier who needs support. I am always happy to help."

Now at 30, and one of the youngest officers to have reached the rank of Major, Keren is as passionate as ever about why she joined the army 11 years ago. “Every day I still wake up and realize I am fulfilling what I set out to do.” When she enlisted, she wrote the reasons why she wanted to serve, on a piece of paper and folded it up and tucked into her dog tag. “It’s still there now,” she smiles.

“It’s always important to remind yourself of why you are doing what you are doing. I still feel that same excitement that I did when I joined the IDF.”

Looking back at the influences which set her on her life's path, Keren says, “My family , community and youth movement Bnei Akiva all instilled in me a love of Israel. Growing up, my friends never wasted their time. We were a proactive group, always planning new things to do together. We utilized our friendship, and we were also active in looking for meaning.”

Keren says the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had served as Chief Rabbi in the UK have also served as a guide over the years. Addressing the questions many young people face about how to live their lives, Rabbi Sacks advised, “Where what you want to do meets what needs to be done, this is how a person can seek fulfil their own personal mission in this world.”

”That has always stayed with me.”

“I love Israel and how our ancestors dreamed of being here, and the opportunity that this generation has to be a part of the story. Although it’s not my place to tell others what they should do, I do encourage people to look into what Israel has achieved, because whatever you are interested in, there is an opportunity to pursue your own dreams and make a meaningful contribution here in Israel."