At the tender age of 27, Sharon Singer has already accomplished more than many do in an entire career.
She currently holds the prestigious position of director of public affairs and social media at the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia. Prior to that, she held positions in the Israel Defense Forces, including commander and instructor in IDF’s first joint officers’ training course (men and women), head of the Ground Forces Selection & Classification Desk, head of Combat Personnel Section, Artillery Corps and chief training and education officer for the Strategic Planning & Foreign Relations Division.
PGN: You have a British accent; where were you born? SS: I was born in Israel in a small town north of Tel Aviv. My parents made what we call aliyah — immigrated from England about 40 years ago. I have two older brothers. I was in the military for nine years and wanted to pursue other directions. I studied public relations for a bit and then this opportunity came along and I decided to jump on it.
PGN: What was life like growing up in Israel? SS: I always thought it was similar to life in the U.S., but what I didn’t know was that though we know much about life here, most people didn’t know much about the real Israel. We used to travel a lot and, when I was 12, I went to a skiing school in Lake Tahoe. I remember the instructor telling me he knew two things about Israel: that we had white Mercedes for taxis and that most of us lived in huts. In reality, Israel is a modern country. It’s very cutting edge: Outside of Silicone Valley, it’s where most companies do their research and development ... It is a very democratic, liberal country.
PGN: You’re very passionate about it. SS: Yes, it’s true. When you’re in the military, you know exactly what you’re fighting for. It’s not some vague thing 6,000 miles away; the borders that you’re defending are 9 miles from your house. You are facing things that directly affect you on a daily basis. It’s a very different reality. You have a New York-style city with museums and restaurants, arts and culture, a thriving gay community and, just a few miles away, there are soldiers at the border.
PGN: Going back to your childhood, what was a favorite thing to do? SS: I was pretty sporty, I liked karate and to ride my bike and swim and play tennis. But I also liked to draw and paint. When I was 11, I picked up the guitar and went on to study music, which was a big portion of my life for a time. I was on prime-time TV once with my band, which was a big thrill!
PGN: Do most kids look forward to or fear service? SS: It depends on where you’re likely to be placed. We all know that when you turn 18, you’re going into the army. At 16, you start preparing and the army screens to see where you should be placed, so you have plenty of time to digest it, and everyone wants to do their best so you can be part of the elite. They test you and look at your grades and physical ability, etc. Even some people who go in kicking find that they’re matched up so well, it’s the best thing that ever happened to them. One of the things that I like is that because everybody has to serve, it’s an amazing melting pot. You go to training with everyone and it doesn’t matter what your parents did or where you came from; you’re all in the same boat.
PGN: What was the hardest physical challenge? SS: I was the commander in the IDF’s first joint officers’ training course. I conducted a three-month intensive training during which I existed on about two hours of sleep per day. I had to do the physical training with them, running 15 miles, uphill carrying gun and gear, trying to make sure my soldiers were OK and not passing out. I was the classroom instructor, standing hours on end, then staying up all night creating the next day’s lesson plan. I was in great shape but smoking two packs a day of Marlboro Reds and living on Diet Coke and ice cream. For a period, I was also the chief of the selection team for girls trying out for the new combat unit. It’s a very demanding 24-hour test, which is hard for the cadets and was even harder commanding! You were deciding whether to place people with artillery units or anti-aircraft units, border police, infantry search and rescue, etc., so the test was both physical and pen and paper. I had about 150-180 girls coming in to test every 24 hours and a staff of 120 to oversee.
PGN: What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve faced? SS: We were on a mission and we got word that there was a terrorist trying to get into one of the nearby communities. It was 1 a.m. and I was on the phone with my girlfriend. We had a code phrase whenever something like that came up so as not to worry the other person: chasing rabbits. In the middle of the night, I had to grab my gun and go out into the freezing cold and look for this guy. Driving around in a Jeep, you’re very vulnerable. Fortunately another platoon found him.
PGN: How old were you when you came out? SS: I was about 16 when I had my first experience. For some reason, I felt the need to tell my parents. The funny thing is at the time I thought it was just a phase. Usually it’s the parents that say that, but in this case it was me! When I was 19, I realized it was the real thing. My parents were in the States for three years, so by the time they got back I’d had plenty of time to adjust. When they returned, I was 21 and officially came out to them and everyone else.
PGN: Was your family religious? SS: No, and that’s another misconception. Only about 29 percent of the population is practicing Jewish Orthodox: Most people are very secular or progressive. Any concern about homosexuality is more about carrying on the family name or children or will you be happy, that sort of thing. My parents had gay friends, so it wasn’t shocking to them, but it’s always a process. They’ve been amazing supporters.
PGN: What about in the military? SS: It’s a non-issue. You can be fully out; it’s all about how well you perform. Even in interviews, if anyone asked, I’d tell them I had a girlfriend. It was never a problem, especially in combat units. When you’re under fire, the last thing you’re worried about is someone’s sexuality.
PGN: What’s the best gay club in Israel? SS: There’s a big rivalry between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as to who has the best club. It’s really hard to say because the main thing we do is have what we call a gay line. That’s where usually straight clubs have a gay night once a week or month. So it’s more about which line is best. There’s a great party this weekend called SheJ, a big lineup of female DJs from all over. There’s a boys’ club called Barzlai, which is pretty good.
PGN: Switching gears, a favorite place you’ve visited? SS: Outside of Israel, it would be Pushkar in India. It’s one of the oldest cities of India with about 15,000 people and 20,000 Israeli tourists. India, which has a population of over a billion people, is very influenced by Israel.
PGN: Lipstick or Chapstick? SS: Lip gloss. I’m a bit of a girlie-girl now. I like wearing makeup, especially eye shadow, foundation, blush ...
PGN: Early sign I was gay? SS: A crush on my substitute teacher, Eatti, when I was 6. And the fact that, when I was little, I decided that boys were better than girls. I think I wanted to be one since they had all the fun. I didn’t want to marry Indiana Jones or James Bond or any of the action adventure guys; I wanted to be Indiana Jones and James Bond, since they had all the fun and always got to have a pretty woman by their side.
PGN: What’s something we don’t know about Israel? SS: It’s very small, only about the size of New Jersey. It has a lot of variety though. We might see snow in the north; then moving down, there’s a lot of evergreen trees. The Mediterranean on one side and the Sea of Galilee on the other, you have the Dead Sea, then you have Tel Aviv, which is very modern, and Jerusalem, which is ancient, and big expanses of desert in the South. The entire population is only seven-and-a-half million, smaller than the city of New York. But good things come in small packages!