Ex-day school valedictorian joins Kurdish fight against ISIS

Gillian Rosenberg in what she says are the mountains of south Kurdistan. FACEBOOK PHOTO

VANCOUVER — Former Vancouverite Gillian Rosenberg, 31, has become the first foreign woman to join YPG, the Kurds’ dominant fighting force battling the Islamic State in northern Syria.

Rosenberg, who hails from White Rock, B.C., attended Maimonides Jewish High School in Vancouver (now called King David High School), where she was valedictorian in her graduating year, 2001. 

Shoshana Burton, one of her teachers at the time, remembers her as a shy young woman. 

“[She] became very passionate when she recognized opportunities to be involved with the school’s annual mitzvah day where we volunteered in the community. She was compassionate and was fascinated with Israel,” Burton said. 

“She was a good kid, and I am really hoping that she is safe.”

Rosenberg studied aviation at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), where she graduated from a 64-week Airport Operations Program in December 2003, according to Dave Pinton, spokesperson for BCIT. 

“It’s a course on how to run airports,” he said, adding that after completing it, she enrolled in a part-time management degree program in 2004. 

She did not complete that course, he said, and the last course she took at BCIT was in January 2006. 

Sometime after that, Rosenberg moved to Israel and enlisted in an Israeli army search-and-rescue unit. On her Facebook page, she lists her experience as a former instructor in that IDF unit.  

In 2009, she was among 11 people arrested in a U.S. criminal case for her involvement in an international phone scam. An FBI statement from that year described it as a “phony ‘lottery prize’ scheme that targeted victims, mostly elderly.” 

At that time, Israel’s NRG news site reported Rosenberg had tried in vain to join the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. She was estranged from her parents and had turned to crime after landing in financial straits. 

After being extradited to the United States, Rosenberg served approximately four years in prison under a plea bargain, according to court documents. 

At the time she was represented by Israeli lawyer, Yahel Ben-Oved. Speaking to Reuters, Ben-Oved said she had no knowledge of Rosenberg joining the Kurds, though they had spoken recently. 

“It is exactly the sort of thing she would do, though,” Ben-Oved said.

Israel Radio interviewed Rosenberg last week by phone from Iraq, where she said she was training with Kurdish forces she had joined after contacting them on the Internet. She said she would be fighting in Syria.

“They [the Kurds] are our brothers. They are good people. They love life, a lot like us, really,” said Rosenberg, who is known in Israel as Gila.

Old high school friends in Vancouver who declined to speak on the record expressed mostly shock and concern for her safety when they learned Rosenberg had joined YPG. 

Another teacher who had known her in high school contacted The Canadian Jewish News in the hope that the Jewish community could coax her home. 

On her Facebook page, Rosenberg posted photographs taken at Erbil International Airport in Iraq on Nov. 2. Another, taken Nov. 5 from a vehicle en route to Sulaymaniya, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, she said “kinda looks like anywhere in middle America.”