Friday, January 9, 2015

Pre-Army Program Field Week

Field/Survival Week

Throughout the first four weeks of the program we had heard rumors about field week; what physical training it would entail, where we would be “sleeping”, and which thorn bushes we would be crawling through. By the time we had gotten on the bus taking us to the settlement in Judea where we would be staying, “shetach week” had reached epic, mythical proportions in our minds. As I tried to catch some shuteye on the bus, I mentally prepared myself for the ensuing onslaught by reminding myself that, no matter what happens, I would be home Friday afternoon for Shabbat. I can endure anything for 4 days.

I briefly reflected…on what almost was, and what will someday be; wearing a suit, Starbucks coffee in hand, gearing up for a big meeting in New York City and I could only chuckle at the fact that within minutes I would be running, crawling, and dirtying myself in the hills of Judea preparing for the physical and mental rigors of life in the field. The choices we make…

We arrived, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and told we had two minutes to get ready for a Masah (a long army hike/run/march with all of our belongings on our backs). With a commander we had never met, (who spoke no English), we set off for the darkness at 12:30 AM. For the next three hours we hiked, marched and ran through bushes, rocks, mountains, fields and an endless supply of mud and dirt. Every so often we would have to get low to the ground, as we were near hostile Arab villages and we didn’t want to be seen, and periodically we would have to hop barbed wired fences, always using each other as launching pads to catapult us and our bags over the fence.

We eventually made our way to a huge barn, where we were told we could take our bags off and prepare for bed in the haystacks in the corner of the barn. There were about 200 sheep in the stable inside the barn, with chickens and goats everywhere, and a few dogs playing the role of Barn Patrol. It was probably the most inhospitable environment I could ever imagine falling asleep in, but at 4:00 am, after an all-night hike, I couldn’t reach the hay fast enough! We rotated guard duty all night, but unlike in our apartment in Jerusalem where we largely do it for practice, here guard duty was of the utmost importance because every few nights Arabs from the town over try to steal the sheep and wreck havoc on the place.

Welcome to Field Week.

Field week continued with that same intensity for 4 days. We were sleep deprived, ate the same canned tuna and bread at every meal, shit in the woods, and pushed our bodies and minds as far they could go. The toughest part for me was the mental anguish of never knowing what would come next; whether we would be hiking, eating, running, sleeping crawling, doing drills or working in the field. We never knew. This constant mind fuck and the feeling of always being “on edge”, was, to me, the worst part of the week.

Like I mentioned, we stayed in a settlement in Judea (West Bank) for 4-5 days and we “slept” either on the aforementioned pile of hay in the barn, overcrowded with sheep, and chickens, or we stayed in a freezing cold abandoned army base (with wide open windows) on the top of a neighboring mountain. I put sleep in quotations because at no point throughout the week did we sleep for more than 3-4 hours at a time, as we were constantly woken up at random hours to hike and train. They took our watches the first night, to disorient us, so we never had any real idea of what time it was during the night, except for when we were on guard duty. For 4 days, we ate nothing but bread and jelly for breakfast- and then bread, canned tuna, and canned beans for lunch and dinner every night, with no snacks in between. We went to bed one night at 8:00 pm and were woken up at midnight for a four hour hike, and then slept again for a few hours the next day. We were always on the move and always disoriented.

We spent one morning doing manual labor in the fields, carrying and using heavy metal rods to jam sticks into the ground to help prepare the vineyards for the Spring. It was fucking brutal; dehydrating, exhausting, and repetitive. While they told us it was to get used to the idea of doing mundane and tedious work for (seemingly) no reason, (which happens all the time in the army) I think they just relished the opportunity to have 20 pledges (essentially), working their fields for free.  Regardless, it was a cool experience, and for 4 hours, I got to imagine that I was one of my Zionist pioneer heroes, who built this country with nothing but hard work, ingenuity, and the desperation of knowing that for our people, this was it. Our only hope of a better future for our children. There was no going back to Europe or Arabia.

During a Masah, the first 15 minutes are always the worst. At the beginning, I’m cold, my muscles are sore and not warmed up, and I struggle to wake up. It’s amazing though…after a half hour, once I have a nice sweat going, I actually get into a comfortable rhythm and feel like I could continue on forever. There is no talking on a Masa, and, a lot of times, I put my mind somewhere else as I climb through the hills. I would reminisce about the summer, of fun college experiences, I would imagine what I would do with my parents when they visited in 2 weeks, I would think of anything and everything. As I breathed in the fresh mountain air of the Judean hills, feeling my lungs hard at work, these awesome memories would energize me as I felt the love and support from family and friends flow through my veins.

On Wednesday (I think) we stayed at an abandoned army base about a 3-hour hike (my new form of measurement) away from the barn. In the morning, after yet another hearty breakfast of bread, chocolate sauce and jelly, we practiced shooting positions and infantry strategies using paintball guns (they were actually real guns just adapted for paintball) and getting used to the sort of training formations we will learn in the army. During the afternoon we actually played paintball, but a more focused and structured paintball than is typical, as we emulated wartime situations. We split into two teams and rotated playing terrorists and soldiers: we recreated situations where soldiers would confront an ambush, clear a hostile village, search house to house for a kidnapped soldier etc. I had been nervous for the paintball because I was worried I would be too nervous of getting shot to truly be effective, but as I’ve continually found out over the past 5 weeks, fears are meant to be conquered and I am tougher than I give myself credit for. It was the only part of the week that was inherently fun. Actually, it was more than fun. It was fucking awesome.

One night while we were hiking up a mountain, our commander noticed that some guys kept trying to avoid the thorn bushes. So he stopped us and told us to lie down, flat on the ground, on top of the thorn bushes. He then told us, as we were lying face down in a thorn bush, about Yoni Netanyahu, coincidentally one of my heroes (he was the commander, and the only soldier who died, during the incredible raid on Entebbe that rescued hundreds of kidnapped Jews from Palestinian and Nazi terrorists in Uganda). He then recited Yoni’s quote, something to the effect of, “I feel the thorns at my sides and grimace, but then I realize that these are the land of Israel’s thorns, our thorns, and I feel no pain, for I am home.” Here I was, laying down in the hills of Judea, thorns all over my body, listening to my commander speak the words of my hero about the beauty of the land of Israel. The sentiment lifted my spirits, I breathed in the fresh Israeli mountain air, satisfied and awestruck that I would get to fight for my people the way that Yoni Netanyahu and thousands of proud young Jewish men and women had before me.

Merely lying in thorns was just a precursor though.

On the final day, after more trekking through the Judean hills, we completed a 100-yard dash (holding a weapon) where we ran, crawled, and then, for the grand finale, dove into a huge mud pile. Thinking that this awesome relay must be the final event of field week, we were all ecstatic, cracking jokes, thinking that we had reached the end. Instead, once everyone had completed the dash, our commander yelled at us to pick up our rucksacks, as we would be continuing our hike in our soaking, mud stained clothing. 20 minutes later, at a field with huge thorn bushes, he told us to drop and crawl through the thorns as fast as we could, as if he saw no reason why we would be hesitant. Like I discussed in my last post, once you internalize the fact that pain is temporary and that fear and hesitancy are mere mental blocks, we free our bodies to move with reckless abandon. The faster I would crawl, the less it would hurt, and the quicker I would complete the trek.

Later that night, they told us that we were heading out for another Masa (long hike).  My heart dropped; my knees ached, my feet were torn up, and we hadn’t slept more than 4 hours in the past four days. As we stood in formation, and as I mentally prepared myself for the ensuing hike, our commander yelled at us to drop into pushup position on our fists (we were standing on a rocky field) close our eyes, and endure for as long as we could to find out who was mentally toughest. When it was just myself and 1 other guy left, our commander told us there were 5 of us left (our eyes were still shut) and by the time he said that there were 2 left, I was the only one still in position. Unknowingly, I had stayed in the position for about 7 minutes after everyone else had given up and stood around watching me. My body was shaking uncontrollably, my fists were on fire, but I refused to lose: I kept thinking, 10 more seconds, you got this. When I finally opened my eyes and realized what had happened, our commander gave me a handshake and a nod, and told us to close our eyes and put our hands on our head. After enduring our after-workout-ritual absorbing tough punches to the gut, he told us we were done and we could get on the bus to Jerusalem, and enjoy Shabbat.

I was ecstatic.

My feet are busted, my shoulders are exhausted, my back aches, I’ve never walked more in my life, and my arms are all cut up from the thorns, rocks, and dirt...but I feel stronger, mentally tougher, and like I have accumulated, over the past 5 weeks, an assortment of experiences that will help me immeasurably as I move on to the beginning of my service in the Israel Defense Forces.

One More Week!

Get Used to Feeling Like Crap

Our Krav Maga instructor, a former counter-terrorism special forces operator in the IDF, in a speech about how to succeed in the army, imbibed us with, what I feel, is the most important piece of advice I have ever received, “Get used to feeling like shit. Learn to embrace suffering.”

As I have learned from every one of our instructors, and really every soldier I’ve met thus far, the army is all about learning to become capable in uncomfortable situations. Always being tired. Always being injured. Being dirty, nervous, scared, on edge all the time. The sooner we, as individuals, learn to embrace this state of being, to familiarize ourselves with pain enough to recognize suffering for what it is, temporary, the better soldiers we will become and the easier and more enjoyable our experience will become. The best soldiers are not necessarily the strongest, fastest, or most in shape guys, but rather they are the guys able to suffer and to constantly feel like shit, without quitting, mentally succumbing, or letting it affect their disposition or how they go about their duties.

This is what our pre-army program is all about. We crawl and run in the middle of the night; we do full contact Krav Maga, we rotate guard duty all night, we close our eyes and absorb body blows every workout, and we are never told a schedule so we never know what’s coming. We are constantly on edge, wondering when our mefaked will wake us up and tell us to get into “matav shteim” (pushup position).

This is the most valuable lesson I will take with me from this pre-army program. It’s not the workouts themselves; I have always been a runner, an athlete, and I would have been fine physically in the army, as I have been during our workouts. Rather, it’s learning to cope with being tired, sore, and on edge, to deal with new situations, and to still be mentally present and alert. It’s all about having the right mindset and becoming mentally tough enough to know that you can keep pushing past your breaking point. A lot of our workouts have made me realize that exhaustion and doing well in an army environment are more a function of mental fortitude than actual physical ability.

Crawling is the best example of this. Crawling is purely a function of mental toughness: are you able to let go of that fear, that voice in your head telling you to take it easy, and just say fuck it, and then crawl with reckless abandon? To go as hard as you can? One day we were crawling on really tough terrain (rocks, dirt, and concrete) and I was struggling because each step was too painful. I watched another kid crawl and he was killing it, he was just going so much faster and harder than I was. It was like he was crawling on a mattress. Something in my mind snapped at that moment. I realized that this pain, however uncomfortable, would be fleeting. If I could, like my friend, be mentally tough enough to put my mind elsewhere and just put one foot in front of the other, I would crush it. This awakening allowed me to crawl with a newfound intensity at a higher gear, as I broke free of that voice in my head telling me to stop, slow down and take a break. I have never finished lower than second (out of 25) in any crawling training since. In fact, while at an army base practicing the IDF obstacle course  (we need to complete it in a certain time to graduate basic training), I completed the course with the fastest time in the 6 year history of this pre-army training program, and a time eligible for special forces.

This is why crawling is such a large component of all the “gibushim” (tryouts) for the IDF special forces: they want to see if we can block out the noise and push ourselves as far as we can possibly go; to block out the pain and exhaustion, and do what we need to. How bad do we want to be here?

During a workout when we were in “matav shteim” (pushup position) and our arms started to shake, our commander told us that our bodies shaking just means our mind is trying to trick our bodies into thinking that we can’t go any further, that we have reached our limit because it doesn’t want to have to suffer. As he said “that’s bullshit. You can do this all day once you realize that the pain is all in your mind. There’s nothing about this that will injure you.” Sometimes, our mefaked makes us do pushups on our fists on the cement. At first, this was unbearably painful; I couldn’t do it. My mind told my body it was too painful. After doing it a little longer each time though, I realized that I could endure the pain more and more each time, until it started to feel natural. After our toughest workout to date, we had a competition (with our eyes shut) to see who could stay in fist pushup position on rocks longest without succumbing to the pain. I held out the longest, but as my eyes were shut, I was unaware that I had won…I ended up enduring the pain, body shaking convulsively, for 10 minutes after everyone else had quit.

I still hate doing this, but I know that I can.
And that is a huge difference.

Pushing past those artificial barriers becomes euphoric. You realize that you are capable of enduring so much more than you thought and you realize that each time you do so, mental barriers start falling down one by one.

What a wonderful lesson, not just for my IDF service, but to have with me the rest of my life.

3 Weeks Until I am a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

Why Are You Here?

We’re sitting in a circle, covered in mud, dirt, and dust. We’ve just run, crawled, carried each other on our backs, done pushups, squats and the works. Our knees are scratched, our elbows are bruised, and we’re gazing at the crisp dark sky trying to catch our breath.  Our mefaked (commander) picks up some dirt and speaks confidently, yet quietly, from his heart.

 “You guys understand how unbelievable this is right? This moment. This land. Our ancestors, our grandparents only 70 years ago, would have bled for this; they would have died 100 times over for this opportunity to fight. To do what you are doing.  To get dirty, to crawl, to claw, to fight, to have a FUCKING CHANCE. Because let me be clear guys…. its either this or the chambers. It’s either this or the pogroms. Look at the world around you; you see what’s happening… “Death to the Jews” is back… Either we stand here; wanting to fight, suffer, and sacrifice for what we have or it’s back to that. Helpless. And guys, I WILL NOT let that happen. We are not going back to that. Ever. Every time you’re in pain, you’re tired, you’re dirty and you’re suffering remember that you’re living out and protecting a dream that hasn’t been possible to our people in 2000 years. To live and fight as Jews protecting the Jewish nation. This is beautiful.”

It’s Thursday night, 2:30 a.m. when we’re woken up and told we have 3 minutes to be outside and standing in formation, ready for an all night Masa (long army hike). We walk/run at a brisk pace until we reach the outside walls of the old city of Yerusahlim.

We’re introduced to the “aluncar” (stretcher), and told that the entire hike would be done carrying one of our heaviest (injured) guys on the stretcher. Throughout the hike, we ran with the stretcher, crawled with the stretcher, marched with it, and not once, over the 5-hour ordeal, could we let it touch the ground. Walking crazy-long distances with someone on a stretcher is a huge part of basic training for infantry, and unfortunately an essential skill to have during times of war. Every 30 seconds or so we would rotate positions, carrying the stretcher, always staying in our two line formation, moving as quickly as possible. It was physically exhausting and my shoulders constantly felt like they were cracking under the weight. But this wasn’t what made our Masa such an exhilarating experience...

At the onset of the hike, our commander and the accompanying soldiers told us that we would be hiking through Arab East Jerusalem; a very dangerous area right now. Since the 3 boys were kidnapped this summer, there has largely been a silent intifada in Jerusalem that the media chooses to ignore, but in the last few weeks, the PA’s incitement and the resulting murderous terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) have intensified to a terrifying degree. The night we ventured into East Jerusalem was the day after civil rights activist (I’m baffled as to how preaching that Jews and Muslims should share the Temple Mount and pray peacefully together makes someone a “radical right winger”) Rabbi Glick was shot by Arab terrorists. Our commanders told us that when we walk through the Arab section, "People are going be yelling at you, spitting at you, and eying you guys down. You guys are Hebrew warriors. You have to show no fear. This is our capital. Walk how a Jew should walk in Jerusalem. Stand up straight, proud, and professional. Nothing fazes you. They’re going to know that you’re training to be soldiers and they want to see what you are all made of for the next round. If any fighting breaks out, stay low and let the soldiers on patrol take care of it, Let’s Go."

So we begin our foray into East Jerusalem, walking along the street behind (and outside) the Old City, on the Temple Mount side, when we come across 100 Arabs standing outside the Temple Mount (it had been blocked that night because of the terrorist attack on Rabbi Glick the day before). My heart is thumping, my adrenaline has energized me, and a steely gaze masks, and slowly disintegrates, the knot of fear in my stomach. The Arabs see us, a bunch of soon-to-be-soldiers carrying someone on a stretcher, with strapped IDF soldiers surrounding us, and they start chanting, in an eerie unison, “Allahu Akbar” until we march past them. (Free political commentary because I can’t help myself: they weren’t chanting anything about statehood, “occupation” etc. they were echoing Hamas, Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk, though I digress). Their chanting made us more resolute to stand up straight and emanate strength.

As we walked through the street, Arabs would slow their cars and people on the street would just stand still and glare at us. Most had beards and a few had the terrorist kahila scarf, in admiration of Palestinian terrorist leader Yasser Arafat and the “resistance”. It was scary, and yet it wasn’t because we were so focused on moving forward, staying alert and protecting our friend on the stretcher that the fear didn’t really enter my mind.

After hiking through a mountainous village overlooking the old city (yes with the stretcher) we saw how and in what manner the Paratroopers in ’67 liberated the old city. We were standing at the spot from which, during their 19-year illegal occupation, the Jordanians fired rockets at the Jewish Israelis below, and it became patently obvious how suicidal it would be for Israel to give up land that would be used, once again, to terrorize Jewish Jerusalem.

After pushing us to our breaking point in lifting and holding the stretcher above our heads, our commanders led us back down through the village. Without even noticing, it had suddenly become light out. Only after enduring hours of the dark bleariness of the night can we truly appreciate the miracle of a crisp blue sky and a radiating Sun.

On the way back down, we got a few rocks thrown at us, and so we ran with the stretcher, looking for safer ground as the soldiers surveyed the area to no avail. We eventually finished our hike at around 7:30 am, gazing dreamily at the Western Wall, and feeling proud that we were so close to do doing our part in protecting this dream.  Tired, sore, and sweaty we stood in the heart of Yerushalim, the very place, where the Jewish people last enjoyed freedom, dignity, and sovereignty in our eternal capital. After such a tense evening, it was euphoric to be standing at the place that, for 2000 years, has served as the physical and spiritual backbone of the Jewish nation. Jerusalem is an epic; it is a vestige of the history that has binded us to this land since time immortal. And I am honored that I get do my part in protecting it.

“A new generation grew up which turned its back on fear. It began to fight instead of to plead. Out of blood and fire and tears and ashes a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years, ‘The Fighting Jew.’” That Jew whom the world considered dead and buried never to rise again, has arisen. For he has learned that "simple truth" of life and death, and he will never again go down to the sides of the pit and vanish from the off the Earth."  Menachem Begin, The Revolt

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Road Less Traveled

When I look at snap chat videos of my friends hanging out, partying, and happily navigating the post-college NYC lifestyle, a surprising calm washes over me. An inner peace that stems from knowing I am living a decision borne from the inner depths of my being and carried out without a hint of regret. How often do we get to do something that we appreciate as our raison d'ĂȘtre ?

Don’t get me wrong. I miss everybody. It’s only been a month, and I speak to my friends and family often, but I already understand what being "out of the loop” feels like. I would love to hang out with my friends, share stories, crack inside jokes for hours on end, and pass out watching Entourage re-runs. I would love to begin building my career and to start learning the tools of the trade and how to be successful from my role model and best friend. Of course. Looking at pictures and videos of my friends’ partying and my parents playing with my dogs can fill me with a very tangible longing for my family, friends, and my ‘normal’ American life.

 Every once in a  while, I feel so shocked at the decision I’ve made that I briefly think that my imagination has run amok and my Israel experience is all in my head. Obviously, I tell myself, I wouldn’t have moved thousands of miles away, by myself, to hold a gun, stand in the desert, and (from what I hear) eat canned tuna. Indeed, my soon-to-be reality has become so far-fetched that, at times, it ceases to feel real. In these moments, coming back to Earth takes a few seconds. The realization that I really am in Israel and that I will soon be in the IDF crystallizes and I turn into a leaking bundle of nerves as I think about how far from my life plan I have veered.

I am unsettled only momentarily, however, as I realize that despite whatever homesickness, familial longing, and anxiety I am feeling, I never waver in my focus. This is, ultimately, what gives me the surprising calm I spoke of earlier. It’s not the lack of emotional longing, but my resoluteness in spite of that emotional pull, that dictates my ease. Looking at family and friends’ pictures and videos fills me with a calm sense of purpose precisely because I can feel those pangs of longing and still instintively know that my motivation to be here is stronger and more powerful than all of it.

When I was 12 years old, my dad gave me Leon Uris's epic novel, Exodus, with an inscription about what it means to be a Jew and with a note about our people's history. From the first time I read the name Ari Ben Canaan I've been hooked on understanding and protecting this dream. I have read every book, pamphlet, and article about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish history that I could find. I've read journalists I loved, I've read journalists that Menachem Begin would have deemed J.W.T.K (Jews with trembling knees), and I forced myself to read the mostly unfounded biases emanating from our detractors. 

Over the years, my college friends (Jewish and non-Jewish) grew accustomed to me talking about Israel in between watching Lebron dunk on ESPN. Hatikvah emanated from my room before a workout session on more than one occassion. My friends stopped acting surprised when I argued with professors and they would always allow me to finish my thoughts on the way back to the house after class. They definitely learned to embrace my promises (bribes?) of food if they came to my Israeli club events. (Righteously or not, Kappa Sig always made their presence felt at Lehigh Friends of Israel, and as the saying goes, "we need the dues.")

It didn't take long for me to realize that my passion for understanding and discussing Israel and Jewish history and my commitment to do everything in my power (founding an advocacy club, writing a political blog, going to AIPAC)  to ensure the safety of the Jewish people and the Jewish state wasn't fleeting or shallow. It wasn't a college hobby, or a fad that seemed interesting at the time. It was and is an essential part of my personal story . This was the start of my realization that the uniqueness of my passion called for an equally unique and significant way of doing my part and leaving my mark. 

I am utterly content knowing that I am where I should be-doing exactly what I need to do. Regardless of the ups and downs inherent to my soon-to-begin IDF experience, it is downright euphoric to know that I am living out a dream that is so fundamental to who I am as a Drucker, as a Jew, and as a human being.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rosh Hoshana and Getting Settled

My first three days in Israel were relaxing and productive; I spent time hanging out with my close family friend who I'm staying with in Tel Aviv (until I figure out my long term living situation). I made the necessary arrangements to begin the army process i.e. I had my first interview with the IDF and I learned in greater detail what the process of joining the IDF will entail over the ensuing weeks and months. I walked around and explored beautiful Tel Aviv for hours, trying to speak as much Hebrew as I could muster. Through it all, I was a whirlwind of excitement, energy and nerves as I was eager to get this new adventure going.

Rosh Hoshanna, the Jewish New Year, began Wednesday night, three days after I arrived in Israel. Throughout the summer I had kept in touch with a nice Israeli man that I had met at a conference in  July, and so upon my arrival to Israel he invited me to spend the holidays with his family in Haifa. I was excited!

After an easy hour-long train ride to Haifa, my new friend picked me up at the train station and drove me to his beautiful home on Mt. Carmel and introduced me to his family. It was the start of an unbelievable weekend.

On the Wednesday night of Rosh Hoshanna, they had their family (cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc.) over for dinner as well as two Russian lone soldiers and myself. I felt blessed to be part of such a special and intimate Rosh Hoshana evening with new family and friends. Within minutes I felt comfortable and at home with the whole crew; they were all so eager to learn about me, hear my story, and make sure I was eating enough (I was...and of course, the food was amazing).

Spending the weekend with such a warm and gracious family alleviated all of the nerves and anxieties I was feeling the first few days after embarking on this radical deviation from my expected life path. It was a warm, familial atmosphere that honestly made me forget that I was thousands of miles away from my family on the holidays.

I spent my days in Haifa with the family's son, daughter, her boyfriend, and their cousin, all of whom I had an amazing time hanging out with.  The son is 20 years old and currently serving in the IDF, and I spent a lot of time getting to know him and his friends throughout the weekend. All of his friends were great, even switching back and forth to english so I could follow the conversation and speak more than just the limited hebrew in my arsenal (though following along all weekend did wonders for my hebrew). We spent a night drinking coffee at a beautiful and picturesque overlook in Haifa. We spent Saturday morning hanging out in a gorgeous natural spring near Nahariah (see picture), jumping in and out of the water, drinking more coffee (yet another reason I love Israel-the crazy amount of coffee available at every occasion) and listening to music (I introduced country music to solid reviews) along the river bank. We enjoyed a delicious hummus lunch in the old Arab city of Akko (I think I have humus running through my veins) and we spent an awesome night at a nightclub right outside of Haifa just to confirm that I still hate/don't get electronic/rave music.

 It was also awesome hanging out with his sister and her boyfriend, both a bit older and currently studying at university (he loved all of the stories and ridiculousness having to do with “frat life"). I became really close with them as well; they had an older brother/sister vibe that made me feel completely at ease in their company to joke around, have fun, and be myself. Upon leaving, they could not have been more gracious and genuine in wanting me to come back as often as possible and to stay at their place (I'm already taking them up on their offer for Sukkot this week!)

I left from my weekend in Haifa knowing that I had met my “adopted Israeli family” and that I gained some amazing new friends. Living in a new place on your own can be scary and seem overwhelming at times…knowing that I have such great people that I can lean on, stay with, and feel like a part of the family with, is comforting beyond words.

I’ve spent the past few days taking care of some more army bureaucracy type stuff, all of which, thus far, has been easier than I anticipated (though it was certainly frustrating at times). I’ve taken care of the official Mahal (foreign volunteer) forms and signatures, received my army Visa (which only took 4 hours) and now I’m waiting for my Tzav Rishon (first army draft notice) from the IDF itself. I’ve also begun a pre-army training program that helps prepare Lone Soldiers physically for the rigors of getting into combat units (specifically special forces units), for which there are tryouts.  So far the workouts have been tough, but I’ve loved every second of them, as I realize each one is taking me one step closer to my dream. I’m also in the process of looking for a kibbutz to move into for the foreseeable future and I may be doing another pre-army training program as well, though I’ll save those details for my next post.

It feels weird at times being disconnected from life in America and my family and friends...especially for me. I was the kid at camp that was homesick and missed my parents my SECOND summer away. I've always bounced every aspect of my life off my dad; throughout college I spoke to my mom on a tri-daily basis; and there's nobody I would rather hang out with then my sister Gabby. That's why it's strange that I really haven't gotten homesick or down about how far away I am from all of the people in my life or how long it will be until I am home and back in something approaching my comfort zone. But at the same time, it's not strange. Because, being here, right now, feels right in every way; I feel at ease and I feel at home. Knowing that I will soon get to do my part in defending the Jewish state, that I will be a part of a legacy that has inspired me and been at the core of my identity for so long, fills me with an intensity, determination and sense of purpose that I wouldn't trade for anything.

On Monday night, I was training at the Namal in Tel Aviv…with the beautiful Tel Aviv beach line in front and the exquisite skyscrapers of Ramat Gan at my back. As I looked at the sky for a brief second, I was emotionally blown away. It felt like I was living a dream. At that moment, I was training with Jews from France, Australia, Russia and America who all came to Israel to defend our people, our homeland, and our history. While not yet in the army, at that moment, I understood.

I am training and fighting to defend the Jewish people. I am living the Zionist dream.

Shana Tova Chaverim.

My Flight to Israel

As anyone who has traveled on El-Al (the Israel national airlines) knows, before you go through security, you must speak with an El-Al security representative. He (or she) asks you an assortment of questions about why you’re going to Israel, whether you have family there, if you’ve been there before etc. They’re rather direct in letting you know that they’re doing all of this to ensure that you are not a security threat to the flight or to the state of Israel upon arriving. For people unaccustomed to this, it can be a bit jarring and disorienting to find yourself acting defensive for no discernable reason.

I have always loved this.

Israel understands that there are too many people out there that want to terrorize and (ultimately) destroy Israel and the Jewish people. The fact that El-Al is the safest airline in the world, despite being the most threatened, is a testament to the resolve and capability of the Jewish state to defend her people.

It is more than just this though.

Getting to the airport and speaking with El-Al security, wherever you are in the world, is a person’s first tangible encounter with the reality of Jewish sovereignty. With Jewish responsibility. With the fact that the Jewish people, finally, after 2,000 years of helplessness, have both the will and the means to defend our families and our eternal homeland. Jewish security no longer means vulnerability, appeasement or an unfounded hope in the goodness of others. It means having the strength and the courage to independently ensure our own security and our own freedom. This largely subconscious understanding together with the knowledge that I will soon touch down in Eretz Israel has always filled my heart with pride as I began my Israel travels: the whole experience is a microcosm of Zionism.

This time was even more special. Explaining to the security guy my story and why I was traveling to Israel, he looked me in the eyes, gave me a firm handshake and a hug, and said, “Thank you for what you are doing. We need more people like you. Good luck and stay strong.” It was a heartwarming welcome and I was held temporarily speechless by such a relatively emotional outburst from a  traditionally stoic security agent. It made me even more resolute in my commitment to Israel, and it eased some of the anxieties I was feeling. I was doing the right thing. 

For days leading up to the move, I had been nervous, emotional, and a bit shell struck…as in holy shit I’m really going through with this. It wasn’t just something I was talking about or thinking about anymore: I was literally getting on a plane in 2 days. I was really excited to finally get to Israel, but I was also anxious as hell to see how I would cope with everything. 

That moment with the security guard and then seeing the giant El-Al plane through the airport window, with the Blue star of David proudly and defiantly perched upon its wing was something I will always remember: The intensity of my dream to do my part in defending Israel and the Jewish people was crystal clear at that moment. Waiting in the airport, with my bags draped over my shoulders, I felt steeped in our people’s history.

I thought of all of the idealistic Jews from all over the world, over the past 150 years, who left their homes and their lives determined to contribute to the Zionist dream, defend the Jewish people, and rebuild the Jewish homeland.  I thought of Mickey Marcus, an American Jew (and West Point graduate) who became the first general of a Jewish army in 2,000 years and who gave his life defending the new born state of Israel. I thought of the late Michael Levin, a hero of mine, who returned to Israel during the second Lebanon War to be with his brothers, despite already completing his service and being back home in America.

I thought of the Jews from Arab lands that fled persecution with nothing but the clothes on their back to reach the Jewish homeland. I thought of the Ethiopians that held onto their Judaism throughout the centuries and whose dreams were finally realized as they were rescued to the safe haven of the homeland. I thought of the Yemenites and Operation Red Carpet. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of Russians that immigrated to Israel upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and I thought of the record number of French Jews that are currently on their way to the Jewish state against a renewed backdrop of Anti-Semetism.  In that moment, Jewish and Israeli history were gripping. Everything else was details. Background music.  

This love of Israel and my fundamental belief in the truths of Zionism is what led me down this path and its what will allow me to overcome all the tough moments I am certain to endure throughout my service. But while I think this passion is necessary to endure as a Lone Soldier, there are tons of other reasons why Americans join the IDF. Even for me, there are other benefits that complement my Zionist motivation; primarily the challenge of having to prove my mettle in such a fundamental way. I've had a pretty cushy American life (camp, sports, college), and I know I am lucky to have had such a fun and loving childhood. This next chapter will be a change. It will be brutal at times. The IDF will be by far the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging 18 months I've ever experienced. I will have to to suffer and endure, become mentally tougher, fight for myself, and go past my breaking point in order to succeed. I will have to dig deep to really find out what I'm made out of.

I can't wait to find out.

As my dad is fond of saying, “When your why is strong enough, you’ll figure out the how.”

I know my Why. It is strong enough.

Welcome to Eretz Israel.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why I'm Joining the IDF

In September, I'll be moving to Israel to realize my dream of serving in the Israel Defense Forces, which I will begin in December. Joining the IDF has been in the back of my mind since I first listened to my dad speak about the world's lone Jewish state over 10 years ago. The idea has reverberated in my head for a while, especially in the last 4 years when I spent a lot of time in Israel, but it was never more than a far-fetched dream, divorced from reality. 

But around a month before graduation, I really started to entertain the possibility of joining. The fact that it was now or never, that once I started my career, the IDF door would be shut forever, really forced me to confront this dream of mine and see how committed I was to achieving it. 10 years down the road, I didn't want to regret not having done my part for my people when I had the chance.

 Obviously there were a lot of negatives that initially, and for some time thereafter, kept me from making this move; sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and think that I had dreamt up my IDF aspirations, and that it wasn't really something I was considering. I would wake up and laugh at myself for even contemplating this, and I would tell myself to forget the entire idea, put on a shirt and tie, and begin my "real" life. But I never could. For some reason, I could not let this dream die. No matter how ridiculous I thought it was at times, I couldn't let the IDF go. The pull was always there. In my heart and in my soul. 

It took me two months to really come to peace with what joining would mean: I would be in another country for almost 2 years without any family or many close friends. I would be a soldier...enduring all of the grueling training, inevitable mental and emotional breakdowns, and physical exhaustion that comes with being in combat infantry. I would have to do all of this without the comfort of going home on weekends and being able to recooperate with my family and friends. I would be doing all of this while speaking a language I have only started committing to learn this week. I would be delaying "my real life" and I would be essentially postponing my dream of working with my dad, growing our business, and helping all of my friends achieve their financial dreams. 

 The risk of danger, real life threatening danger, was always there; as a suburban guy, lucky in health and circumstance, sometimes it was tough to really grasp what the idea of "life threatening war" with real enemies and real weapons would even feel like. The times that I grasped this truth, if only momentarily, stopped me in my tracks: the hair stood up on my back and my entire body grew wet with sweat. But my brothers and sisters in Israel all had to deal with this fear and make this sacrifice to protect our homeland....And so, so do I. I could not let this idea go...

From the time I was old enough to listen to my dad speak, I understood that as Israel goes, so goes the Jewish people. I came to understood that for two thousand years, the Jews were a kicked around, abused, and vulnerable people subjected to the violent whims of the world. With no state to call our own and no people willing to stand up for us or protect us, we endured pogroms, expulsion, mass murder, dhimmitude, and persecution in both Christiandom and the Muslim world. It all culminated in the Holocaust. The systematic murder of 6 million of our people. The world knowing and not doing a damn thing to stop the killing nor opening their gates to the refugees.  The devastation of European Jewry had reiterated a truth that Jews honest with themselves had always known: We can't count on anyone but ourselves. So long as we were dependent on ours for our survival, the Jewish people would remain demoralized and weak, and our very survival a permanent question.

Even more disheartening than any persecution we suffered from the hand of others, in my opinion, is the effect that 2,000 years of ghettoization had on the Jewish people's opinion of Ourselves. Some Jews internalized the hate of our oppressors; they began to rationalize Anti-Semitism and tried to modify their behavior or blame "other Jews" in the delusional hopes that it would put them beyond reproach. Exile and devastation had weakened and demoralized the Jew and his sense of self worth. The fact that Jew-hatred is irrational and nonsensical, that Jews were hated for being both too capitalist and too socialist, too assimilationist and too particularist, too cowardly and too aggressive, was difficult to confront. If Jew-hatred wasn't based on anything real that we did, but rather revealed the hate our detractors, how could we possibly end our persecution? We could not. We cannot. 

As the late Great Menachem Begin once remarked, "The seeds of Jewish destruction lie in passively enabling the enemy to humiliate us." 

My dad would not stand for that sort of passiveness. He would be proud of his Jewishness. He would not be shy about it, apologize for it, or grow detached from it. He is not religious; it has little to do with religion or God, it has everything to do with a bond among people. He would do all that he could to support and stand up for our people. "Jews watch out for other Jews, because nobody else will" I've heard on more than one occasion...

The creation of Israel was nothing less and nothing more than the culmination of a 2,000-year-old dream to once again be a free people in our own land. Through sheer force of will, relentless spirit, and the desperation of necessity...the Jews reclaimed a mostly destitute land, revived a biblical language, and recreated their national culture. The Jews of modern day Israel walk the same land, practice the same faith, and speak the same language that our ancient ancestors did 3,000 years ago…The Jewish return to Zion, after millennia spent as homeless wanderers, is a phenomenon unparalleled in the annals of history. 

Zionism failed, however, in its attempt to quell Anti-Semitism: the idea that Israel's creation would finally normalize the Jewish people, and that Israel would exist as a “nation like any other” was flawed from the start. Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East have treated the world’s lone Jewish state with much of the same ruthlessness with which their forbearers treated their individual Jews for millennia.

From the start, the creation of a Jewish state merely allowed Anti-Semites to masquerade their hatred in terms, after the horrors of the Holocaust, more palatable to the world, Anti-Zionism, Anti-Israel rhetoric.  As Rabbi Sacks recently wrote, throughout history there has always been a pretext to "justify" Jew hatred: in the Middle Ages Jews were hated "for" our religion, in the 18th-20th centuries we were hated "for" our race, and in recent decades we have become hated "for" our nation-state. 

Israel's early military successes, it's ability to with-stand the genocidal attacks of its neighbors, and the security measures enacted in order to keep the Jewish state alive further exasperated a world unaccustomed and uncomfortable with Jewish agency and Jewish resiliency. Jews existing as helpless victims to be pitied was fine; powerful Jews successfully defending themselves and being proud in their Jewishness was and is anemia to the world. 

While Anti-Zionists claim that their views are merely political, the truth tells a different tale: Classic Anti-Semetism. This newfound hatred of the Jewish state is patently anti-semetic as it denies the Jews the right to self-determination given to all other peoples, and, of the 193 countries in the world, it challenges only the Jewish state's "right to exist." The most horrible demonizations of the Jewish people throughout history (blood libels, the intentional murder of children, Jewish control of the media, rotting and destabilizing society, etc.) have now been seamlessly attached to the Jewish state, with hardly anyone grasping the irony.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

And yet....

Zionism succeeded in its more reasonable, and ultimately, more important goal. 

Never again. Never again would Jews be persecuted with nowhere to go. No longer would be homeless. Never again could the world spill Jewish blood with impunity. No longer would a Jew feel inferior or weak because they were a Jew. We would hold our heads high. With the creation of Israel, the Jewish people's vitality, after 2,000 years in the diaspora, has been restored. With the establishment of the Jewish state, the Jewish people would never again go quietly to our graves. Never again "because he was a Jew." Those days are over.  Anti-Semitism would not be defeated, but rather than turn the other cheek or bow their heads, Jews would stand up straight, stare you in the eyes, and tell you to go f-ck yourself.  We will fight. We control our own destiny.

The men and women of the IDF have always been heroes of mine because they changed my perception of who we can be and how Jews can live; not as helpless victims but as hardened fighters and leaders. We have Modern Jewish Warriors like Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and Yoni Netanyahu, Great Jewish statesmen like Menachem Begin, Michael Oren (my two personal heroes, whose love and devotion to the Jewish people knew no bounds) and the great David Ben Gurion. The Jewish people have returned to the forefront of history and to the forefront of our own miraculous story; not as passive subjects, but as free actors shaping our own existence, strengthening our peoplehood, and restoring our destiny in our eternal Homeland. The defining image of Jewish life in the twentieth century would not be the dead bodies at Auschwitz, but the courageous men and women of the Israel Defense Forces guarding the gates of our homeland.

This is everything. 

When the world hit us, we would hit back. Harder. We would let the world know that we are no longer the wandering Jew in need of respite. We have a homeland. We have a state. We have an army. We will take care of our own.

I have come to love Israel not just for what it represents as an idea but for what it stands for in reality. A liberal, pluralistic democracy, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that safeguards the equal rights of women, minorities, and people of all religions, races, and sexual orientations. Israeli Arabs, a minority, have a greater quality of life and more civil and political rights (equal to those of Israeli Jews) than Arabs in any Arab country on Earth. Using any possible metric (medicinal, technological, humanitarian, moral) Israel has done more to advance mankind than almost every country on Earth. All of this has been done despite living amid the reality of constant warfare and unrelenting terrorism from neighbors whose central goal remains the destruction of the Jewish state.  No other country on Earth has to defend their very right to exist on a daily basis and no other country would have achieved as much, morally or technologically, in similar circumstances.

After making Israeli friends over the past 4 years and spending over 6 months there during that span, I have come to appreciate the state of Israel even more completely and intimately. I love Israel and all of her quirks. The lively atmosphere and the passion for life that Israelis exude never cease to amaze me. I love that despite all of the bickering, infighting and passionate debate, Israelis always seem to know how to come together as one when it matters most. The intensity of the affection I’ve felt from the people of Israel while there is matched only now by the gratitude I feel in getting to be a part of it all.

I am a part of Israel. I feel a personal responsibility to do my part in defending and protecting the Jewish people. Getting to defend my people and getting to follow in the footsteps of heroes like Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, and Yoni Netanyahu is almost beyond words. While not normally sentimental, pictures and experiences related to Israel and the Jewish people cut to the core of my being: I've cried with joy at the sight of an M16 with a Jewish star, and I tear up every time I watch something about the horrors of the Holocaust. My soul yearns for me to do my part to ensure that the Jewish people will never again have to return to the hopelessness of the past. I know that the men and women of the IDF are not just protecting their families and their country; they are defending my right to be a Jew, my right to be free and practice my faith in any way that I choose.

They are my brothers and sisters, and they are defending my family. I would like to return the favor. 

My joining the IDF does nothing to diminish my love for the United States, which is my first home, and the greatest country on Earth. I am proud to be American, and I am lucky to have grown up in an American culture that teaches its children that freedom is worth fighting for, that hard work breeds opportunity, and that we are meant to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. 

 It is an essential part of the American dream that individuals, armed with "will power, determination and moral courage" (Reagan) are capable of achieving great things and of inspiring others to do the same. I believe in that dream. Fighting and sacrificing for my people's right to life, security, and dignity, stems from my American sensibilities and my belief and pride in America itself. 

American exceptionalism to me is not a campaign slogan, it is a fact of history: American values have guided the world for a century, and we have created opportunities and the hopeful promise of a better life for billions of people around the globe. America is not perfect- it is after all a human creation- but in an imperfect world, it is mankind's greatest experiment and our best hope for the future.

Joining the IDF and not the US military is also a matter of need; Israel is surrounded by 250 million people that openly yearn for its annihilation, and it has lived amidst this perpetual siege against its very right to exist for 66 years.  Fortunately America faces no such immediate threat to its homeland, its existence, or its way of life, and I can, without guilt, leave to defend my second home, and know that I am defending America's values as well.

Jews are called the “Canary in the Coal Mine” because Jew-hatred is often the first sign of the moral decay and deprivation that will eventually consume the society at large. Israel, as the world’s lone Jewish state, and as the “Jew” in the family of nations, exists in much the same way. Because of its Jewish nature and its proximity to evil, Israel is the West's first-line of defense against the ravages of Militant Islam. Hamas. Al-Qaeda. ISIS. Boko Haram. Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah. These terror groups all share an unabashed hatred for modernity, freedom, and the democratic values that have come to define the western world. While their first targets may vary, their ultimate goal of a global caliphate, imposed Sharia law, and the destruction of the West remains the same. Quite simply, they are determined to destroy our way of life. When they chant "Death to Israel", "Death to America" is always the chorus. 

America and Israel, as the leading nations against this threat, and in their shared loved of life, liberty, and the dignity of the individual must stand together in the face of such evil. I believe wholeheartedly in this unity among friends, and in the special relationship that has survived (and will survive) every crisis, argument, and leadership turnover. A stronger Israel means a stronger America and therefore a stronger free world.
The Gaza conflict has strengthened my certainty in the importance of what I will be doing. The media's coverage of this conflict is the failed litmus test in the world's inability to treat the Jewish state fairly, equally, and humanely. 

As I look around the world and I see how the world responds to Israel's defending its citizens against Hamas, I am reminded, yet again, what it means that Israel is a Jewish state. It means that Israel is not allowed to respond to an onslaught of rockets that threaten over 3 million of its citizens in the same way that other states would. It means that despite facing a genocidal terrorist organization that hides behind its civilians and urges them to die to score propaganda points, Israel is blamed for casualties. It means that despite having a better civilian casualty rate than any other country (US, GB, France) that has  fought an urban conflict, and being the only one whose genocidal enemy stands poised at it’s borders, only Israeli military actions are individually scrutinized and demonized by the international community. It means that only Israeli military actions are held up against that impossible magnifying glass of absolute perfection.

It means that despite transferring hundreds of tons of food and medicinal supplies to the enemy's civilians and providing hospital care for injured Palestinians, Israel is accused of indiscriminate murder. It means that throwing pamphlets, making phone calls, and warning enemy civilians of attacks to come, which no other army on Earth does, and which puts its own soldiers at risk, is not enough. It means that Hamas can stockpiles rockets in SCHOOLS and MOSQUES, launch rockets from HOSPITALS and HOUSES, create bomb shelters ONLY for Hamas terrorists, and physically prevents Gazans from heeding IDF calls to flea to safety. It means that, to the outside world, Israel cannot win. 

There is no moral equivalence here; there are not two sides to this story. Being impartial, fair, and honest means supporting Israel against a terrorist organization that calls for her annihilation and that uses its own people as human shields. Being impartial means equating Hamas with Al-Qaeda and understanding that it is better for all- Jews and Arabs alike - for them to be eliminated.  This conflict is a matter of right and wrong; victim and aggressor; cause and effect. Hamas wants as many dead Israelis and Palestinians as possible. Israel wants to defend herself from rocket attacks with as few casualties on all sides as possible and go home. Israel unilaterally left Gaza 9 years ago, giving control to the Palestinians, hoping for peace. They got rockets instead, and so reluctantly had to return to confront the terror. It is that simple.   

The death of civilians in Gaza is obviously tragic, and one only needs to be human to feel empathetic about it. Unfortunately, this state of affairs  is unavoidable so long as Hamas is allowed to commit double war crimes and act with impunity. The inability of the world to see such obvious truths, while not surprising, is endlessly disappointing.  

The fervor of the Jew-hatred of "Anti-Israel" protesters around the world is both revealing and bone-chilling.Violent displays of Jew hatred are taking over major cities around the world in ways unseen since the Holocaust. Jewish stores are destroyed, synagogues are burned and attacked, and Jewish civilians walking the streets fear for their lives. This harassment is not new, of course, for the Jews of modern day Europe, but the Gaza conflict has given even more pretext to violent European Islamists and their enablers. Violent "protestors" feel comfortable in major European and American cities chanting  "Kill the Jews," and "Back To The Gas Chambers." Blood libels against Jews and genocidal pleas calling for the eradication of the Jewish people and the Jewish state are a staple at Pro-Palestinian rallies all over the world. Radical Imams use their pulpit to spew hateful and genocidal rhetoric against the Jews and Israeli books and Jewish shops are boycotted, if not burned, by their masses. It seems that to wear a yarmulke is to invite an attack. Recently, Jews have started fleeing Europe in numbers unseen since the Holocaust. 

Once could be mistaken for thinking we have returned to 1938.

 Except now…

We have a Jewish state. We have a Jewish army. We have a Homeland that Jews all around the world know is here for them. We will not be quieted and we not be broken.

I am proud to be a Jew. I am proud to be an American. I am proud that I will soon be a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. I am proud that I get the privilege to defend my people's right to life, freedom, and dignity.