We Are Many, We Are One
By Eitan Pessin
I’m currently wrapping up the second half of my sophomore year of high school studying in Israel on the Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) program. The program is amazing in every way, and it was difficult to decide just one thing to write about for now, but I’ve settled on this particular experience—which despite being so different from the rest of the program in a way captured its essence.
We spent four days at Gadna, learning a little about what it’s like to train, and be, in the Israel Defense Force.
Upon entrance to our week at Gadna, we were asked how excited we were for the week on a scale from 1-10. I responded with what I thought was the right answer - seven - though my chest whispered 1. A vegetarian from birth, and a firm believer in communication and peaceful resolution, the prospect of four days in the army scared me like hell.
We weren’t told a lot going in. We were told to bring hoodies for pillows (I didn’t, and was somehow shocked when I wasn’t given a pillow…). We were told to make sure we had water. We were told to be ready for a lot of physical work. We were told not to be scared. We were told that it wouldn’t be for everyone. I was sure I would hate it.
And I did. After being sorted in tzvatot (teams), the first day entailed hours of shouted directions under the hot sun, push-ups for tardiness, and over an hour running back and forth to and from certain formations. Our mifakdot (commanders) were impersonal and brutal - we weren’t even allowed to know their names. That night, after our single hour of free time, we stood in the chet (a Hebrew letter that looks like a door frame, and as such was the name of a common formation of the same shape). As we patiently waited for our mifaked, we played the common game Rose, Bud, Thorn. This game entails naming a good thing from that day (rose), bad thing from that day (thorn), and something you’re excited for (bud). We managed a few roses (cool uniforms, funny jokes, etc.), quite a number of thorns (the heat, the physical work, the strictness) and yet none of us could come up with a bud. The day had been so long, painful, and rough, we couldn’t fathom how we could pass the next three days. And then, when our mifaked arrived, and asked to see our water bottles to make sure they were full to the brim, I had to drop to the gravel to do seven pushups because mine was a millimeter off. My body throbbed and my hands stung from the rocks, but what else was I to do but listen to him? After I’d gotten up, he explained how the night was to work: we would have three minutes to do any last things before bed, and then after lights out, the mifaked would stand over us for thirty minutes to make sure we all went to sleep. And throughout all of this, we were forbidden to talk. If we did, we would have to go stand outside in achshev (the position we had to take in front of commanders) for four minutes, silently and alone. It felt like another blow- we wouldn’t even be allowed to talk and bond at night. And so I finished my first day of gadna; dirty, aching, and laying silently in a grimy sleeping bag with a piece of cardboard for a mattress, and absolutely no pillow. And so I started counting the seconds until it was over.
The next morning, we woke up ridiculously early, and launched right into the day. After a breakfast of bread, cheese, and canned olives, we began “field” activities. We learned how to camouflage, army crawl, run from a grenade. We learned new formations, codenames, positions within a tzevet. It was also the first time I felt us operating as a team. I felt pride when my teammates won camouflage hide and seek by deciding to climb down a sewer pipe. I felt determination as we all dragged ourselves across the rocks in an army crawl. By the end of our three hours of field activities, I felt strong as a team. While not all of us were great at camouflage, a few were brilliant. While not all of us could run from a grenade all that well, a few of us could do it perfectly. One cannot help but imagine what this would be like were it occurring during real combat, when this ability would be the difference between life, maiming, and death.
Until I realized it was only 8am. The rest of the day creeped by. We talked a lot. We learned how the army works, what different colors of berets mean, the hierarchy of a base. But most importantly, we learned about shooting. We were walked through the ethics of shooting, when and where you can use a gun, what your legal (and personal) limits are with the gun. I realized, not having thought about it much, that warfare (at least Israeli style) is not just random and prolific firing but there are serious rules that govern the process. Finally, we got down on the ground and were taught how to shoot. Our mifaked walked us through putting in the magazine, turning it on, charging it. The gun we practiced with was filled with concrete, but I still felt scarily powerful holding it. As we had been constantly reminded, this was a machine made solely for killing. As I lay on the mat, gripping the gun, I tried to imagine someone on the other end, and felt a pit in my stomach. In America, you could get one of these so easily, and then just… end lives. As the people around me joked about the gun, I couldn’t shake my fear of it.
After learning to shoot, we continued on to a lunch of pita and falafel, a brief relief from the hot, monotonous day… until we then had to do a three hour deep clean of the kitchens. I felt my resentment growing; how could the program legally force us to do this? My body ached from labor, my head from exhaustion, and my entire left cheek was peeling from the dusty and dry desert. On top of the physical pain I was in, the entire week felt pointless. Most of us would never enlist, let alone into combat, so why was it necessary that we do all this? If it was for the experience, well the experience was terrible. And despite all this, we just spent most of our time talking- not even doing all that much. For not the first time, I wondered how I would survive the next few days. Things only went downhill after the cleaning. I assumed we would rightfully get a break, after literally being on hands and knees scrubbing floors, but much to my chagrin I was told we would be doing something else. And to double my chagrin, it would, once again, involve guns. We stood at the table our mifaked had brought us to, each with a gun laid in front of us. We followed his instructions as we unscrewed screws, pulled out pieces, wiped them down. As we did this all, I began a discussion with my mifaked. He asked how I’d been enjoying Gadna, whether I was planning to shoot. I explained to him how I was a pacifist, how the guns scared me, how I didn’t understand why we needed to learn, as Americans. As I spoke, he nodded, and smiled gently. He explained that he understood, but to think of it another way. A gun is meant to kill, yes, but also meant to protect. That guns have done terrible things, but also prevented terrible things. And that for us to shoot a gun wasn’t so that we could learn to kill, or protect, but that we could feel the power of one, and someday if we need to, we could make our choice of which we want to do.
His words resonated with me, deeply. I could say, then and there, that I would never shoot a gun willingly. But should I need to, someday, this was my opportunity to feel it, to get a sense of the power, and so I could make an informed choice of whether I want to kill or protect. And then again, our forebears, the pioneers, who sought new lives safe from persecution, maybe they didn’t want to shoot guns willingly either but maybe, just maybe, sometimes you have to. We finished cleaning the guns, and proceeded on, but I continued to feel the impact of what he’d said.
After yet another dinner of cheese, chocolate spread, and canned olives, our mifaked led us to a field of dirt and rocks, where the rest of our program was waiting in their tzvatot. We were ordered to make a line per tzevet, and reminded that if we broke rank or talked, it would be seven pushups. I clenched my jaw- we were clearly about to be doing some race type of thing, and besides the fact that my body ached from head to toe, our tzevet was not favored to win. I felt as if we were the underdogs in some coming of age movie. Most of the boys who played sports were in the other tzevet, not to mention we had had to clean the kitchens and so our hands and knees especially ached. Nonetheless, I felt my competitive edge rise to the surface, through the bruises and cuts and resentment.
The Samal, a towering man with an impressive beard, stood in front of us.
“I will now explain the race,” he said, his voice not loud, but nonetheless resonating.
“It will have a few parts. Each person on the tzevet will run to their mifaked and back once. Then you will all get in a circle and do 100 pushups combined. Then plank for as long as it takes for every one of you to run around the circle. Thirdly, you will then all get in a line and army crawl back to your mifaked. Once you’ve all done this, you run back and stand in a line. First team to finish wins. On your mark, get set, go!”
We exploded into action. The person first in line sprinted to our mifaked, giving him the necessary high five, but on the turn around slipped on the gravel and fell face first.
“Get up!” I screamed, and in seconds he had pushed himself up and was booking it back towards us. As the second person ran, I began to start chanting. Earlier that day, while we’d been waiting for something or other, we’d come up with a chant for our tzevet. It entailed someone shouting “tzevet chamesh,” everybody responding “chamesh”, doing that once more, and ending with everybody yelling “chamesh!” so ultimately we yelled chamesh a total of five times. It had been silly and arbitrary, just to fill some empty time. But I knew now that we’d had an edge because of our cheer.
“Tzevet Chamesh” I shouted at the top of my lungs, feeling a rippling pride as our tzevet responded with a united “Chamesh”.
“TZEVET CHAMESH” I chanted again, as the third person took off.
“Chamesh,” they all responded. And as the third person returned, and I barreled towards our mifaked, I heard a united
I pumped my legs as hard as possible, pushing myself to reach my mifaked. I had tunnel vision, and I could feel my heart pounding as I rounded my mifaked and sped back towards the group. I tagged the next person, clutching my chest as I caught my breath. And as I gained my bearings again, I realized that the air was still penetrated by shouts of “Tzevet Chamesh.” After I’d run, the next person in line had taken on the role of leading the chant. And as they left the next person had. And then the next, and the next until the entire line had led the chant. Every person in the group had both led and followed, and as the last person returned, we wasted no time, diving into a circle to do push ups.
After the first three, my arms started to burn. After the first six my arms felt like cardboard. By the time I’d reached my obligatory ten, I felt as if I was going to throw up. As I crumpled into the gravel, allowing myself a second of relief, I looked up at the kid next to me. His face was red and his breathing staggered as he tried to get just one more press from his shaking arms. Suddenly a pair of strong hands grabbed him, and pulled him up. One of our fellow tzevet members, one of the few who played sports, had done forty pushups, making up for everyone who couldn’t do their share of ten.
“Thank you,” the red faced kid gasped.
“Don’t thank me, just plank,” our tzevet member responded.
I pushed myself up, focusing on my breath as each person in our tzevet stood up and ran around the circle. In for three, out for three, was all I allowed myself to think, a petty distraction compared to the throbbing of my arms and abs. As the last kid slid into place, I allowed myself one glance over to the other groups. Much to my surprise, we were ahead. One group was only halfway done with their planks, and the other was just starting. Nonetheless, we had no time to waste. We all dropped to our hands and knees, and began to army crawl. A few kids who were especially good at it sped ahead, but for the most part, I knew this was where we would lose. We were battered and bruised and on the verge of collapse. As I dragged myself forward, I felt the rocks beneath me grind into my elbows, and each time my knees touched the ground new bruises blooming at the point of impact. We were tired, and dirty and in pain, and I could hear the groups behind us start to army crawl. We were screwed- we’d done so well as a team and this was the end. Until I heard someone start to chant.
I dared a glance up, and saw the two kids who’d already finished standing there, screaming.
“Chamesh” I whispered, pulling myself forward.
“Tzevet Chamesh” they shouted again.
“Chamesh” I grunted, moving another half foot forward.
“Chaaaaaamesh” they shouted, and I clenched my teeth, took a deep inhale, and threw myself forward, driving my elbows and knees into the ground until I got to the mifaked.
As I got up, I saw that we were almost finished. We shouted and shouted, chanted and chanted, until finally, our last member reached the line, and stood up.
“Run!” someone shouted, and we sprinted back. We rushed into a line, standing in achshev, catching our breath. And I felt a wash of joy as I saw that neither of the other groups had finished yet. We stood there silently until they finished, and the Samal stood up once again.
“You all did well, you showed great teamwork and spirit, and a strong resolve. But at the end of the day, only one team can win…”
I grinned to myself.
“And though one team reached the finish line first, that was not the only criteria on which we judged you. We also judged you on spirit and camaraderie.”
I froze. Sure, we had chanted and cheered for each other, but so had the other teams. And I hadn’t been listening to them, what If they were chanting throughout the whole race? We had only chanted while running and crawling. We had to win this, but the way he said it made it seem as if we wouldn’t.
“But nonetheless,” he finished, “Tzevet Chamesh not only won, but showed exceptional teamwork and cared for each other beyond any other tzevet.”
We were too scared of more pushups to cheer, but I felt my heart leap. We’d won. It was like the end of the coming-of-age movie, where the underdogs snag a win.
“Come with me,” our mifaked instructed us, and we followed him to the other side of the field. At this point it had gotten dark, the desert sky awash with twinkling stars and a shimmering moon.
“You did well,” he said, and this time, we all cheered, our voices rising high into the night.
“Now, everybody in a plank position.”
I was too gleeful to even complain.
“We’re going to go in a circle, and I want you to shout a value of yours, and after each person shouts their value, we all repeat it and do a pushup. I’ll start: persistence!”
“Persistence” we all shouted in response, doing a pushup.
“Intelligence,” shouted the next kid, and we repeated and lowered ourselves down and up.
“Kindness, health, friendship, respect,...” we repeated, going up and down over and over again. Finally, as it was my turn, I yelled at the top of my lungs “Teamwork,” and our voices echoed through the desert hills outside the barbed wire fences.
The next day, we woke up at 5 am to shoot. After quickly getting ready for the day, we boarded the bus to the shooting range. The bus ride was short and quiet- no music or talking was allowed. We arrived at the shooting range and got busy immediately. They put us to work setting up the range for shooting. We pitched tents to stay under while we waited, hung tarps for shade, laid down mats to shoot on. We worked for about an hour and a half before they gave us a break for breakfast, which was, unsurprisingly, cheese, chocolate spread, and canned olives. Soon, the first group - which I was in - was called up to shoot. I inhaled for three deep breaths, and climbed up the steep hill toward the range. We followed the orders given- each of us walking, taking a mat, sitting cross legged, and then loading the magazine, the gun, and getting ready to shoot. Yet, just as the Samal was about to give the order to shoot, suddenly a cacophony of voices started shouting. And with each repetition of what they were saying, I felt my stomach drop down another level. They were shouting “chadal”, the word for an emergency protocol. It meant there was a problem that related to the shooting, and everything needed to stop. I immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion- there was a terrorist, maybe someone had died? They walked over to us and told us to go back to the tent to wait. We came back, and besides everybody seeming as confused as we were, there was complete peace.
“What’s happening?” I asked my mifaked.
“There’s a civilian cemetery a few miles behind the range and there are civilians there. The odds that a stray bullet would hit them is miniscule, but we don’t want to risk it. We just need to wait until they leave.”
I nodded, and walked over to join the budding game of Mafia. In the back of my head, however, I was awed by their care. They would upend their entire, carefully planned schedule, to avoid the smallest chance of civilian injury.
After about an hour and a half, the cemetery was clear and so once again we walked into the shooting range. We went through all the same protocol, choosing mats, sitting down, etc. and finally, this time we were able to shoot.
I’d never heard a gun before. It didn’t sound like a firework. It didn’t sound like how it does in movies. It just sounds like a loud pop. But a pop that ricochets off walls, reverberates through the ground, and shakes souls. I froze there, finger on the trigger, hearing the bang, and bang, and bang of each gun going off. I looked at my fellow tzevet members, faces painted with expressions of focus, frustration, glee as they shot and shot and shot. And finally, I mustered the courage to shoot. I slammed my finger onto the trigger, hearing the pop from right in front of my face. I hadn’t thought of recoil- the gun slammed into my shoulder, knocking the breath out of me. I immediately lifted my leg into the air- the signal that I was done shooting.
I have a few reflections about shooting. I have no regrets about doing it- as my mifaked said, it gives me the ability to make an informed choice in the future. That being said, I didn’t enjoy it, and the sound shook me a lot. I felt the power in my hands, and felt the recoil of that power against my chest. I left deciding guns caused more problems than they solved, but understanding that sometimes they might be the only solution. I wondered whether this moment captured the very essence of the Jewish relationship to power and force in general: one of profound disdain, even regret, yet recognition of its necessity if the Jewish project is to continue in a world so deeply hostile to it.
After shooting, we got back to the base. After a lunch of, yet again, falafel and pita, we proceeded throughout the day. It was fairly uneventful, once again full of talks and little action. Then as it began to approach dusk, we were brought back to the “field” where we’d done the team relay. There we met the other tzvatot, and circled around the Samal for instructions.
“You will all now be doing the Gibushim. The Gibushim is something they use in the army at the end of your basic training to test you- it will either push you to your limit, or break you. It will require both mental and physical skill, but if you come out on the other side you will be rewarded. If you don’t think you can do it, leave now.”
Immediately ten people walked away.
I made no judgment of these people, other than to think: what a wonderful luxury we have, in the simulation of Gadna, to walk away from a challenge.
And what a wonderful luxury we have, as Americans, to walk away from the challenges that Israelis face.
“When I say go you will run to me and back, and while you wait, do high knees. Go.”
I took off, sprinting towards him, tapping the line and running back. As I waited for everybody to catch up I jogged in place. He did about ten rounds of this, making each round shorter and cutting anybody who couldn’t do it in time. By the time the round was over we had about fifteen people left.
“Next you’ll be army crawling to me,'' the Samal said. At the word army crawl, my knees began to ache again, and I decided in that minute that I didn’t care enough to try. I walked off, taking advantage of that luxury, grateful to sit down in some shade where I could drink water and quietly chat. We watched our peers as they went through the rest of the Gibushim- army crawling, planking, pushups, sit ups, and finally, they stood in a circle with their arms held above their heads. Each time the Samal said go, they had to switch from holding their arms above their heads to holding them out the sides and vice versa. As they did this, the Samal spoke to them, telling them how pointless it all was, how they could so easily go sit with their friends, how they weren’t actually that strong. I could see the resolve in their faces though, even as they were forced to hold large rocks. Finally, the Samal grabbed a bottle of blue paint. He squirted it onto his hand, and lightly touched each person's face, smearing the paint across their cheeks.
“When I say go, you can put your arms down,” he said, and I could see each of their faces tighten.
As their arms went down, we started clapping. They’d survived. My chest pulsed with pride for them- they’d done what none of us were able to do. In retrospect, I regret my decision not to push through and do it, because the pride I felt simply watching them was incomparable to the pride they felt doing it. Even the pride of trying, yet failing, seemed greater than not having tried at all.
“Come with me,” called our mifaked, through the bustle of our hugs and cheers.
Our tzevet turned and followed him. At this point, the sun was nearly set. We matched his stride in silence, all exchanging exhilarated glances as we went. Finally we arrived at our stopping point, a terrace behind some classrooms that overlooked the entire canyon Gadna was set above. We sat in a circle, holding the silence for a minute or two. Finally, our mifaked pulled out paper and pens, and began to explain.
“I want you to write a letter to a future participant in Gadna. Give them advice, tips, and most importantly, tell them what you’ve learned.”
The materials were passed around, and I began to write:
Dear Future Gadna Participant,
Oy vey… so much to say. For starters, bring the following: pillow, chapstick, bathing suit, and snacks.
Other than that, this week will change you. You need to push yourself, work hard, really try everything. Also- make an effort to embrace the military aspects. Perfect your chet. Scream “Cen Mifaked.” Create a tzevet chant.
You don’t need an ideal team to grow, change, enjoy. This is because you’ll all change, together.
I wasn’t excited for this week. I wouldn't even say I enjoyed it. But I would never undo it, because the experience is unlike anything else.
I now understand the word camaraderie.
We handed him our papers, watching the final sliver of sun set over the hills. In just minutes, the sky that had just been slashed with oranges and pinks was black and dotted with sparkling stars.
“I’m now going to read to you a translated poem by Noam Horev,” said our mifaked quietly, “one that’s very dear to me…
When we were children, we were taught to strive for eternity.
Someone spray painted on the heart of his innocent son
“And they lived happily ever after.”
But as you slowly grow older, you realize eternity is tricky,
Because palaces in the sand do not stay forever
And food in the fridge does not stay forever
And people too, people do not always stay forever…”
As he finished the poem, I could feel a prickling on my skin, a combination of the chilly wind and what I'd like to think are the sparks between connected people. It was the last night, and though I wasn’t particularly good friends with most of my tzevet beforehand, we’d been through what felt like hell to our cushioned soft selves. I hadn’t believed that this trip would make me best friends with any of them - we had lives and personalities outside of Gadna - but I understood that to me, they were the temporary people. They were the people who allowed me to have this life-changing experience, allowed me to learn about the power of a weapon, to learn about persistence; people who were units of a passionate and powerful team that could win the relay against the odds. And here we were, with less than 24 hours left, and all we could do was just sit there and hold the silence, because what other way is there to hold onto a moment?
And I thought about how we surround ourselves with temporary people – the people we are thrust into life with, into a family, into a tribe or clan or nation. We are all temporary people, and we make our meanings together.
After a few minutes, our mifaked spoke, his soft voice slicing gently through each of our thoughts and bringing them back to the group.
“Does anybody want to share something?” he asked.
I don’t remember much of what was said - I was too caught up trying to catalog the view, the wind, the feeling in the moment - but one reflection still sticks out to me.
“I’ve heard before that there are two types of fun,” said one of my tzevet members, the one who’d done the forty pushups.
“The first type of fun is while you’re doing something, the fun of roller coasters and ice cream and sunsets. The fun where you say to yourself, at that second, I love this. The second type of fun is the type of fun after you’re done with something. When you enjoy the experience in retrospect, although perhaps not in the moment. A crazy story of getting lost, a petty fight with a friend- you get the idea. But I think what Gadna has taught me is that there’s a third type of fun; the type of fun because you did something. The Gibushim wasn’t pleasant at the moment, nor do I think it was particularly fun in retrospect, but it was fun because I was able to complete it. And I think the same holds for the entirety of Gadna.”
After we’d finished reflecting, our mifaked stood up.
We walked, as always, in silence behind him. We rounded the classrooms and followed the main road, a tiny troop of not-really-soldiers marching under a starry expanse. Suddenly, our mifaked took off. He was a short man, but by no means slow. He bolted forward, at a full sprint, and as required of us, we followed. And though throughout the entirety of Gadna I’d hated this sprinting (we weren’t even allowed to relax while we went from one activity to another) it took everything we were feeling, everything between us, and magnified it. We ran and ran, I can’t remember for how long or what route we took, all I remember is the wind whipping through my hair, my sore muscles flowing with adrenaline, the sand that flew into my mouth because I couldn’t stop smiling. And every single one of us, covered from head to toe in dirt, beaten and bruised, sleep deprived and cold, ran as fast as we could in silent laughter.
Finally we reached our destination. It was, once again, the gravel field, where we’d done so much.
“Stand in a circle,” our mifaked ordered. We circled around him, patiently waiting for our next instruction.
“You will now do an exercise that will test both your own resilience and your teamwork. When I say go, you will hold your arms out for the next eight minutes. Only one person in the group can rest at a time, but you can’t communicate nor make a plan. Arms out, go.”
We all stuck our arms out to our sides, as they’d done in the Gibushim. Immediately all the earlier aches and pains rose back up, pulsing up and down through my veins. I grit my teeth: there was no way I could do this. And then one of my fellow tzevet members had an idea. He stepped forward, and placed his arms on the shoulders of the person next to him. I immediately looked at our mifaked, waiting for him to be reprimanded, but our mifaked stood there silently. After all, he hadn’t violated any rules, not having spoken nor taken down his arms - he simply just used the person next to him for support. In an instant, we’d all moved forward into a tightly knit group, with each of us resting our arms on each other's shoulders. I looked up, making eye contact with the person across the tiny circle (in reality about half a foot away) and we smiled. I don’t know what clicked for us, but there was some rush of energy, and suddenly we were all kicking and dancing. We did a kickline inside the circle, did dips and spins, and though it was a contrast to the previously silent connection, it wasn’t all that different. It was only when we barely managed to hold in our laughter as one kid spun and did a squat that our mifaked intervened, though even he looked as if he was going to laugh.
“Well done, you figured out the goal of the game,” he said, his lips beginning to quirk into a proud smile. “You are stronger when you lean on each other.”
And with that he turned, and took off once again. We ran after him, and as we got back, launched right into the normal evening routine.
The next day we woke up early, as always, in order to go on what they called a Masa, a journey. They had been offhandedly mentioning it all week, that it was a hike, it was the closing part of Gadna, etc., but when we all got in line for it, they told us that we would need to be silent the entire time, unless called on. I groaned internally; I had been hoping for a nice hike, where we could talk and socialize, catch up after nearly a week of not having free time to talk, but it seemed that I still had yet to learn what Gadna was about. It would never be that easy.
“You will follow me and do only as I do,” shouted the Samal ominously to us, and then in typical Gadna style, took off running. We ran out through the gates of Gadna, down the road, and stopped in front of the entrance to the park marking Ben Gurion's grave. The Samal got down onto one knee, and as such, we did so as well.
“This is the place where Ben Gurion is buried. Does anybody know why he's buried here?” asked the Samal, though the way he spoke made it seem like a trick question, one where you’d do pushups if you didn’t give him the answer he liked.
One girl raised her hand. “It’s because he believed in making the desert bloom.”
“Exactly,” the Samal responded, and I felt a collective sigh of relief. “Ben Gurion is one of the most important people in Israel’s history. And as we’re here today, at his grave, I want to tell you a story about a soldier named Sean Carmeli.
“Sean was born in Texas in 1993. His parents were Israeli, and growing up he was incredibly connected to Israel, and loved it very much. He was an especially big soccer fan as well- his favorite team was Maccabi Tel Aviv. When he was in high school, his parents decided to make aliyah, and he was ecstatic about it. They moved to Ra'anana, where he spent his second half of high school as a normal teenager, doing normal teenager things. When he was 18, however, his parents decided to move back to Texas. Sean then had to decide whether he wanted to move with them, or enlist in the IDF. He decided to enlist.”
And with that, the Samal stood up and ran into the park. We followed, running hard and fast, keeping pace but also trying to keep together. The park was exactly what Ben Gurion would’ve dreamed of- it was beautiful and green, large fields of grass broken up by lines of trees, and along the path were blooming bushes in all different colors. The paths were sandstone, and they reflected the shimmering morning sun as we ran along them. We stopped again, now in between two large fields that the path cleanly divided. Back on one knee, the Samal began to speak again.
“Sean decided to work to join the Golani Brigade, an elite unit of combat soldiers. Here he trained day after day, worked and persisted until he was well established as a soldier. Now, at the end of soldiers training they go on a Masa, as you all are doing. The Masa for Golani, however, entailed weeks in different environments, learning how to fight in each of them. One thing Sean did a lot of was army crawling. He would crawl through deserts, and thorns and across rocks. You aren’t in Golani, but now you all are going to crawl across this entire field, up and around the hill, and back, following me the whole time. You may start when I say go.”
The Samal then walked up the hill, standing at the top overlooking us, and faintly we heard him shout “go!” We all dove to the ground, dragging ourselves through the dew covered grass, pulling and pushing and just trying to get to the hill as fast as possible. I put on an initial burst of speed, slamming my elbows and knees into the ground over and over again until they were numb to the bruising, but as soon as I hit the incline I felt myself burn out. There were three people ahead of me, and I could hear their breathing as they pulled themselves up the hill. Looking up, I could see the Samal sternly overlooking us, watching our progress. I lay there, barely able to pull myself an inch further, when I remembered the Gibushim. I remembered how I’d given up before I’d even started trying, how I’d taken away my opportunity to have the third type of fun, to do something just to know I could do it. And with that, I took a deep breath, and threw myself forward. I whispered “one, two,” as I went, and so each time my abs or knees or elbows screamed at me to stop I just thought “only another one two.” I pulled myself up the hill, around the outskirts of the field, back down the hill, whispering and whispering to myself “one, two, one two, one, two.” Suddenly I felt a hand on my head, and looked up to discover that I’d done it. I’d finished. I’d crawled the entire field, up the hill, through mud and water, and all other sorts of things, and most importantly, I’d beaten myself and my head.
I walked over to where our water bottles were, drinking deeply.
“Drink and come back!” shouted the Samal to us, “You aren’t finished until all your friends are!”
I turned back, and jogged over towards the finish line. I saw people dragging themselves towards it, everyone’s eyes a mix of resolve and despair. I walked up to one girl, dropping down to the ground next to her. She was panting, groaning with each drag forward.
“Hey,” I said, tapping her until she looked up and made eye contact. “You can count to two right?”
“Yeah?” she responded, confused but not necessarily upset that I was giving her a break.
“Then let’s count to two,” I smiled, and threw my arm forward, shouting “ONE!”
She quickly got the gist, and we pushed forward together, each of us shouting “ONE, TWO, ONE, TWO,” until she looked up, and realized she was at the end.
“Oh my god,” she whispered, stumbling up and going to get water.
“Continue helping your friends!” shouted the Samal.
I turned back, eyes falling on another guy who was clearly struggling. I climbed down doing the same, shouting “ONE, TWO, ONE, TWO,” until we reached the end. Over and over again, I went down, laying next to the people on the final stretch, as we shouted “one, two,” until I got up with someone, and realized they were the final person.
Not only had I finished, but we’d finished. Every single person had managed to crawl the entire field. People who hated nature, people who didn’t work out, people who had health problems. We’d all done it, despite our challenges. That’s what Gadna was about.
As soon as we were all back in line, the Samal took off again. He ran through the other field of grass, following a trail into the woods, and stopping at a cliffside. The cliffside overlooked the valleys and hills of the desert, the oranges and browns overlooked by an endless clear blue sky.
“Just like you, Sean and his team crawled across fields and over hills,” the Samal began again, except this time his voice had a heavy tenor to it.
“In 2014, Sean was playing soccer with some of his friends when he fell, twisting his ankle. Days later, the war with Gaza broke out, and Golani was called to fight. Sean’s commander told him not to come fight, that he was injured, that they could manage without him. But Sean wasn’t the type of person to let his team go in without him. He entered Gaza with a twisted ankle, and a strong resolve.”
I could see where this was going. As the Samal spoke, I looked over at the beautiful view in front of us, felt the warm air on my skin, and absorbed as much of the sun as possible.
“Sean and his fellow tzevet members were traveling in an armored vehicle. Soon, when Hamas was shooting at them, Sean, being the person he was, poked his head out first to return the fire. Sadly, the instant his head popped out of the vehicle, a bullet hit him square in the forehead killing him on the spot. Sean was the type of person to put himself first, not to let his tzevet go into a mission without him. He’s a model of the type of person you should all strive to be. And though Sean was a lone soldier, over ten thousand people showed up to his funeral, because Sean is a role model for everyone.”
There was a beat of silence, during which I focused solely on the endless expanse of aquamarine, and then the Samal silently turned and started running back the way we’d come. We all silently followed, and as I ran I was consumed with the story of Sean. Sean had been an average person, but had felt such commitment and love towards this country and its people he’d gone into Gaza with a twisted ankle- it hit me hard because I feel as if that could be me in ten years.
This Masa marked the end of our Gadna experience. We got back and had some basic cleaning and packing to do, but about two hours later we boarded the bus and headed back home. The bus ride back was silent; we were bruised, beaten, and tired and nearly everybody slept the entire drive. It felt as if we’d been through hell in some respects - but it was a hell that had created unbreakable bonds between us and left us irreversibly changed. Gadna marked a turning point in my TRY experience; it was the moment it became not only about touring Israel, or school, but truly about us. It etched into our souls an important lesson about being part of something bigger, a lesson that can apply to our group on TRY, each of our camps, our synagogues, the Diasporic Jewish community, and most importantly of all, Israel. At Gadna, each of us were individuals with our own histories and lives, yes, but we operated as one team, as one brigade, one base. We were unique parts of a whole, and in the end, that’s what Gadna, and Israel, is about.
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