Israel's newest batch of immigrants spend their first week in the Jewish state completing late night marches, krav maga sessions and pre-army training.
RA'ANANA, Israel — Sporting swimwear, sunglasses and flip flops, the small group of 20-somethings lazing around the Ra’anana city municipality pool seemed completely at ease on a Wednesday afternoon.
But the first week in the Garin Tzabar program had been anything but easy for these fresh-faced Israel Defense Forces recruits from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, according to 23-year-old Aliza Green from Northeast Philadelphia.
They had stayed up late the previous night at their new living quarters in Ra’anana's absorption center worrying over friends and family living in areas of Israel under threat of rocket fire from Gaza, she explained. Then, sometime after midnight, they learned from their Gadna army instructors that they had to do a 3-mile march while carrying stretchers bearing people.
“The commanders came up the stairs in their uniforms and carrying their weapons, and they started banging on the doors screaming at us, ‘Wake up, wake up, you have seven minutes to put on running shoes and assemble downstairs, and there will be consequences if you’re late,’ ” said Green, who moved to Israel via an Aug. 11 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight that carried 106 lone soldiers from North America among a total of 338 new immigrants. “They were screaming at us, it was crazy — nobody knew what to do.”
As participants of the Garin Tzabar program, which includes Hebrew ulpan, support throughout their army service and a group dynamic for lone soldiers, each Garin takes part in Gadna, a week-long army “crash course” that every Israeli teenager experiences in high school to provide them with a taste of army life.
Five new Garins, with a total of 120 future lone soldiers, are now based in Ra’anana as part of a pilot program. This program diverges from Garin Tzabar’s traditional model of individual Garins living on kibbutzim spread throughout Israel.
At one point during the march, the Gadna commanders smeared mud on their faces which, Green thought, “was pretty cool.” The mud caking was used to demonstrate the way IDF ground forces don camouflage before operations.
Passersby honked at them in encouragement to spur them forward as they marched.
Green said that other intensive workouts had already taken place over the week, including a session of an Israeli form of hand-to-hand combat known as krav maga.
While she described the session, she playfully joked with a friend lounging on a beach chair at her side, who had left Green with a shoulder bruise from one of their mock jousts.
“We were like, smacking each other around, and, you know, we love each other, so we’re like, ‘OK,’ ” Green said, wearing a wide grin as Israeli music lofted from portable speakers in the background. “It was really fun, we had a good time.”
Add the workouts and marches to the general excitement and bureaucracy of moving to Israel, and it was a pretty hectic first week in Israel, she said.
Hence the break by the pool.
“It’s really refreshing,” she said. “We haven’t had a lot of alone time, so it’s a nice little time to really stop and think about everything that’s going on and soak it all up.”
Back at the absorption center, Jared Goldberg’s Garin met with their Gadna commanders to learn more about what to expect from the army program.
When the group was too slow in moving from a “chet,” an open-faced box standing formation in the shape of a Hebrew letter used by IDF commanders when they want to address their troops, to two lines, they were forced to do a set of push-ups before doing the transition again while being timed. Their second effort proved more satisfactory.
Goldberg, who had expressed his desire to join an elite search and rescue unit during his aliyah flight the week before, said he is ready for his real army service to get underway.
The 19-year-old from Cheltenham explained that his Garin of 24 is scheduled to visit the enlistment base in early September to kickstart the process of drafting into the army.
Both Goldberg and Green expressed cautious optimism about Garin Tzabar’s pilot program at the Ra’anana absorption center.
Since Garin Tzabar’s inception in 1991, groups of about 20 lone soldiers have typically been placed in kibbutzim around Israel and provided with host families. But as the program has grown — there are 800 participants currently serving in the army and 300 new immigrants who arrived this summer — Garin Tzabar has considered additional ways to integrate the new soldiers, according to Garin Tzabar director Yair Ran. This lead to this summer’s Garin groups being placed together in Ra’anana, a small city located 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, where older participants can live closer to Israel's major cities.
“I was expecting to be on a kibbutz and I was pretty upset to not have been on a kibbutz at first, but the more I thought about it — and especially when we got here — this is much preferable,” Goldberg said. “The living conditions are better than what we would be getting on kibbutz most likely; we’re in the middle of Ra’anana, which is beautiful.”
Green shared a similar sentiment of optimism and proposed that living in Ra’anana will prepare them for the transition to civilian life after they complete their army service, since most Garin Tzabar graduates choose to leave their kibbutz to live in a city.
Ultimately, the two Philadelphia natives said they have been too tired to worry much about anything other than being ready for each next step along the way of their integration into the Jewish homeland as new citizens.
“I slept for 13 hours the day after the flight,” said Goldberg. “But at the same time it was exciting. We had a Garin Tzabar ceremony and we got our teudat zehut (identification card) — that was awesome.”
Some 1,000 friends, family members and former program participants attended that induction ceremony, Green recounted. The IDF recruits were addressed by Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the girlfriend of Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas who was killed in the Gaza conflict this summer.
“It was a big deal, so we were really honored to see everyone,” Green said. “There was an unspoken understanding between all of us that we were really coming together to do something great, but also very selfless, something we’re doing out of love.”
Jewish Exponent multimedia reporter Amishai Gottlieb’s assignment in Israel was funded in part by a special grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.