Saturday, 31 July 2010

A year on...

I can hardly believe what I am about to write here... This Thursday, the 5th of August 2010, will be the first anniversary of the day I made aliyah. A year has passed since I packed up my bags, said goodbye to all my loved ones and emigrated to Israel, as part of my aliyah journey. What a year it has been...

A year ago I followed my dreams and made aliyah; arriving to kibbutz Ortal with a garin of young zionists from all over the world. For three and a half months, we bonded together as a group, travelled the country, learned hebrew in ulpan and went through some early army processes, like Gadna and Tsav Rishon. Then in November, we all enlisted into the army, each one going to a different place. For me, after passing the gibush, I joined the legendary Israeli Paratroopers' brigade and started basic training in early December. My time in the army has been significant to say the least; from the swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel and jumping out of a plane five times, to war week and the gruelling masa kumta. The climax of everything, however, was when my parents surprised me at my tekes kumta and were there to see me get my red beret. Since that memorable day I have joined up with the rest of my battalion and am currently doing training in the North under the title of 'Rabat' (corporal!!!). That is basically is a quick sum up of my year, but luckily I can always look back at a more detailed version, thanks to the blog...

Nine months of hard work in the army and this is what I have to show for it - the tzanchanim shoulder tag, the wings and, of course, the red beret!!!

Before leaving London, I decided to write a blog, in order to keep both family and friends updated with my doings, but also as a little project for myself. As the year has gone on, however, I have been delighted to see that other people, from all over the world, have been reading this and from some of your warm comments, it is clear to me that my story has really inspired and interested some people. Although my original aims for the blog still remain (I still enjoy the blog as a personal project where I can look back on what I've done), I do feel like now I have different expectations and reasons for doing this. Now, I want to show people what it is like to be a lone soldier and a new immigrant in a foreign country; both the highs and the lows. I also want to show people an understanding to the IDF and the life of a combat soldier. However, the greatest thing I get out of this blog is the inspiration it gives to people who start to consider or actually go out and make aliyah themselves. As a fervent zionist myself (making aliyah and being in the army has only strengthened my, already, strong ideologies) to help encourage young guys to make aliyah is the most rewarding gift of all. Now I'm not saying how I want everyone who reads this blog to go and move to Israel because I respect the fact that it is an incredibly tough decision and harder reality, but for me personally, I think aliyah is a priveledge we have in our lifetime that was virtually unthinkable for the previous 2000 years until as little as 65 years ago, thus, is something all Jews should be taking advantage of.

In just two weeks I am going back home for a month, which is my entitled holiday that a lone soldier can use once a year to fly back home. As you can tell, I have had a fantastic year, not only have I enjoyed my army service but I am always excited to go back to my kibbutz on free weekends to meet up with friends from the garin, who are still very much my family here in Israel. Despite being very happy and never regretting my decision for a minute, I have been waiting come home for a while and since it was confirmed by the army, I've been extremely excited ever since (in fact, thinking about coming home was a regular way to pass the time during masaot). Rememeber I haven't been back to England in a year and have not seen any of my friends and most of my family in that time. Not only that, but I will also be going back to a new house, after my parents moved from the home that I lived in for my whole life. To be honest, I am also just excited to be going back to some sort of familiarity; I have already written down lists of people I need to see, things I need to do and foods I need to eat. I really can't describe in words how excited I am to go home and have a month's long holiday of relaxation, catching up, being with loved ones and just having fun.

My beloved garin, a year on.

Some people have asked me if I've changed in a year and I don't really know the answer. On one hand, I haven't changed as I am still that little jewish mummy's boy from North London. I still get upset by the little things, I still cry when I miss my parents and I still get scared of getting in trouble. In my head, I feel like the same person with the same thoughts but there is definitely some sort of clear change. In terms of experience, how can I compare myself to any of my friends, which of them have guarded at a crosspoint between a Jewish and a Palestinian street in Hebron or jumped from a plane at night with a bag strapped to their leg containing their combat vest. I have also become much more responsible and independant, especially when you think that I travel the country on my own every week to get to base and how I have signed on and am now responsible for a gun. I left my parents at the age of 18 to another country, learnt a new language and, now, am a ready-for-war combat soldier in active army that is constantly fighting terrorists. How can doing that not change someone??? In the end, though, I would say that it is amazing how after going through all these experiences, having all these responsibilites and dealing with all these worries, I am still the same Sam Sank. I suspect when I go home that after five minutes it will feel like nothing has changed and that's how I want it to be. After all I've been through this year, I can still be the same person I've always been and I'm kind of proud of that.

Is that the ready-for-war combat soldier I was talking about?!?!?

This Thursday I am going to the opening ceremony for this year's Garin Tzabar, the programme that I used to make aliyah. It is surreal to think how I will be greeting people and giving advice to those at the start of their aliyah and army journey, as one who has "been through it all" already. I also want to say how a year on, the garin is still as important for me as it was the first day I made aliyah and how this programme really is the best way for young people to make aliyah and join the army. In a way, this year has been so fast and yet so slow, but it has been and now I need to look forward to the year ahead. Thanks to all who have read and enjoyed the blog so far (and continue to comment as I really appreciate the feedback) and I hope you will continue reading. I will try and write one more blog on the eve of my trip in two weeks...

Friday, 30 July 2010

Life in the Gdud

It's good to be back in Ortal after a fairly hard week and a half in the army, which was the first time I've actually done something in about a month!! This is because since my masa kumta, I spent a long weekend with my parents in Tel Aviv, had two weeks of ulpan at the old base, which included sleep-ins and hamshooshim, and finally, when I finally reached the 'gdud' (battalion) a couple of weeks ago, I was sent straight back home for my regila (a week holiday that a kravi soldier recieves around twice a year).

I didn't do anything particularly interesting during my regila, as opposed to most Israelis, who normally travel down to Eilat for a week. Instead, during my three-day holiday, I stayed on the kibbutz and watched a lot of movies. One significant thing I did do was travelling down to Tel Aviv and getting my plane ticket to London (only two weeks to go!), which the army is paying for - this is a lone soldier right, where we are entitled to one free plane ticket home during our army service. The time came, however, for me to go back to the army and get back into the swing of things, and I have been on my new base with my gdud 101, for the last fortnight. I did manage to get out 'hamshoosh' (Thursday weekend) yesterday, which was the 14th hamshoosh of my service and is certainly some sort of record in terms of how much hamsooshim a kravi soldier can get in one year!

The difference between the previous and current base: 'plooga' (company) area.

In short, being in the gdud at the moment absolutely sucks. There are a lot of reasons for this; firstly, the base is a complete dump and the transition from being at one of the best bases in Israel to makeshift tents and showers is a bit of shock. From having 8 showers for a platoon (around 25 people) to now having 4 showers for the whole company (around 80 people). This is kind of problematic, especially when everyone goes to shower at the same time after P.E. This base is 15 minutes away from my kibbutz in the Golan Heights, which is absolutely fantastic as it means I can wake up late on Sundays and get home earlky on Fridays, however, the conditions are pretty bad and, for these past weeks, it has been like a sauna there. In addition to this, my company is now the newest and youngest of the four companies in the 101 battalion and, in tradition to army culture, we get treated the worst. Since we are 'tzairim' (young ones), we are given all the guard, kitchen and cleaning duty round the base, and are whistled and cursed by all the 'vatikim' (old ones) of the gdud. It's not such a gdud life!

The difference between the previous and current base: my room/tent!

My battalion's time in the Golan is part of its summer training, which will last for the next two months, before we move on to 'kav' (literally translates as line), which is the general guarding of Israel's borders. This training involves all sorts of activities in the shetach, at both company and batallion level, and even one giant exercise, which will involve the whole Tzanchanim brigade. As part of this training, this week was 'Shavua Milhama' (war week), meaning shetach and combat exercises at a company level. Yes, that's right, despite having our first war week just over a month ago on base, we were now subject to another one. To be honest it wasn't so bad this time, it was only a couple of days and the atmosphere was much more relaxed with all the commanders. I did, however, carry a ridiculous amount of weight though, not only was my bag filled with water bottles and all my perosnal equipment, but I also was left to carry extra ammunition for the 'negev' (a light machine gun). Despite all my complaining in this blog, being in the gdud does have some benefits and the most notable one is the change of attitude around the company. A lot of rules that were related to basic training have now been dropped (e.g. we are now allowed to walk around the company area with t-shirts instead of standard army shirts) and the distance between soldier and commander is all but non-existent. This makes things more fun and I am really enjoying getting to know my more senior commanders as human beings and friends, rather than taskmasters.

The difference between the previous and current base: the showers.

Next week I have 'imon svach' (training in bush-like terrain) and I will be closing next Shabbat, as well. The following week is shetach with battalion-wide exercises and then that weekend will be my last in Israel before I fly home for a month that Sunday. I am going to write another blog tomorrow about my upcoming one year anniversary of being in Israel (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) so stay tuned and carry on reading (and commenting) my blog in general, I really do hope it brings inspiration to people and some sort of insight to the aliyah experience and to the life of a lone soldier in a combat unit of the Israeli Defence Forces. Thanks for reading so far....

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The next step

Having left base last week, tomorrow is the day that I join up with the 'gdud' (battallion) and move to a new base. I am actually pretty nervous about tomorrow, like I was when I first joined the army because once again I will be a 'tzair' (young army status) and will be new to how things work, this time in the gdud.

The rest of my 'plooga' (company) have already been at the gdud for the last two weeks, helping to get the base ready for our time there. For me, however, I have been at ulpan (learning hebrew) on the tzanchanim training base for the last fortnight, something that every lone soldier or new immigrant is entitled to at the end of advanced training. It was an extremely fun and relaxed two weeks and being with all the other lone soldiers from tzanchanim, the majority being from USA, meant there was a lot of joking around. We learnt some hebrew obviously, but the two weeks were mainly appreciated because it meant we missed out on all the hard work that our friends have been doing at the gdud! Also, it meant another two hamshooshim (leaving for the weekend on a Thursday), which brings my tally of hamshooshim up to an incredible thirteen, when I tell my army friends about this fact, they normally look like they want to hit me, since a regular kravi soldier is said to get around two or three hamshooshim a year!!!

Showing off my red kumta on my base uniform

Joining the gdud, what does that mean exactly? The gdud, mine being 101, is made up of four 'ploogot' (companies), all of which have a different job and speciality. One of those four ploogot, is 'ploogat maslool', which is the company that has recently finished its training on the base and will stay together as a company for three months in the gdud. After three months, which marks the end of a soldiers' first year in the army, that company is broken up and the soldiers are divided amongst the three regular ploogot of the gdud. Now this all may sound a little confusing, as it was for me at the start, but I'm just trying to fully explain what the next step is.

So my company, which is basically the November 2009 draft of 101 battallion of tzanchanim, is now becoming the 'ploogat maslool' (in case you didn't know, there are three drafts a year for combat units; March, August and November). For the next three months, my plooga will stay together until around early October where we'll cease to be 'tzairim' (army younsters) and will become 'vatikim' (ancients (!) within the army). At the end of one year in the army, the length of our 'maslool' (route), we will also receive our tzanchanim fighter's pin, the last mantlepiece for our uniform. So when I go back to the army tomorrow, my plooga will be the youngest people in the gdud and, as tradition goes, we are going to suffer at the hands of all the vatikim, like March '08 draft. This is what is probably giving me all the nerves.

The base I'm moving to is, thankfully, only fifteen minutes from my kibbutz, Ortal, in the Golan Heights. After months of six hour journeys and lengthy explanations to why I was late, I can finally wake up in daylight on a Sunday morning and arrive back before lunch on a Friday afternoon! For the next three months, all of tzanchanim's battallions; 101, 202 and the idiotic 890, will be participating in the summer training here in the Golan Heights. I have finished all the training required to be considered a 'lohem' (fighter) but this training is on a battallion level. This means, there will be a lot of shetach and many exercises where the whole gdud practices working together.

My class' room on the old training base.

The best news of all, however, is that last week, my lone soldier right of 30 days a year to fly back home to visit was approved by the gdud. In mid-August, I'm going back to London for a full month!!! You don't understand how excited I am; not only am I going to be there for my birthday, but also will be able to celebrate Rosh Hashannah with my family, see all my friends before they go back to university and go to see Spurs with my papa, hopefully in the Champions League! I haven't been home for a year now, not seen my friends in that time or seen my parents' new home. I can barely contain my excitement and will try to write a blog on the eve of going home in a months time.

I am not sure when I will be back in Ortal for a free weekend, in the gdud everything is, if possible, even more vague, but I'll be sure to write about what happens in the gdud at some point soon. Have a good week everyone!

The other newspaper articles I have been in...

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Leaving Base

For the last eight months I have been based at the Tzanchanim training base, but yesterday was my last day there and it was hard not to feel a little nostalgic. So, for this blog I wanted to sum up my time in the army so far, especially since I start a new part of my service from this Sunday.

On November 25th 2009, it all started. Although I had already officially been a soldier a month beforehand, this was my first day in the army and I remember arriving at the tzanchanim base and being in complete shock by the experience. When people go to a new school or a new place of work, there is always a feeling of nervousness and being clueless about how things work. But for me, starting school for the first time was nothing compared to that day, yes I was much older than when I started school, but imagine being in an army base for the first time, seeing people walking around with guns and suddenly being shouted at every minute in a language I wasn't comfortable with. Now, as I say goodbye to the base, I walk out of there as a king; with the red kumta on my shoulder, the wings on my chest and having conquered the shetach of the base in War Week.

The Plooga - where I was living for the last eight months.

There have been some really hard moments so far in the army; both physically and mentally. I can remember the early moments of being in the army when I was really struggling with the language, finding the army lifestyle too hard to handle and missing my parents a lot. Missing my parents has obviously been one of the hardest things to deal with in the army, having to go from 'skyping' every day to not speaking to them for a week while I was in the shetach, was a big change. In terms of physical pain, anyone who goes through 'kravi' (combat) basic training in the IDF can understand what I'm about to explain:

1) Being cold - nothing can ever come close to that weekend I had in Hebron, where we were forced to do guard duty on a roof of a Palestinian home in the miserable rain and blistering cold. Eventually, it was so cold that we went inside and the six of us cuddled up on the cold, rock hard stairs.

2) Being hot - during War Week we ended up walking just 1 kilometre during an 'Omes Hom Hamesh' (the highest heat level where you're not allowed to do anything physical). We walked for half an hour in the middle of the day, in order to get to a certain point before the afternoon. I've never been so hot in my life and I remember my eyes stinging so much from the buckets of sweat dropping off my helmet-covered head.

3) Complete freedom/fear - the undescribable first five seconds after jumping out of an aeroplane. That's the time it takes for the canopy of the parachute to open, so for around 40m you free-fall! See

4) Pain - being in 'matsav kriya' (the kneeled shooting position) for over an hour. Not even the satisfaction of breaking the base record could take away the unbearable pain in my ankle. See

5) Complete exhaustion/tiredness - the aftermath of the masa kumta was something I've never experienced before in my life. From the soles of my feet, where a layer of skin had come off, to chafing all across my stomach and back, to my extremely sore shoulders. Only a week and a half after the masa, did I feel fully back to normal strength.

That weekend in Hebron - chaos, rain and freezing temperatures but I still managed a smile!!!

These feelings are just some of the many that I've passed in my time in the army but I know that it's all just part of the game and that everyone around me went through it as well. So I've now left base, where apart from all the difficulties, I've had some exciting, fun and hilarious moments and I will keep some fond memories. This video was the video were shown on our last night of advanced training, it basically sums up everything we've done!/video/video.php?v=1381372856927&ref=mf.

In the next blog, I will explain the next step...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Tekes Kumta

Just a couple of hours after we finished the masa, the tekes took place where we received our red berets and officially became part of the Paratroopers' family. I was so excited for the tekes (ceremony), partly because of the beret but also because I knew that waiting for me at the ceremony would be my garin rakaz (organiser of my garin), who I am very close to, my host family and some of my good friends from the garin. It was going to be one of those days to remember, but it turned out to be something a million times better and more special. I could tell you what happened, but it's better to just show you because this is exactly how I felt...

Go to this link, turn up the volume and be ready from the start of the video -

A parents' love for their child is something universal and strong in each and every family, but for my mummy and daddy to surprise me at my tekes kumta was, for me, the greatest sign of love and is the most wonderful thing they have ever done for me, and they have done a lot. To keep this incredible surprise secret from me was incredible; but for my mum, to bring out my daddy to Israel in the heat of the summer is even more astonishing. Everyone was in on the secret; from my rakaz and all my friends in the garin, to all my commanders in the army. As you can see in the video, I had no idea whatsoever, so to see my parents at my beret ceremony, after walking 78km, was something beyond emotions. My mum had spoken to my rakaz, who then organised it with my platoon commander, a personal hero of mine, who you see in the video comforting me. Every time I watch the video it reminds me of that feeling I had when seeing my parents from a distance, I just feel so very priveleged to have such amazing parents and I love them the whole world.

Red beret ceremony.

After the shock of the surprise passed, to be honest I am still in shock a little bit, the ceremony took place and I saw all the people who had come to see me. It was just one of those perfect days, one of the best of my young life. Everyone who came for me was there to see me get my red beret at the tekes, which was a really nice ceremony even though most of us were struggling to stay standing on our destroyed legs. So in front of everyone, my green beret was taken off my head by my 'mefaked samal' and the red beret placed on my head by my platoon commander, my two favourite people in the army! That was it. Eight months of intensive training, kilometres upon kilometres of walking with mountains of kilograms on my back, all for a red beret? Was it all worth it? Yeah, of course it was, to have the tzanchanim kumta on my shoulder now is the sign to show I am a fully flegded IDF combat soldier, ready to help defend the people of this country.

My company com-
mander placing the red beret on my head.

It was a breathless day, as I said, I was in total shock from everything; the surprise of my parents, the fact that I'd finished the masa and also I just couldn't believe how I been in Israel and the army for such a long time and how much I have achieved in that time. I was lucky enough to be able to spend an extended weekend with my parents after the tekes in Tel Aviv. It was a special couple of days, especially since I was able to be with my parents for their anniversary. I still can't believe they came out to see me and just want to thank them for being the best parents in the world.

With my parents at the ceremony.

The story of my parents coming to surprise me at my tekes kumta got around quickly and by the end of the ceremony someone, who is responsible for all lone soldiers in the army, was in contact with the media. By the end of the day my parents and I had already been interviewed and photographed by 'Yediot Ahronot', the main daily newspaper in Israel. A few days later, we were amazed to see a full page article in the newspaper about our story, plus, I spoke on 'Galgalatz' (the top radio station in Israel) for around five minutes with some famous presenter. Suddenly, I've become a bit of celebrity and I got people coming up to me on the train telling me that they had seen me in the paper. Also, in the article it said how I lived in Ortal, which is quite a big deal for this small kibbutz from the northern Golan Heights. So, I was the talk of the town here in Ortal and, the cutest thing, is how all the little kids here are innocently asking me if my dad is ok, after they read about him in the article. It's nice how my story is getting relatively known; through these articles, the blog and by word of mouth, but my story is also the story of the hundreds of young lone soldiers who make aliyah and join the army. Leaving your family and giving to the army is an amazing sacrifice and I feel honoured to be amongst those who have done it, because there are loads of really amazing people with incredible stories. However, as all my friends will confirm, I do enjoy the spotlight!!!

The newspaper article about my parents coming to surprise me at the tekes kumta. The title is translated as "The son's journey, the father's journey".

I hope I have written well enough to explain what an amazing weekend it was and how the day of the tekes was truly one of the best days of my life. There is more news to tell regarding what I'm doing now, what I will be doing in the next few months and some great news about coming back to London for a visit, but I'll tell you about that in the next blog next week. By the way, I forgot to say in the last blog how my old commander gave me his kumta (a usual tradition in the army), which he received from his company commander. So, now I have an old kumta, which is a really cool thing in the army. Wow, I can't believe I've finished training and have got a red kumta, time flies when you're having fun (!).

Throwing the berets in the air at the end of the tekes.

Some more pictures from the ceremony...

Masa Kumta

The Masa Kumta (beret march) for Tzanchanim is the final thing you do in your eight month training period and is said to be the biggest of all the challenges you face during that time. I can safely say, having successfully finished the 78km masa last week, that it was definitely the hardest physical experience I have ever faced in my life!

The masa kumta was the storm hanging over our heads for the past month now, ever since we did the previous masa, we knew that coming up next was the big one. Actually though, the masa kumta is something that is on your mind from the moment you start basic training. Not only is it the last and hardest day of a very tough eight months of combat training, but, probably most important of all, it is the day when can finally put on that famous red beret. Ever since I drafted I have been wearing the standard green kumta (beret) that everyone receives when they join the army, for people in kravi (comabt) it is a sign of embarrassment, as it shows you to be very young and inexperienced within the army . Us soldiers have been looking at our commanders' red berets for eight months now, thinking how far away it was for us to look like that and how cool it is to have the kumta sitting on your shoulder. Also, for us paratroopers, walking around in public with the red kumta is a real honour as everyone knows about the paratroopers and its respected history. But those were just distant fantasies for us 'tironim' (soldiers still in training), until last week... after months of waiting we completed our masa kumta last Thursday.

Me with my friends at the start of the masa.

The route is 78km long, from Tel Shachar to the finishing point at Givat Ha'Tachmoshet (Ammunition Hill) in Jerusalem, lasting around 17 hours. The route goes through some small towns in the beginning, forested areas for a big chunk in the middle, before finishing with the ascent on Jerusalem and the final four kilometres walking through the streets of our capital city. Preparation for the masa is a story in itself; I put special hiking socks over sport socks (after drowning my feet in talcom powder), tight cycling-type underwear (after drowning that area with anti-chafing cream) and then 'lekoplast', this special plaster thing, on my hips and sides, in order to prevent a 'shwarma', (extreme chafing)!!! In addition to all this, my comabt vest was packed to the brim with magazines of bullets, energy bars and toilet roll!! This all might seem a little bit over the top, but think how much preparation a runner goes through before a marathon and now think how my masa kumta was almost two marathons put together (48 miles), then remember that we were in full uniform, boots, vest and gun (15kg) and sometimes carrying the stretcher or jerry can.

It is very difficult to explain how hard the masa was, and although I have sort of described all the other masaot up until now, this masa was just so much different than all the others. The first 20km were like all the others in terms of difficulty, but starting at 4.30 in the afternoon meant the heat was a little problematic. Everyone started in a good mood, "wow, we're on our masa kumta", "this isn't that hard", but the night came and the sky went dark, as did the mood. For about two and a half hours in the middle of the masa, we simply walked uphill in a forest near Beit Shemesh. Think about that. Two and a half hours of uphill walking. Some people are carrying heavy weights, while the rest are desparately pushing the ones with the weights up the hill. It was a crazy tough point in the masa, people started to break down a little a bit, saying they couldn't or didn't want to continue. It was a real struggle. We eventually finished the 'aliyah' (uphill bit) and got to the 50km point, to a place called Begin Park, just outside Jerusalem. Personally, up until that point I was okay considering the circumstances, I mean it was very hard but I was concentrating a lot on helping my friends and that really kept me going.

After about 4 hours, 25km. Notice how my shirt is so dark from all the sweat!!

From the 50km point, I remember taking the water canteen (the heaviest thing there is to carry) for an hour and I was fine, and then it just hit me. Suddenly, with about 18km to go, I just couldn't walk anymore, I found my legs taking one step at time and having to think about every solitary step. This wasn't just me though, I mean everyone was just physically finished by this point and this caused the pace to slow right down. The ascent into Jerusalem was unbearably hard, people were stopping mid-walk, some were huffing and puffing and crying their way to finish. By the time we reached the streets of Jerusalem, about 4km to go, it was around 9.30am and already hot. To be honest, I was enjoying it, where else in the world could I hike all night with young Jewish guys towards our holy city of Jerusalem in the name of protecting Jews in Israel and around the world under the banner of the IDF. But forget the ideology a minute, it was also a fun experience, unmistakenly painful, but what a thing to say that I've done and finished the longest masa there is for a regular combat soldier.
Running the last couple of kilometres through the streets of Jerusalem.

Walking through Jerusalem was amazing, every car that passed honked its horn, and for the last kilometre we ran with stretchers to Ammunition Hill. Finally, we finished it, and I remember standing there under the stretcher at the end (with an Israeli flag on my back - obviously, it's me we're talking about here!!), smiling and looking forward to the tekes (ceremony), where I would be getting my red kumta...

At the finishing point under the stretcher, holding both the Israeli and Paratroopers' flags. After a torturous 17 hours I couldn't believe I was still standing!