Saturday, 25 June 2011

Finishing Makim

I can hardly believe that this past week I finished 'Makim' (commanders' course) and that as of yesterday, following the closing ceremeony in Dimona, I am officially qualified as a combat class commander in the IDF. Not only has the course itself flown by, but I also am starting to apprehend the incredible journey I have taken; from nervous little boy to now a commander in the tzanchanim.

This past fortnight in makim involved the concluding tests and exercises of the course, with the last week of the course being made up of usual end of army things, like barbeques, cleaning the pluga, giving back all our equipment and, of course, the ceremony, which was on thursday. So after returning from being home two weeks ago, we closed the weekend (pointlessly) and then from the start of the week we undertook the multifaceted 'bohen sof' (final exams) of the course.vIt was obviously quite a pressured couple of days as the 'bohen sof' is a culmination of everything we have learnt and been trained for over the last three months. The 'bohen sof' was made up of four parts; a written exam, a practical exam (on all the weapons), a final navigation and a fitness test. I did fairly well in all these parts, which gave me a good score, in fact the second best in my mahlaka. This score, in addition to my score from the midway test, all went toward my final grade from the whole course itself. Apart from the two big tests, the final grade is made up mostly of assessments from commanders in 'makim', who had been constantly judging my commanding ability throughout the course, my discipline and my general personality in the three months I was there. Along with the other exercises we did during the course (navigating, fitness, shotting and a lot more), it all comes together for one big final grade, which becomes your score from 'makim'. My final score is 87 (out of 100), which is actually a really good score and was in the top third of my mahlaka. Obviously for me this is extremely commendable considering all the difficulties I had with the language, but 87 is pretty admirable for any soldier regardless. This score I now take back with me to the battalion...

Posing after finishing our last exercise in the shetach.

So now I am qualified as a soldier of "08" ability, rather than the regular "07" that regular combat soldiers, i.e. non-commanders, reach once they've finished advanced training. Being "08", apart from the obvious result that I can be a class commander, also means that I am trained to execute a number of other procedures in the army, like performing security checks on one's gun and controlling a specific army veichle to name but a few. So what does the future hold for me in the army now that I am "08"? There are a number of different things that could happen to me, but it all settles down to the decision on whether I will be a commander or not. If not, which is a likely possibility due to a number of different cirumstances, then I will return to my mahlaka in the gdud as a 'hapash 08' (meaning a regular soldier who is a qualified commander). Obviously, the goal is to become a commander but by returning as a 'hapash 08', I will be able to keep hold of my rights as a lone soldier, like travelling home for a month in the summer (which I intend on doing), which would in other case be difficult to do as a commander. Tomorrow, when I have my interview with the battalion commander, he will tell me where I am going to be going, most likely I will return to my original company and from there it wil be up to the decision of the company commander. Like I said, it's quite unlikely that I'll get a 'tafkid' (role) as a commander immediately but in the coming months a spot will probably be made available. I will definitely be staying in the 'gdud' (battalion), as opposed to going back to the basic training base, which means that I could be a commander of soldiers in the battalion from a younger draft, like Novemeber '10 or August '10. Even though I'm probably going back to my platoon tomorrow as a regular soldier, becoming 08 means that possibilities are more open for me now. I go back to the battalion tomorrow and will find out everything when I speak to the 'magad' (battalion commander).

On each others' shoulders during Masa Yisraeli.

No matter what happens tomorrow, I am so happy that I went to 'makim' and I had an amazing experience (what it's all about for me) and I made such a lot of good friends, I would even say they're closest from my whole service. Although I still have a good nine months to go in the army and that becoming 08 potentially means a new type of chapter of my service could start, I sometimes look back at everything I've done as if it were the end and, to be honest, I'm not that far from the end already. Going to commanders' course was never a target of mine before or even once I'd joined the army, for me the Hebrew was always going to be problematic and I always considered myself a lazy soldier within my platoon, as opposed to one who excelled and led others. Despite all this, I got sent to 'makim' and even at the start I was still apprehensive about going, but now, I have to say it was probabaly one of the best things to have happened to me. Like I said, it was an incredible experience, I did things that other soldiers don't get to do and it's something I can keep with me for the rest of my life, as well as helping me in the future, on my C.V. for example. The course has made me a better and more professional soldier, knowing how to handle all the different types of guns, capably navigating at night without a map in the shetach and learning leadership skills can only enhance me as a person, let alone a soldier. Making such good friends has also been a big factor and it's nice to think that I've got friends now from all other the army and not just from tzanchanim. From being in the course, I can defnitely see how all the combat brigades are fantastic and pretty much the same; it's the people in them, these young Israeli boys that make them all so great. Saying that though, I do love it that I went to tzanchanim, being a "yellow, spoilt ashkenazi" definitely suits me and, even though everyone is the same, as I said two seconds ago, tzanchanim is definitely the best and has that special something about it!!!

Sports Day last week, we finished in last place but at least I led my platoon to the final of the football!

Two days ago, on thursday, was the final 'tekes' (ceremony) marking the end of course makim. It was a memorable day and monumental event considering I've now finished commanders' course, and, despite not having anyone come to the tekes for me specifically, it was still an emotional day. I'm never embarassed to speak the truth, my mind or what's in my heart on the blog, so accordingly, I can say that there was one moment during the ceremony where I was close to tears. The course itself has been extremely fulfilling in terms of the zionism that I seem to crave but at the tekes, it really hit me that I had reached the point of where I am today. I know I always seem to write how "I can't believe I've come this far... fulfilled my zionist dream... from North London boy to soldier" (!!!) but it's truly what always astounds me and now I am even a qualified combat commander! However, it is more than what I've done that got me at the tekes; instead it was looking around and seeing hundreds of young boys, standing in line as they finish 'makim' with their proud parents looking on that showed me the true meaning of why I came here. The overall commander of 'makim' put it perfectly as he gave us some last couple of words; he said that looking upon all of us made him so proud of Israel and of the Jewish nation, and that he's sure that Israel will forever be protected and will forever have the strongest army in the world, with us as the next generation. It truly reached me and I couldn't agree more as I gazed upon all the great guys who I was standing with at the tekes. I am truly thankful that I was given the opportunity to go to makim and have had this awesome experience.

Tomorrow, like I said, I return to the battalion to find out what is happeneing with me. The battalion is currently based in the Golan heights doing training so it's a long journey (or long sleep should I say) tomorrow morning. I don't know where I'll be, what I'll be doing or when I'll be next home, but I'll be sure to update everything in the next blog.

Some pictures from Thrusday's tekes:

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Masa Yisraeli

An interesting couple of weeks have just passed; experiencing both the extremes of a week of shetach and then a week of education and soul-searching. Was just out for Shavuot and celebrated the festival at home in Tel Aviv.

I want to start this blog by expressing my extended gratitude to anyone who continues to read the blog. I was planning in saying something anyway, but an unintended meeting with someone who has been a keen follower of the blog and is now in the army himself reminded me of the importance of thanking all of you. As much as I write the blog for myself personally, as a way of expressing my thoughts and keeping a diary of my experiences, really the blog is for you guys. To know, through your feedback, that there are people all over the world who have found this blog and read it to understand the true ins and outs of the life of a lone soldier in the IDF is very humbling. Even more though, to hear that I inspire or even help to confirm people's intentions to come here themselves, is the greatest compliment I could ever get from doing this little project of mine. Although I don't respond personally to every comment posted, reading those sort of messages is the best feeling for me and is what pushes me to carry on doing the blog, even though sometimes it can become a bit of a chore. I am honestly very grateful to anyone who keeps up with my, far too frequent, drivel and thank you again for continued support and comments.

Leading a team (on the left) during group-boding games.

My first week back in the army following my last time being home, a long three weeks ago, consisted of urban warfare combat and, consequently, a week of shetach. I've done 'lashab' (urban warfare) a couple of times before, but this time there was definitely a different feel to the week. As I mentioned in the last blog, it seems to me that part of 'makim' (commanders' course) is teaching us to be extremely professional soldiers and to excel in all aspects of being a soldier. This includes 'lashab', so there was a clear emphasis on teaching us to excel in the week, rather than showing us the basics and doing standard exercises. We also practiced leading a class of soldiers into urban warfare, since this could ultimately be what one would have to do in times of war. It was the first time I've enjoyed a week of shetach in a long, long time and, aside from the exercises, we had a lot of fun climbing buildings, jumping through windows and kicking down doors in the fake city, where the training takes place. Halfway through the week, I was taken out the shetach, in order to go to the dentist to have a filling. I have had a few problems with my teeth during my service, I remember that I once chipped my tooth by falling over and have the gun hit my mouth during a shetach week in basic training. So, I went to the dentist (who was Russian, like ever other doctor in the army!) and had the filling without any complications, the problem, however, came soon afterwards once I returned back to the shetach. I went straight back to my mahlaka and continued the urban combat exercises, despite having considerable tooth ache and half my mouth being completely numb. Of course this led to hysteria amongst the mahlaka as I soon led an exercise with half my moth dragging on the floor, while shouting undistinguished orders due to my tongue hanging out the side of my mouth!!!

Entering a fake house as part of urban combat week, I'm the one kneeling.

I spent the whole of Shavuot here at home in Tel Aviv, where I have definitely settled, following my move from the north two months ago. Life in Tel Aviv is a complete 180 degree turnaround from what I was experiencing in Kibbutz Ortal. Apart from having to worry about more things like washing and food, I am now having a better quality of life, so to speak, with beach visits, clubbing nights and eating out a regular affair. As much as I appreciate and love the time I had Ortal, my life has changed for the better and weekends home from the army are now a much more exciting event. So back to the army and one thing that hasn't changed by being in 'makim' is that there is still the occasional day of doing kitchen or company duties. I haven't done much of it to be fair but on the one day that I was given kitchen duty, it happened to be the day of the Champions Leaue final. I've never seen such an efficient days work of cleaning by all the people who were in the kitchen that day, we must have broken records by finishing up so quickly so everyone could go and watch the game!

The whole mahlaka climbing over a wall in under a minute!!!

This last week in the army was something called Masa Yisraeli, which is an educational trip normally attended by school children, but has also been incorporated in makim. It's a week long trip around the country, where subjects like zionism, Judaism and the army are all brought up and discussed. We hiked in the north and went to more sensitive places like the Ghetto Fighters' Museum, Mount Herzl cemetery and the Kotel, as well as having a lot of discussions about pretty much everything to do with Israel and being Jewish. It was a week that defines me as a person and in the talks where we each gave our own opinions, I was constantly at the forefront of it all because of my own aliyah story. It was interesting also to hear of others' opinions and I saw how nearly all regular Israelis are indeed very zionist, despite there being a wide range of demographics; from religious, ancestral and socio-economic differences. Masa Yisraeli gave me a real charge of zionism and going to those sensitive places only strengthened my unshakable beliefs that the Jewish nation is unique and eternal, and that Israel is are only home and we must do all we can to defend it. We were in Jerusalem for the majority of the trip and whenever I go there I always fall in love with the city that is the centre of Jewish life in this world. Throughout the trip, the exile from Israel and the longing for Jerusalem in that time was mentioned, and there is no better way of expressing the triumph of zionism than to arrive at the kotel or Mount Herzl (where so many of those dreamers, including Herzl himself sre buried) in the IDF uniform. In fact, it was at Mount Herzl where I had my most meaningful moments of the trip, especially standing by the grave of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from tzanchanim who died in the second Lebanon war, after flying back from his holiday back home in America once he heard the war broke out. I had obviously heard of his story before, but it was the first time I had been to his grave as a soldier and his life and death has a profound effect on one who shares his story in many ways. Apart from the important message behind the Masa Yisraeli trip it's also been the funnest week of the whole course; being in regular clothes, not having a timetable of lessons, guarding or shetach and generally having fun with all the guys from the mahlaka, who I'll soon be parting from at the end of the course.

My mahlaka during Masa Yisraeli.

Only two more weeks until I'm a qualified commander, the time has literally flown by, I'd say that makim has definitely felt like the quickest three months of my whole service. I return to the army tomorrow to close Shabbat and then next week I have my final exams before I am out for the weekend. I'll post another blog then and explain what finishing the course means in terms of the near future of my service. Hag Samaech.

What it's all about - at the kotel as an IDF soldier.