This week has been the busiest, most intense week at Mikhve Alon, but definitely my favorite. I arrived Sunday knowing that the week would hold the tryouts for tzanchanim and our graduation from our hebrew course. 5 out of the 13 people in my Tzevet decided to do the gibbush so there was a nervous atmosphere hanging over our heads on Sunday.
We went to bed early on Sunday in preparation for an early Monday wake up. 4:00 am, Monday, we packed up our things and boarded a bus for the several hour trip to the main base in Tel Aviv where the gibbush would be held. Needless to say, I was out cold on the ride. We arrived at around 8am and took a seat while hundreds other soldiers from Mikhve joined us. We spent the next few hours just lounging about, admiring the uniforms and m4s of the Tzanchanim standing around who would be running the gibbush.
Once everyone arrived, a big, aggressive looking officer came over to tell us the plan for the next two days. That day we would be doing a doctor examination and a 2k run and then Tuesday we would be doing the physical part of the gibbush and the interview. I passed the doctor’s examination and we then went on to the 2k run. The run was held on a sandy and hilly track. They split us into running groups and we awaited our turn. The first objective of the run was to finish in under 10 minutes in order to not get kicked out of the gibbush, but the second objective was to finish in as competitive time as you could. The course was hard but I pushed myself the whole way and finished the run in 8:10, a good personal time that put me somewhere in the middle of the ridiculous 6:00-7:00 minute runs (mostly achieved by the Ethiopian runners) and the slower 9:00-10:00 times.
After that everyone knew that the run marked the end to the day’s physical portion and we were allowed to eat dinner and relax. Towards evening they split us into new tzevets of about 25 people based on our run times (I think). Only about 10 people out of the 150 potential recruits didn’t make a qualifying time and had to leave. I was glad to see my good friend from Mikhve, Eli, got assigned to the same group as me. Always nice to have a familiar face.
Our new mafaked was this huge 6’4” 220ish lbs guy who told us that he is serving in the elite Palsar unit of the paratroopers. Despite his intimidating size, he was actually a nice guy and joked around with us a little bit. We then grabbed our bags and ran to the tent where we would be sleeping, complete with cots and well, nothing else. We were given 20 minutes to organize our stuff, told to wake up at 4:00am, and then went to bed. We also had to chug our 3/4 liter canteen (the first of several chugs) before we went to bed. That made the first hour of sleeping difficult as I was getting up to pee every 5 minutes. The night was cold and rainy and 4am came way too quick.
We dressed, ate a quick breakfast, and stretched. We were assigned a new mefeked from the reserves paratrooper division who would be in charge of us during the physical gibbush. The mafaked was a no nonsense guy with a shaved and polished head. I joked that anyone who is crazy enough to polish his head is probably going to work us like a dog.
He told us that the real gibbush started now, and ordered us to load the numerous sandbags and jerry cans onto our backs and the two stretchers, and follow him. We marched out into a field for about 10 minutes until we hit a hill of sand. We lowered the supplies and lined up. He grabbed his backpack, walked down the hill and put the bag at the bottom. Sprint around the bag and come back he said. “Go!” and everyone sprints. It was just a mass of bodies; the path was about 15 feet wide and everyone was pushing and tripping to try to be first. We got back to the line and were told to go again. We did this for about 20-30 minutes. Towards the middle of the sprints other mefekeds gathered around and started to write down the numbers of the first four people who finished.
Finally our mafaked stopped us and told us to pick up a sandbag and hold it above our head. We were told that we had to hold it for a minute and a half and that every time someone dropped the bag, everyone’s time would reset. We probably had the bag over our heads for a good three minutes, about the point of utter exhaustion. We then completed more sprints and sandbag holds for probably another half hour. At this point about 5 people gave up out of our Tzevet. I really thought about quitting. We were repeatedly told that we would receive a hot meal and could rest the rest of the day if we gave up. With my lungs and legs on fire, and a 25 lbs sandbag hoisted over my head, I did think about surrendering. But I just couldn’t get myself to say the words. I knew I wouldn’t be able to face my commanders or friends or be able to forgive myself if I quit.
Finally the sprint/sandbag hell ended and we were told to crawl. Now there is not much that makes sprints seem like a cake walk, but crawling is one of those activities. It has got to one of the most inefficient ways of moving…no wonder babies cry so much. For about a half hour, we crawled up and down on the hilly sand. At the end, every muscle ached, every movement was exhausting, but I just kept putting each hand in front of the other. And then the crawling was over.
At that point we were told to make a map of Israel on the ground using anything we could find. We were given four minutes. These were really just shouting matches where everyone tried to show how they were a “leader.”
After our relaxing four minute break, we were told to run more sprints. Back and forth we went, except this time, the first four people would get to carry the stretcher on the next run, loaded with sandbags. The most disappointing part of the gibbush was watching people literally dive for the stretcher and punch each other to try to be the winners. They would also not go completely around the course to try to be first. My friend Eli and I decided early that despite the fact that it might cost us our chances of making Tzanchanim, we weren’t willing to fight and cheat to try to win.
After the crawling we had a few more team activities, all near impossible, but designed to test leadership qualities and operating under time constraints.
The final gibbush challenge began with us walking to a large, square, chin-up bar system. We were told to close our eyes and hang from it for as long as we could and try to be the last one hanging. This was a tough mental challenge. I had no idea how long I had to hang but was well aware of the exhaustion in my arms and shoulders.
We finished the gibbush with a 2K hike, which was a pleasant relief after the crawling and sprints.
The final portion of the gibbush was an interview in hebrew about why we want to go to Tzanchanim, About our lives, our strengthens and weaknesses, among other topics. I felt really confident going into the interview and felt like I did really well.
Thoughts about the gibbush:
It was a very interesting experience. I say interesting because it really tests the mind. Within the midst of the gibbush, while exhausted, it’s very difficult to keep a clear mind and avoid focusing on the pain. It’s important to avoid thinking about anything besides the task at hand. I just tried to focus on the immediate sprint, not the many more that I knew would come. In addition, after about an hour after the gibbush, I realized how manageable everything was. Despite the feeling during the exhaustion, the gibbush couldn’t have killed me, nor was it necessarily above my limit, definitely past the point of comfort, but not at a place where I couldn’t have physically continued (because, there absolutely are points where the body literally can’t do something).
Part 2: Graduation:
We arrived back to base on Wednesday evening and began to prepare for our graduation ceremony the next day. The first step and a really well known part of graduation was breaking distance with our commanders. All throughout training and the hebrew course we had “distance” with our commanders. We didn’t know where they were from, didn’t see them laugh, couldn’t ask about their lives, and only called them by their rank. In honor of completing Mikhve, our commanders told us their names and all about their lives and we were allowed to talk and joke around with them freely.
Some funny moments:
Seeing our mafakedets get really excited like teenage girls.
Learning that one of our commanders was born in New Jersey (all the Americans got so excited).
Hearing from my Mafakedet that the first time I announced her (there’s a sentence we have to say before she addresses the group) instead of saying: “everyone at attention,” I said: “May your butt be at attention,” and she just said she laughed so hard. At that point my hebrew wasn’t good enough to understand my mistake.
The next day, at our ceremony, in front of a packed crowd, we did an intricate march, sang hatikvah, and stood at attention as the Israeli flag was raised. My name also got called for best soldier in my Machlaka (~40 soldiers). I was so honored and flattered. I got to run up to the front of everyone along with other 8 best soldiers and got congratulated by my officers and other really high ranking officers. Some very special friends of mine who I met here in Israel also came to see me and they came out on the field and hugged me and took pictures with me.
After the ceremony everyone was hugging and celebrating. I then was invited with the other best soldiers, to go into a conference room with the high ranking officers. They congratulated us and said some very kind words about us and our service. I also spoke and described my emotions standing on the field and how it had been my dream for a long time to be part of a ceremony like that. Then the mafaked for our base asked me if I achieved that dream, what was my new goal. I told him being in Tzanchanim 😉 They all seemed impressed, especially that I was from Alaska.
I was also congratulated by the mafaked for our course who I had conversed with earlier about suggestions and concerns I had with the course and life on base. He joked that I had told him that our heater in our room was broken. He said that I must be freezing at night. I responded with saying that since I was from Alaska, I wasn’t cold, but everyone else in the room was. He thought that was pretty funny.
It was a really incredible experience. Tuesday I’ll be going to find out what unit I will be in for the next year and half and whether I made Tzanchanim or not.