Saturday, December 13, 2014

Zen and the Art of Surviving the IDF

It's 3 am and I’m standing outside the neshikiya—the base’s gunroom—trying hard to stay awake. A cold chill runs through me. My shoulders are achy, my eyes heavy from fatigue…perhaps I’m dreaming?

I’m not.

I’m guarding the gunroom of an IDF base. Alone. In the middle of the night. Wearing a vest filled with 4 fully loaded magazines, one large meymiyah (waterbottle), and a helmet. Over this vest I carry my baby – my m-16 – the signature gun of the IDF and the newest limb on my body.

I begin to make my rounds around the gunroom and check to see that all doors are locked.

“All clear” I alert the war-room through my walkie-talkie.

Though my job is the farthest thing from the combat-y scene you are now envisioning, shmira (guard duty) makes anyone look hardcore. It also, quite contrarily, can teach you a lot about Zen.


In the last 20 minutes of my shmira, I watch the sunrise from my post.  

Generally, when I’m awake for a sunrise, I acknowledge its beauty. But this time, I really watch it. I have no phone. I have no one to talk to, no commands to fulfill. I’m not allowed to read or write. I simply stand and watch pink fade to orange fade to yellow fade to blue. I hear the crickets sing. I watch a bee pollinate. I poke my head out to smell a flower—it’s surprisingly sweet.

I inhale with intention and allow my thoughts to roll in and out.

I guess shmira isn’t so bad.

In fact, guard duty (and army life in general) can be fun with the right attitude.  At the other two guard posts -- the main gate and patrol – we guard in pairs, which is an opportunity for distraction-less bonding. Not having coffee in the morning is an opportunity to rid myself of my slight caffeine addiction. The language barrier forces me to listen intently during lessons. Not having control of my movements, whereabouts, or just about anything forces me to practice my deep breathing techniques and tests my drive to persevere.

I know, this sounds impossibly optimistic. Indeed, sometimes army life is awful and there’s little I can do about it. Some examples:
  • Not understanding jokes in Hebrew and thus sometimes not contributing to conversation (I nod and laugh anyway).
  • Feeling very dependent on others for help with assignments (I have never been this way). 
  • Generally not being able to express myself in Hebrew.
  • Constantly feeling frustrated and limited by my Hebrew (see above).
  • No time for music, yoga, writing or any hobbies that make me happy.
  • Lots and lots of yelling. 
  • Constant fatigue.
  • Stress from assignments. 
  • 10 minutes to eat at meals.
  • Only one hour of personal time every day. 
  • Power relationships and formalities that I know are important but I still find arbitrary 
  • 18-year-old Israeli girls…everywhere.
As you can see, there is plenty to complain about. In fact, complaining is one of the main sources of bonding between the girls of Bahad Chinuch V’Hanoar (the education base). The other main source bonding: eating grandma’s cookies, chocolate, and any/every treat we can our hands on during our sha’ah tash (free hour before sleep/ aka hysteria in the bathrooms hour).

Nevertheless, the silver lining is clear.

Despite the constant frustration, confusion, and moments of what the heck am I doing here, I can confidently say that the beautiful moments—the moments where I find inspiration—imbue meaning into the struggle. It becomes a rectified struggle, which is what I call “fulfilled happiness” (in Hebrew: Osher).

Some of these moments thus far:
  • When I sang Hatikva at my swearing in ceremony (the end of basic training) and looked out at my cousin, host family, and two Garin friends in the crowd.
  • When I learned about ruach tzahal (the 10 main IDF values) as a soldier after having talked about them at length during my advocacy work at BU.
  • When I had a hard day and my friend brought me hot chocolate and a hug.
  • When I applied the knowledge I learned at the shooting range and successfully hit the targets while lying down, kneeling, standing, and during night shooting. Important note: It wasn’t meaningful because I hit all the targets. It was meaningful because I felt incredibly safe all throughout, knowing that security, purity of arms and respect for life are at the crux of all IDF operations.
  • When I led a friend though a meditation process after she struggled with shock at the shooting range.
  • When we closed our first Shabbat on base, and the other American and I harmonized to Kabbalat Shabbat melodies while watching the sunset.
  • When I prayed shacharit (morning prayer) on base for the first time and said the prayer for Israel.
  • When I walked in uniform through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and my friend – noticing my tears – took my hand and gently squeezed it, as if to say I understand. I’m here.
  • Every time I remember that my army job is all about inspiring soldiers to learn, live a life of integrity, and grow into the best version of themselves.
  •      Yesterday, during my Garin’s weekly Ma’agal Shabbat, when I opened “fan mail” from a boy in NY who wrote, “Leora, thank you for your service. It means a lot to me because I go to Israel, but most importantly, I believe in the right for Jews to have Israel as a Jewish country. You have a lot of courage. When I’m old enough I’d like to join the army. I am very serious about this, even though my friends are not. Thank you for your service. I appreciate it so much. – Zachary K, NY.


In a nutshell, I’m in an incredibly challenging and rewarding chapter of life. I am happy that basic training is behind me, but this current phase – the education course – is far more difficult. Instead of running from one formation to the next and learning about the m-16 (which was the majority of basic training), I am running from one classroom to the next, discussing values in depth, giving presentations, and composing formal army documents…all in Hebrew.  

I am one of two American lone soldiers out of 80 girls total. The other American is in the other division, so in most discussions and lessons, I am the only non-native soldier. There were four Americans, but two dropped because of their Hebrew. 

Additionally, this past week, I was chosen to be the weekly chatatz of my group, which is essentially the “right hand” of our commander. She said she picked me for a reason, and I hope I didn’t let her down. I tried hard, but honestly, it’s hard enough to get myself together, let alone be responsible for 11 of girls. Because of this demanding role, I am way behind on the assignments, 3 of which I have to start and finish tonight.

Wish me luck…I need it.

Shavua tov everyone (good week). Thinking of you all and sending much love.

Your chayelet (soldier),

Leora ליאורה 

My Garin friends and Mashakiot sending me off to the army!
With my friend Arianna (the other American Lone Soldier)
after a week of basic training

With my 3rd m-16

With my friend Talia right before the Swearing-In ceremony