You’re an American 15- or 16-year-old. You’re halfway through a five-week program in Israel, The Dor L’Dor Leadership Program: the capstone leadership experience for campers any of the three Cohen Camps. And suddenly, you’re in the army.
It’s Army Day. The day when you’ll get your chance to experience a taste of the Israeli Army, challenge your own physical limits, and further build your team. Although older siblings and friends, Dor L’Dor graduates, have told you stories of hardship and challenge, you’re more excited than nervous as you arrive on the mountain in a forest developed by the Jewish National Fund. This is a rite of passage.
This year’s Dor L’Dor group of 116 campers is currently halfway through their five-week experience, and I want to share one of the most memorable events of their trip thus far: Army Day. Army Day is their chance to experience a taste of the Israeli Army, challenge their own physical limits, and further build their team. This year was a different experience than others: the Cohen Camps joined with two other Jewish overnight camps for the finale exercise of Army Day, the stretcher march. This is a first for the Greater Boston Jewish overnight community.
The DLD teens were divided into six groups, each led by former commanders of the Israel Defense Forces. At 4pm, after an intensive day of training, we staff were able to go in to take pictures, and at 8pm we were able to check in with our teens. The pictures and reports from the 4pm check-in are heartwarming: we could see them being challenged, practicing teamwork and acting in accordance with the ethics and values of the Israeli army. It was also fun to see them trying to open cans of food with a simple, manual can opener! At 8pm, we ventured in with trepidation: Will they be so exhausted that they will give us sad looks and beg us to take them back to their buses? Were they able to succeed during the army drills? Did they get enough to eat?
As we proceeded in the semi-darkness to where they were waiting, we heard our group before we could see them. To our delight (and relief) we heard the happy sounds of laughter, bantering, and even some cheering. They told us how much fun they were having, and that while the drills where difficult, they were able to do them. They were looking forward to their night “missions.” We left with promises to return early enough in the morning for the stretcher march.
The stretcher march is an intensive simulation of an actual army experience. Each unit carries a weighted stretcher five kilometers, over a dirt road and on a path cut through the mountain. Sometimes those with the stretcher can get ahead of those in their unit who are taking a bit longer; what would happen in a real situation like that? This year the units stuck together and really relied on teamwork – an achievement that leaders described to us as the most united stretcher march ever, and we have been running this program since 1996! In addition to switching off and on holding the stretcher, they carried others’ water bottles and called out encouragement to other members in their unit. What I found miraculous was that not one person claimed that he/she was doing too much or that he/she was doing too little. Rather, I witnessed them willingly helping each other. Each unit was cohesive and moved as a group. They were so proud when they finally made it back to base.
Each unit operated separately, and formed quite a supportive team. They were quite a sight—all in hats and the olive green army uniform, with dirt and sweat covering them from head to toe. Their spirit with cheers and song and general callouts of encouragement could be heard long before I saw them approach. Their pride was apparent even through tired eyes and dirty faces.
One teen participant summed up the experience, “Army day brought out everyone’s strongest inner self and taught everyone to stretch beyond their limits and be a leader within themselves.”
It was quite a moving sight when everyone came together for their closing ceremony. The raising of the Israel flag set the tone, there were cheers and final maneuvers to put the stretchers down. Just like the “real” Israeli army each teen was given a Tanach. They closed the ceremony by singingHatikva together. Each teen, each camp, each unit all coming together for a few moments in unity–a true army!
With experiences such as Army Day, the DLD teens are a transforming into a bonded community of young Jews for whom this formative experience can inspire a lifetime of passion for and connection to Israel.