by Mika Caplan

Coming back from Israel, I realize that I have just experienced a lifelong journey that completely changed who I am as a person. I made wonderful friends and experienced the Israeli way of life, notably during the difficult situation of conflict with the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza. I joined Chetz VaKeshet (CVK; bow and arrow). It was coordinated directly with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) so all of our counselors were Israeli soldiers between the ages of 20 and 23. Our “mefakdim,” or commanders, were always in uniform and always on top of everything. The 120 teenagers, including about 20 Israelis, were mixed in and divided into three platoons (machlakot) and nine crews (tzvatim) of about 12 teenagers and one commander. Each commander was carefully chosen by the program and each was incredible to work with. My ability to speak fluently in Hebrew made it much easier to communicate with Israelis and Americans alike, (although the Israeli teens had no trouble with their English).

 

After spending two nights in the Blue Bay Hotel in Netanya and a few starter activities, CVK headed for the Joara Army Base. Gadna week (para-military training) was one of the hardest weeks in my life–both physically and mentally. Each teen was put in uniform, ate in a group, slept in a tiny room, and was treated like a real Israeli soldier. During this week everyone discovered his or her strengths and weaknesses and also learned how to deal with them. We learned to appreciate the simple necessities that were provided. The tzvatim had lessons and missions similar to  those that soldiers in basic training go through. By the end of the week, I had survived extreme heat, fired an M-16 assault rifle, had awaked at
dawn, eating every meal in 10 minutes, army-crawled through all kinds of terrain, worked kitchen duty, learned how to bandage a wounded soldier, and was selected by my mefakedet to be in charge of our tzevet. Although some complained about the conditions and uniforms, I felt honored to wear the same uniform that my parents and every other Israeli soldier who fought to defend the country. In the end I felt an enormous amount of appreciation and gratitude for our commanders who pushed us to continue through the difficult week because, in the end, it turned out to be the most rewarding finish.
The North week took us from Caesarea to the Kinneret to Tel Chai. We learned about the culture of the Druze citizens in Israel and were treated to their delicious food. We explored the Rosh HaNikra caves and went rappelling in the beautiful Keshet cave. We toured the ancient city of Akko and then Zefat. We went on a kayaking adventure in the Jordan River near Kibbutz Kfar Blum and reached Mt. Bental that overlooked Syria. We hiked through the Golan Heights and saw the Jillabun waterfall. We finally reached the Kinneret where we spent the night on the beach after a beach party and enjoyed the water and boats. Towards the middle of the week, we all received news of sirens in Tel Aviv and were assured and reassured of our safety throughout the program.
The South week started off with a four hour drive to Ben Gurion’s house and grave in the Negev desert. We spent the night sleeping in Bedouin tents beneath the stars. The next day consisted of camel and Jeep rides across the desert. After a beautiful view of the Ramon Crater, we began our drive to Eilat at the southern tip of Israel. During our first night in Eilat, at about 1:30 in the morning I awoke to an enormous explosion that shook the entire hotel. After hearing screams in the hallway, we all rushed down to the bomb shelter where we were told that a missile fired from Sinai had landed just a short distance from our hotel. I was terrified and very worried as I tried to go back to sleep at 3 a.m. Our early-morning activity was canceled to give us more time to sleep, and after that we went about normally, even though the operation in Gaza was in full swing.
After learning about the different types of fish we would see in the Red Sea, I went snorkeling for the first time and saw the amazing reef filled with so many beautiful fish. Later, we spent the evening in the biggest mall in Eilat called the Ice Mall. The next day we visited Timna Park and learned about the history of the iron that was found in the ground many years ago that still exists today. We had lunch at Kibbutz Ktura and toured around the kibbutz and saw how it was run and handled. We went to bed early in preparation for an early climb of Masada. Waking up at 3 a.m. was harder for some than others, but I was ready to go and begin the difficult “Snake Path” up the mountain. The climb was indeed difficult, but the view from the top of Masada was 100 times worth the effort. As a group we watched the sun rise over the Dead Sea. After reaching the top, we were awarded “diskits” or dogtags similar to those given in the Army.
At the Western Wall (Kotel), we first experienced a 4-D movie called the Time Machine that explained the long and complex history of Jerusalem. We saw King David’s tomb and the Cardo marketplace. We stopped to have lunch near the Kotel; before approaching it, all of sudden, we heard gunshots and saw smoke coming from the other side of the wall. I panicked and followed everyone else as we rushed after our commanders to find a safe place.
We were told later that a demonstration on the other side spun out of control as Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli officers. The Israelis shot bullets into the air to break up the demonstration. We left immediately and did not return. It frightened all of us and reminded us that even in such a holy place, there could be disagreements and  violence. We returned to our hostel in Kibbutz Almog and began Kabbalat Shabbat activities together for our last Shabbat.          The next morning, we headed to Yad VaShem and were taken through the museum by a tour guide. The museum was very detailed and, after having been to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, I thought that it was so much more powerful experiencing Yad VaShem with other Jewish teens in the Jewish state. We walked around Har Hertzl, where some of the most famous and important people in Israel, such as Rabin, Golda Meir, and Herzl himself were buried. Har Herzl also held the graves of thousands of Israeli soldiers who died in battle. That evening, we received dreadful news. Among the soldiers who were killed in Gaza that day was Sean Carmeli — a lone soldier from Texas who moved to Israel when he was sixteen. He was the boyfriend of one of our commanders. Many of the commanders left for his funeral in Haifa where over 20,000 people gathered to show respect and appreciation to him and to the soldiers that were operating under tremendously difficult circumstances. It was the hardest day of the program for all of us.
The next day we traveled to Tel Aviv and volunteered our time for a company that ships food to poor families in Israel. We helped pack boxes full of oil, flour, and canned goods. After that we went to the Hall of Independence where Ben Gurion signed the paper that officially made Israel a state. While we were there, there was a siren in Tel Aviv, and we heard the Iron Dome intercept the missiles in the air. The closing pool party was held on a Kibbutz that evening and CVK spent the last night together. The last day was sad from the very beginning of the day. We had closing activities with our groups and wrote lasting letters and notes to each other and promised to keep in touch. The closing ceremony was held at Latrun, a historic battleground. We couldn’t believe that the month had passed by so quickly. As we said goodbye to commanders and friends alike, we realized how hard it was to part with the people that we had known as family and spent every single moment with for the entire month. We felt so bonded and united as a whole group. I cried for hours afterwards and for days later as I felt empty and lonely without 120 others around me constantly.
For me, CVK was truly a once in a lifetime experience that changed my life. It changed the way that I think about Israel and changed the way I think about the world. I felt that my connection to Israel was the strongest it had ever been in my life and I wanted to remember that feeling because it’s something that I never want lose. I know that the friends I made during the program will stay lifelong friends that I’m sure will travel to Israel again some day. I cannot fully describe my experience in this program, but I do know that it was the most meaningful month of my life. If I could go back to even a day from that month, I would do it in a heartbeat. Chetz VaKeshet gave me the opportunity to connect to Israel in a way I never thought possible, and for that I am incredibly grateful.