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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tufts Daily - Senior swaps swimsuit for rifle to spend a summer in the Israeli army

Tufts Daily - Senior swaps swimsuit for rifle to spend a summer in the Israeli army: "

Senior Jessica Hochstadt spent her summer at boot camp in Israel, facing physical and mental challenges as she trained with the Israeli army.

Senior swaps swimsuit for rifle to spend a summer in the Israeli army

By: Marissa Carberry

Posted: 9/12/07

In the past, Tufts senior Jessica Hochstadt spent her summer vacations in a traditional collegiate fashion: working as a lifeguard at a pool in Miami Beach.

But this summer was different.

Instead of her bright red swimsuit and whistle, Hochstadt donned combat boots, a canteen and an assault rifle as she participated in a rigorous, eight-week basic training course with the Israeli army.

In Israel, every man is required to serve in the army for three years and every woman for two.

"All Jews are told that 'Israel is your home,'" she said. "Even when you get off of the airplane, they say 'Welcome Home' to you, even if you've never been there before. Personally, I never felt comfortable calling Israel my home because I hadn't served in the army.

"It's taking credit for something that's not yours," she added. "I don't look down on people who don't join the army - it's not for everyone - but that's just my personal belief."

Hochstadt initially considered training with the Israeli army during her senior year of high school when she took part in March of the Living, a two-week program which brings Jewish teens from across the world on a two-week trip to former concentration camps in Poland and Israel. On the trip she learned about Marva, a program that allows young Jewish adults from around the world to join the Israeli Army's Educational Unit for two months.

Hochstadt's interest in the program increased over winter break of last year when she traveled with 42 fellow Tufts students on a trip to Israel called "Rebuilding the North."

When the summer came, Hochstadt decided to forgo a traditional summer job and enroll in the Marva program.

"I wasn't looking for an army to join, I was looking to serve a purpose, and this was an ideal opportunity in terms of time length and purpose," she said. "I finally just decided that I couldn't sit there and cheer them on from a distance. I could go to Israel and support them financially by being a tourist, or I could go and do my part as well."

Though Hochstadt's family was initially worried by her decision to join the army, she was determined to go through with it. On June 1 she was sent to basic training with 135 Israeli and non-Israeli men and women in Sde Boker, located in South Israel in the Negev desert.

Training was conducted strictly in Hebrew, which Hochstadt speaks, although not fluently.

During basic training, Hochstadt's typical day was exhausting. Soldiers from her unit were awoken at 4:30 most mornings in order to begin their lessons on the history of Israel and the logistics of the army.

"You learn about Israel and its army so that you can then teach about Israel," Hochstadt said.

The soldiers were also required to complete physical training, including running, shooting at firing ranges, obstacle courses and simulation drills. The experience, she said, was exhausting. She recalled one run up the mountain Masada - which most tourists climb on trolleys - as being particularly grueling.

But Hochstadt said she was most affected by the drills, which were designed to simulate life during war.

During one drill, she said, the soldiers were sitting in trenches listening to their commander lecture to them about war. He dropped a fake grenade into the trench and ordered the soldiers-in-training to retreat, as they had been taught.

"Afterwards he said to us, 'Now, what were you really supposed to do there?'" Hochstadt said. "We gave him different answers, but none of them were right. Finally he just said, 'You should have just waved goodbye, because you're dead.'"

Most nights, Hochstadt said, the soldiers were sent to bed at around 11 p.m., after tucking their guns underneath the heads of their thin, pillow-less mattresses. They were given seven minutes to prepare for bed, but Hochstadt said that she soon learned to sleep in her uniform in order to gain the extra few minutes of sleep.

And as if they weren't already sleep-deprived, she said, the soldiers were often awoken in unexpected ways.

"One night, they woke us up in the middle of the night for a hacpatza - a bomb drill," she said. "Our commanders were dressed as enemies, and they kept on screaming at us. We had no idea what was going on - I actually saw boys cry."

Emotionally, Hochstadt said that while she considers herself to be a "tough" girl, she did encounter several breaking points.

"For the first three weeks of basic training, I was appointed 'head soldier,' meaning that when the commander shouted orders or reprimands, he shouted them at me," she said. "I had to then shout them at the other shoulders, which was a tough thing to do."

One day she was exhausted, she said, when her commander asked her what was wrong.

"I told her that I just needed a few minutes to myself," Hochstadt said. "She said to me, 'Do you need to talk to someone, do you need to talk to the counselor?' And I broke down and cried, 'I just need to talk to my mom!' Here I was, a 21-year-old woman in the army, and I was crying for my mom."

Though Hochstadt has no current plans to return to Israel, she still talks to the friends she made during basic training and does plan to spend more time there in the future. If she decides to move there, her time at basic training will count towards her two years of military service.

Overall, Hochstadt said that basic training was a life-changing experience.

"It was nothing like I expected it to be," she said. "I expected it to be hard, and it was physically and mentally challenging, but there was more to it than just that, which made it really, really challenging."

In addition, Hochstadt says that in testing her endurance both emotionally and physically, she was able to learn a lot about herself.

"I think I appreciate what I have a lot more now, and I try not to worry about the petty stuff because there are so many bigger things going on," she said. "I know now that I can live in any condition, sleep in any condition, and I'll be fine. It's really true that when you think you're done, you can go always go a little bit more."
© Copyright 2007 Tufts Daily

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