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Torontonians to emulate IDF beret march

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Good morning campers and welcome to Day 2 of your three-day, 90-km march. The weather is crisp and cool here in the Negev Desert, but expected to warm up later, to make your 30-km walk a breeze.

First check your sleeping bags to make sure they haven’t been invaded by creepy crawlers, which are common in the Israeli desert. If there are any fire ants on your legs, please remove them at your discretion. The heel of your hiking boot is adequate to deal with any scorpions that may have intruded into your tents.

Breakfast is being served, but the Hilton was unavailable for delivery, so you’ll have to make due with army rations.

After breakfast, please grab your 20-kg backpack containing all the gear that IDF recruits carry, including stretchers, with which you may need to carry some of your comrades. Good, now you’re ready to begin your trudge through the desert. In only a couple of days, we’ll conclude with your graduation atop Masada.

Actually, there will likely be no such announcements for the 17 Toronto hikers expected to participate in the Masa Kumta march that’s being held from April 7-12.

The idea was conceived by Rabbi Aaron Flanzreich, the senior rabbi at Beth Shalom Congregation in Toronto, who said that the hike is meant to emulate the Masa Kumta beret march that graduating IDF recruits experience.

The Masa Kumta is the last piece of basic training that recruits complete before being granted their berets, making them official members of their regiments.

Upon graduation, the Toronto contingent will also earn berets – in their case, red ones, resembling the colour of the Canadian flag, plus a basic Israeli infantry pin. (Israeli regiments are distinguished by the colour of their berets.)

Graduation for the Toronto hikers will take place on Masada, where they will be met by 50 wounded Israeli veterans associated with Brothers for Life, a peer-to-peer charity that runs a program, through which previously wounded soldiers provide counselling and services to recently wounded soldiers.

This never-before-attempted mission is a unique way to connect local Jews to Israel, while raising money for a number of worthwhile charities, Rabbi Flanzreich explained.

The fundraising goal is $500,000, half of which will go to Beth Shalom initiatives, like its In From The Cold program, and half will go to Brothers for Life.

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As a former member of the IDF’s Givati Brigade, Rabbi Flanzreich experienced the hike as a younger man.

“I remember my beret march as being a very powerful moment. I thought it would be an excellent immersion for Israel’s supporters in Canada”, he said.

It’s meant “to connect people in a deep way with the efforts and determination needed to make Israel a reality.”

Jason Kimelman is signed up and ready to go. Like Rabbi Flanzreich, he participated in an IDF-style boot camp in 2016. That experience changed his life and made him appreciate the sacrifices soldiers make. Masa Kumta will allow participants “to be in the mindset of IDF soldiers,” he said.

What’s more, half a dozen wounded vets will accompany the Canadians, adding to the march’s significance.

“We want them to see that we have their backs. I think it provides them with comfort, knowing we’re here and they have a community like Toronto behind them,” Kimelman said.

As Rabbi Flanzreich recalled it, the march is very tough on young recruits. Participants get tired, blistered and endure shin splints. But the young soldiers also experience the camaraderie and support that goes with being part of a distinctive unit.

“Nobody completes a real march without the help of someone else. Others encourage you. And in many respects, that’s how Israel survives and how Jewish life continues to thrive – through selflessness and caring for something greater than yourself,” he said.

Unlike the IDF recruits, who complete their march in one go, the Toronto participants will spread their 90-km hike over three days in 15-km increments, and include various other military-like activities. After 15 km, participants will break for Krav Maga – lessons in combat self-defence – and firearms training, Rabbi Flanzreich said.

The rabbi came up with the idea for the mission after experiencing the 2016 “extreme boot camp” in Israel. It reminded him of the significance of the beret march at the conclusion of his own training, he said.

He recruited participants who are active men in their late 30s to early 50s. One has got to be fit to finish the event, Rabbi Flanzreich said.

In addition to funds raised by the participants, the march has received support from a number of local philanthropists: the Honey and Barry Sherman Foundation, the Lewis And Charlotte Steinberg Family Foundation, Vanessa and Ron Kimel, Sen. Linda Frum and Howard Sokolowski. The base camp will be named in honour of Barry and Honey Sherman, whose philanthropy supported Israel, Rabbi Flanzreich said.