TORONTO — Eden Adler is, in the most superficial sense, the picture of a soldier: handsome, strapping and eminently self-possessed.
The 22-year-old Israeli was, before completing his military service two months ago, a commander at the Israeli Defence Forces' (IDF) 101st Paratrooper Brigade basic training base, and therefore, at just 21, directly responsible for the safety and operations of 42 recruits and three sergeants.
But, as Adler stressed Feb. 19 to an audience of nearly 300 people invited by the youth movement Bnei Akiva of Toronto to watch a screening of a new documentary film featuring his and four fellow soldiers’ experiences, “that was a nice movie in a nice theatre, with nice seats, and popcorn, but that’s not a movie. That’s my life.”
The film, Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front, is a production of Jerusalem U, an Israeli non-profit that creates films and film-based educational programs with the stated goal of “making young Jews feel proud of being Jewish and emotionally connected to Israel.”
It captures the trials and triumphs of four Israeli high school graduates and Adler, their commander, as they experience eight months of basic paratrooper training.
Bnei Akiva of Toronto organized a special screening of the movie, held at Empress Walk cinema.
Before the film, DJ Schneeweiss, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, briefly addressed the audience, noting that, “As a graduate of the Bnei Aikva [movement], I certainly feel very at home in this community.”
Schneeweiss explained that Jerusalem U produced Beneath the Helmet to make Israel more “accessible and intelligible to a contemporary audience,” as well as to show the “human face of the IDF.”
He emphasized the value of creating an emotional connection with Israeli soldiers, both for Jews in the Diaspora and non-Jews.
“There’s no better time or place to show this film,” he said. “So much that is told and written about the IDF is impersonal, and often there is a demonic representation of it. Movies like this are key… We need to fight the battle of ideas [in the international media] about Israel, but there’s also nothing so compelling as seeing flesh and blood human stories of soldiers living everyday lives.”
Beneath the Helmet focuses on five soldiers with diverse backgrounds and personal challenges.
Adler is the son of an American mother and a Yemenite father, raised in the Western Galilee town of Kfar Vradim. Though he’s now confident and composed, the movie portrays how as an adolescent, he was quite troubled and struggled with learning disabilities – experiences that have shaped his ability to be an empathetic and effective leader.
Eilon Kohan, raised in Ashdod, is gregarious and fun-loving, and struggles to reconcile the rigours of the military with his free-spirited nature.
Mekonen Abeba is an immigrant from Ethiopia. A dedicated soldier, he must simultaneously contend with immense family stresses and financial difficulties.
Coral Amarani is from an affluent neighbourhood in Herzliya Pituach. Self-described as a formerly “spoiled child,” the film shows how she blossoms as a drill sergeant at Michvei Alon, a pre-basic training program that helps soldiers from abroad integrate into the IDF.
Finally, Oren Giladi is from Switzerland, and must deal with the hardships of being a “lone soldier,” unable to go home to family on weekends.
The film depicts the daily physical and emotional hardships – the exhaustion, fear, homesickness and self-doubt –endured by these soldiers, but also shows the enduring friendships that develop between them, and their growing sense of assuredness and pride about their mission to protect the State of Israel.
Adler, who spoke and took questions from the audience after the screening, said that travelling outside Israel after his military service and coming to understand the complexity of being Jewish in places such as Europe and North America, bolstered his decision to promote the film.
“I realized it’s not too cool to be Jewish and in university [in North America],” he said. “I saw BDS, I saw Israeli Apartheid Week. A lot of kids don’t have a tool to combat this. But after seeing the movie, I believe they have a tool. To get to know five soldiers and get a sense of who Israelis really are and who the Jewish people really are, that’s a tool.”