Early in the morning, after breakfast but before they started on their 20-kilometre military-style march, the 18 Canadians sojourning in the Negev Desert engaged in some team-building exercises modeled on those used by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
They’d gather in a circle surrounding one of their companions, who’d cross his arms over his chest like an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, close his eyes, and fall back. Every time, someone would catch him, making sure he never hit the ground.
The IDF employs this exercise to make sure members of armed units can always count on each other. It tells you that everyone in the group has your back. “You’ll never be abandoned in your weakness,” said Rabbi Aaron Flanzreich, spiritual leader of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, who is also an IDF veteran and who organized the march.
Rabbi Flanzreich, along with 17 other Toronto men, five Israeli soldiers associated with Brothers for Life, a peer to peer charity for wounded soldiers, plus a handful of guides, engaged in the team-building exercise during a recent mission to Israel that replicated the Masa Kumta beret march of graduating soldiers.
The Canadian version of the march totalled 65 kilometres and was held from April 7-12, starting near Arad and ending at Masada.
For IDF recruits, the Masa Kumta marks the end of basic training and the awarding of a beret indicating membership in a particular IDF unit.
Going on a gruelling march, carrying heavy backpacks and sometimes carrying weighted stretchers, just like IDF soldiers do, creates a unique understanding of the hardships experienced by soldiers and a better appreciation of the sacrifices they make to protect Israel, Rabbi Flanzreich said.
“It’s a powerful moment for the participants.”
Working in conjunction with Brothers for Life in Israel, Rabbi Flanzreich organized the trip, which had the additional benefit of raising money for the synagogue’s social programs and the Israeli charity.
Altogether, $500,000 was raised, split evenly between the two organizations.
The beret march also provided participants – men ranging in age from 38-58 – with an Israel experience that goes beyond “tourist-friendly Israel,” Rabbi Flanzreich said.
The country’s historical and religious sites, the restaurants and beaches enjoyed by everyone, are accessible only because soldiers are on duty to protect the state from its enemies, he said.
In addition to bringing that connection into stark relief for the participants, the 18 men also bonded closely with the IDF veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD, he said.
Rabbi Flanzreich got the idea for the unique mission to Israel because of his own experiences as a young recruit who finished the march as part of the Givati Brigade.
“The experience of the group in the desert together doing the march recreates this foundational experience,” he said. “It was a powerful moment for the participants.”
The three-day adventure was difficult, he said. The Negev has received lots of rain this year, loosening rocks and making the ground difficult to walk without rolling your ankle.
Many of the participants suffered ankle sprains, knee problems and blisters. Three of them were hospitalized with various ailments, including one who had blisters so bad Rabbi Flanzreich said he’d never seen before.
In addition to the daily march, the participants received small arms training with (unloaded) M-16 rifles as well as briefings in combat tactics.
They subsisted on military rations for lunch, they carried large quantities of water and they slept at night under the stars. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all roughing it. A support van brought along portable washrooms and showers, and at night chefs prepared meals comparable to what you’d find in high-end hotels, Rabbi Flanzreich said.
Near the end of the first day’s march, with base camp in sight, their leader, Shaul Wolfson, who had served as a commander in a counter-terrorism unit, asked the guys how they felt. Great they responded.
It turned out that was the wrong answer – if their goal was to get to camp, unload their packs and take a rest.
Wolfson added two kilometres to the march and when the guys finally finished, they were spent. Why did he do it? The IDF believes that even if you think you’ve had enough, you always have more to give, Rabbi Flanzreich said.
The three-day event culminated in a march up the snake path to the top of Masada, where participants received their red graduation berets, representing the Canadian flag and resembling the ones given to paratroop units.
Despite the difficulties and the grind, the participants loved the experience. It went so well, you can expect him to repeat it again in two years, Rabbi Flanzreich said.
It’s not for everybody though. You’ve got to be fit, willing to endure hardships, and raise $15,000 beside the US$6,000 cost of the venture.
But in the end, it creates memories and friendships that last a lifetime, Rabbi Flanzreich said.