A recent initiative by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) is quickly catching on among Jews in the United States: A chance to donate to the Israeli armed forces and experience a taste of what it is like to serve in the IDF, via seven-day boot camp in Israel.
The FIDF "Boot Camp Mission," is described as "a one week adventure with the Israeli army. Your life will never be the same after this once in a lifetime experience!" Michael Carline, 56, from Los Angeles and John Rasinkoff, 50, from Connecticut, couldn’t agree more.
The two were part of the "Unity Mission," the FIDF's latest round of boot camp participants. To ease the transition from cushy corporate life to dusty desert training, participants were treated to two days of sightseeing and relaxation in Tel Aviv before heading to the IDF Induction Base.
The men were given uniforms, rifles, duffel bags and dog-tags – the latter since turning into Carline's prize possession. Rasinkoff, on his part, was mostly impressed by his company commander: "This kid, who's the same age as my son, was giving us orders all day," he smiles.
Dealing with young commanders, however, soon became the easier part of the week: Carline, Rasinkoff and their comrades – who are used to spending their down time in five-star accommodations – found themselves roughing it in tents and sleeping bags: "I must have been bitten by every mosquito in the Negev," Rasinkoff laughs, presenting an arm duly riddled with bug bites.
"I had no idea what to expect," Carline added. "I'm used to my comfortable, specious house and all of a sudden I'm on a bus and they give me a uniform and a rifle. I've never had a rifle, and now I have to take it wherever I go and sleep with it under my pillow. I have to follow orders. This was a truly unique experience for me.
Tip of the boot camp iceberg
This year's Boot Camp Mission was the ninth of its kind, and those who take part in it usually donate at least $10,000 a year to FIDF.
The program offers participant the "Reader's Digest version" of IDF boot camp, including weaponry, first aid and ABC (atomic, biological, and chemical) classes, fire practice, urban warfare training at the IDF's special paintball training arena, and tours of various military basis.
As the week neared its end, and much like in actual boot camp, the distance between the men and their commanders ended in what Carline described as a barrel of laughs.
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors with aim of providing for the wellbeing of soldiers and bereaved families.
Headquartered in New York City, FIDF members are American Jews who contribute an average of $50 million a year for various IDF initiatives, such as sponsoring lone soldiers, sponsoring soldiers whose families struggle financially, offering academic grants and scholarships for ex-servicemen, helping bereaved families with bar and bat mitzvah expenses, etc.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for the donors to feel closer to the IDF," said FIDF's Dan Haskell. Many of our donors visit IDF bases when they visit Israel, but this allows them to get as close as possible, to experience the military and truly meet soldiers.
"Before they return to the US, we also have them meet students who received grants and scholarships thanks to their donations."
A bond like no other
"The idea is to strengthen the bond between American Jewry and IDF soldiers," Major Edry, commander of the Flying Lion Brigade, which hosted this year's Boot Camp Mission, explained.
"We exposed them to as many soldiers as we could in the field, so that they could talk to them, get to know them, get a feel for the field and see what it's like for the soldiers out there. They took to it completely and had a full experience."
Another important aspect of the mission, added Sharon Sheffer, FIDF's local liaison, "is the fact that these donors then become our best ambassadors overseas.
As a Jew, you can support Israel from a far, said Carline. "You can give money and feel like you've helped, but coming here and being with the soldiers and commanders is different." His family and friends were worried when he told them he was going to Israel, "But I can honestly say I've never felt as safe as I do here, in Israel."
The experience, he added, truly was a once in a lifetime thing, and "I have to do this again, at least once."
Rasinkoff agrees: "This project is amazing," he said, adding that having gotten a taste of the Israeli military, he better understands his son's desire to come to Israel and serve in the IDF. "It’s hard, allowing your son to enlist, be so far away from home and endanger himself. On the other hand, I would be very proud of him. Besides," he smiles, "After his service he wants to play basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv."
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