Recently, a close friend asked me what Gadna – the IDF’s week long familiarisation programme for high-schoolers – was like. She told me that she was planning on participating in one of their courses soon, and wanted to know what to expect so I decided to write this article to explain it to her; and others in the same position.

Daniel Levy outside the Joara barracks in July 2011

Daniel Levy outside the Joara barracks in July 2011

1. What to expect
Gadna may be run by the Israel army but it isn’t going to give you a crash course in infantry tactics or anything combat related, although you do spend a day learning some basic field craft (Yom Shetach) and may fire an M16. You’ll spend lots of time standing and moving in and out of formation, being in “achshev” (the position of attention) and running around your base from one position to another under almost impossible time limitation. Whether you shoot or not is dependent on who organises your programme, but everyone learns weapon safety on M16s. You also get at least an hour of free time before getting sent to bed known as “TASH”. The base at Sde Boker has tents which are known to be cold at nighttimes (even in the summer), so a hat and gloves can be useful. Barracks in summertime are equally unpleasant as more often than not air conditioning is non-existent. This leads to doors and windows being flung open to catch a breeze when in reality all that comes in is a collection of friendly insects that will keep you up all night with their incessant chirping. I found the best way to sleep comfortably was by lying on top of my sleeping bag and pouring water over myself to cool down whenever I woke up in the middle of the night and before I dropped off.

Learning how to use camouflage in "yom shetach": field day where we mixed cement dust with water and smeared it over our arms and faces

Learning how to use camouflage in “yom shetach”: field day where we mixed cement dust with water and smeared it over our arms and faces

2. What to bring
The army gives you a uniform (a shirt, trousers and a belt), but it’s probably a good idea to bring a plain white t-shirt to wear underneath it. It stops your uniform from getting sweaty, and also looks good in the mandatory cheesy group photos everyone takes at the first opportunity. Similarly, their belt takes a long time to adjust and get on and off so bringing your own cuts down on the time spent fixing their one so it fits. A swimming costume can be very useful: four showerheads between a hundred sweaty guys with an hour of free time can make washing with a sink or standpipe seems like a good alternative, but you don’t really want to be doing it in your uniform getting the trousers soaking. Comfy shoes that you can stand up in for a long time are a must, because you spend most of the time on your feet. Flip-flops for the showers are good too, as are a towel, standard toiletries and cool clothes to sleep in.

Tzevet Shmoneh: just too elite to be identified

Myself on the right with my team members just before Gadna ended: Tzevet Shmoneh. We were just too elite to be identified…Not.

3. Food

Whatever people say about army food, it was fine on Gadna. Whilst the choice may not be the same as a five star Jerusalem hotel, the quality was good and there was always lots of it. However, it’s still sensible to bring noshy food with you in case you don’t like what’s for dinner or lunch that day. Avoid chocolate as it will melt very quickly but crisps, dried fruit, granola bars and chewy sweets are all great. Lunch is almost always meat, whilst dinner is dairy (pasta or rice). Yoghurts are plentiful, as are soft Israeli cheeses, hard-boiled eggs and bread. In your TASH hour bread and jam should be available in a common area for anyone to take. On the Joara base there were vending machines selling coke and ice creams. Kashrut is strictly observed on all bases.

4. The programme
As I mentioned before, Gadna is low on action but high on discipline and shtuyot (military bullsh*t and punishments being given out at the drop of a hat). I thought that the main objective of the programme seemed to be to get participants used to the military way of life. That meant wakeups between 5 and 6am, absolutely no talking under any circumstances in formations or lines, always standing in the right way when addressing commanders and remembering “hazman kadosh”: the time is holy. I ended up physically spreading the time my squad was expected to parade after meals on a basketball court every day because our commander had ordered us to “physically make any timings” as a punishment for lateness. However, you do have a “yom shetach” which means “field day”. There you learn about camouflage and how to walk and crawl without being heard. You also get field rations which is bread, tuna and vegetables out of a tin. It may not be the most appetising meal ever but at least they feed you. Despite this half of my group decided to protest by having a sit-in and blocking the base’s main road because we were forbidden from even entering the dining hall where chicken breast steaks, beef koftas and burgers were all being served. Fun times. There will also be lessons on military ethics and “moreshet krav” – battle heritage – where you learn about famous battles and actions the IDF took part in. For religious participants time to pray is never a problem. All the Gadna bases have synagogues (although you must wear uniform to enter it) and the time for tefillah is first thing in the morning, lunch break and your hour of free time before bed. Alcohol is strictly forbidden but smoking is permitted in certain areas. Punishments dished out can range from a set of press-ups to emptying and then cleaning a massive cargo container under impossible time limitations. In addition to this you can be ordered to meet your commander during TASH in full uniform if you have done something you shouldn’t have during the day. Physically it isn’t that hard with most of the exercise being running around the base in short bursts fulfilling tasks or punishment press-ups, but being in a good condition before does make everything easier. If there is a heat wave then all physical activities can be suspended.

Clearing out the barracks on the final morning under the directions of my commander: Mefakedet Tal

5. The commanders
Your direct commander will be a corporal (two stripes on their arm), and usually female. When addressing them you are expected to step forward and stand straight with feet in a vee shape and hands in a diamond in the small of your back and shout “achsev hamefakedet (or hamefaked if male)” They may seem petty, neurotic and generally sadistic but after all it is their job. Imagining my commander smiling was damn-nigh impossible until we had finished the course and she “broke the distance” between us. It turned out everything she was doing was a façade and “hamefakedet” was just nineteen year old Tal Weiss. However, the real person to fear is haSamal. The sergeant. They will be a real ball-busting bastard. You can step out of formation with your commander to scratch your nose or stretch and get away with it; but with the sergeant it’s either suicide sprints around the base or a set of press-ups, and what’s more they’ll be smiling the smile that says “I am f*cking you and getting pleasure from your pain and discomfort” – as mine seemed to. Most memorably he told us that the commanders were like his little brothers and sisters. Upset them, and you have him to deal with. There is also the Memem: the platoon commander who is a second lieutenant. You don’t see these young officers that often. They might give a class or two, run a ceremony or discipline you if you’re REALLY bad. Then there’s the Mempay: the company commander. Either a captain or first lieutenant, you will rarely see them apart from the opening and closing ceremonies at the beginning and end of the programme. The “distance” between you and your commanders is mainly them never showing any positive emotions (laughing or smiling), not knowing their names for at least some of the programme and assuming that they have no personal life. Until the distance is broken by a commander it is hard to see them doing anything other than being a soldier. Also however hard the programme may seem whilst you are doing, it will be much tougher for the commanders who are responsible for you as long as you are on the base, get even less sleep than you do and have to pull guard duty late into the night.

To sum up, if you give Gadna your all and totally throw yourself into it, then you’ll love. If you don’t though and decide to play around (not listening to the commanders and seeing who in the group can get the most punishment press ups), it won’t be so much fun. Let the choice be yours.