Daniel Feigelson

Graduation Day at Officer School

This week we went to our daughter’s IDF officer course graduation. Technically, it’s only completion of the first part of IDF officer training; there’s more training to follow in her specific unit before she gets her lieutenant bar epaulet. Nevertheless, because so many soldiers (600-700 or so) do this course at a time, the graduation ceremony is a big deal, and the ceremony (or more accurately, the activity surrounding the ceremony) encapsulates much of the best of Israel.

Unlike the USA, where for the most part officers are trained at the service academies, in the IDF starts as a private, and every soldier who goes on to become an officer goes through the course that our daughter completed. In that sense, IDF officer training is something of a meritocracy, as well as a melting pot: officers come from all parts of the country and all kinds of backgrounds, not just from rich towns; there’s a mix of men and women; there are non-religious and religious Jews (and even a few haredim); and while the overwhelming majority of officers are Jews, there are officers from the Druze, Bedouin and Christian Arab communities. So at the graduation ceremony, this diversity is on display.

Of course, as one would expect for a graduation ceremony, families are invited, but this being Israel, many of those families are large, and since the grandstand at one end of the parade grounds (more of a plaza) where the ceremony is held doesn’t have infinite capacity, the IDF officially limits each graduate to five invitations.

At our first go-round with this ceremony, nine years ago when our oldest daughter completed this same course on this same base (during which time she met her husband, who was also in the process of becoming an officer – another reason we like the IDF!), this five-per-person limitation was a non-issue: our car could only hold five, so one sister stayed back, and we parents and three of the siblings went, and our daughter came home separately the following day. This time around, all four siblings, and a brother-in-law, and both parents and two grandparents wanted to come. Nine is more than five.

But, this being Israel, families who want to figure out ways to circumvent the limitations; and, fortunately, now-married-officer-sister has her own car, and her husband agreed to watch their kids. So my wife and I left first home, bringing my wife’s parents and one married sister, and later the other married sister drove down with our sons and one son-in-law. They “somehow” got in.

The ceremony was called for 14:00, and so – again, learning from the past – the advance party got there around 12:15. As my father-in-law can’t be in the sun too much, for us the first order of business upon arrival was to snag some shaded seats. Even if everyone stuck to the official limit on invitees, there aren’t enough covered bleachers to hold everyone, and even then, depending on the time of day and the time of year, some of those seats may get sun. And the many plastic chairs set up between the bleachers and the plaza for extra seating have no covering at all.

That mission being accomplished, we then proceeded to simultaneously eat some lunch and coordinate with our daughter the graduate so she could find us. In addition to the bourekas I had been instructed to buy in the morning on my way home from shul, in this week before Pesach my wife had brought along sandwiches and other forms of hametz that we had in the house. However – again, we knew from our previous experience – our meals were tame compared to what some people did.

I suppose the best analogy that Americans can understand to describe the scene is that the grounds around the complex where the ceremony took place became a giant picnic area, or an enormous tailgate party minus the cars (which were in the parking lot) and minus the profligate drinking. Many families brought multi-course meals, most involving meat that was grilled (in some cases on the premises). There were aluminum pans full of chicken or beef or kebabs. There were salads. There were cakes, decorated with messages celebrating the occasion. I saw a family that had brought what looked like two dozen wraps, prepared at home. Another had made chocolate souffles for dessert for their graduate’s entire platoon. Since for most of the people who come to the ceremony, the base is out of the way, attendance is effectively an all-day affair, so why not live it up?

We got to see all these wonderful festive meals because as we were finishing eating, our daughter found us, and then took us a to small mini-ceremony for the 60 or so soldiers in her pluga, at which they were given their certificates of completion of the course.

In addition to food – the traditional Jewish way of celebrating anything – many families also ordered t-shirts. We missed that aspect at our first ceremony, but this time all of us were decked out in shirts designed by one of the sisters. And despite the invitation explicitly stating “no posters”, the siblings also made a poster, and when they arrived just before 14:00, got it in (apparently claiming it wasn’t a poster) and then displayed it (see photo. If you’re familiar with Israeli army slang, the words on the poster came from the graduate’s older combat-unit reserve duty brother).

“Ever since you told mom who broke the window, I knew you’d be a fink!” (photo credit: Hadas G.)

In a very-un-Israeli-but-very-military way, the main ceremony started exactly on time, opening with a live marching band leading the parade of the graduates onto the plaza. It’s a fun display, as there are soldiers from all branches of the IDF and thus there are dress uniforms in various colors. (My wife and I agree that the navy’s dress whites look the sharpest.) Among other things, the outstanding soldiers from each unit were recognized (by first name only, and what city each hailed from). They were also addressed by a high-ranking officer. Although this woman didn’t appear to be religiously observant, she discussed the doubly-timely question of why Moses was picked to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, with reference to how different commentators addressed the question. Only in Israel.

After the ceremony – which concluded with Hatikvah, followed by all the soldiers marching past the grandstand, assembling at the far side of the plaza, and then flinging their hats into the air – the whole family got together for photos. Many families continued eating. We sent one car back, while I helped the graduate shlep her stuff so we could bring it home. While waiting for her to take care of some other business (like rescuing a guitar from a locked room), my father-in-law and I joined a a mixed Sphardi-Ashkenaz minyan for mincha. Before leaving we also got to meet our daughter’s group leader, only a month older than our daughter, who had grown up in the USA speaking (but not reading or writing) Hebrew. She had come to Israel in 11th grade and was thrust directly into matriculation exams. Here she was, four-and-half years later, training new officers. Although the ceremony ended at about 15:15, we didn’t get home until close to 20:00. Our daughter slept most of the way home.

Of course, it’s not merely the distance people have to travel that causes them to turn the graduation into a feast. It’s also that having an officer in the family is a source of pride. It’s not just that not everyone who wants to go to officer training is accepted. And it’s not just that, for many, being an officer is an important opportunity, as in Israel being an officer is something that’s respected. It’s that agreeing to be an officer involves a commitment beyond the period of compulsory service. Our daughter, for example, had to sign on for an additional three years. Instead of attending university this fall, and then three years hence likely getting a high-paying job in high tech, she’ll be 24 before she even starts university. But her assessment, like that of every other soldier who goes to officer school, is that her country and her people are worth defending, that she has something to contribute to that defense, and that she wants to contribute.

It’s that commitment to the well-being of their country and their fellows that the families are proud of. All the more so this time around, with the past six-and-half months having brought so much grief to Israel, and having brought into sharp relief how important it is that we have a prepared army. The phrase that came to mind as I took in the ceremony, and the hoopla surrounding it, was that of King David, ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ – “And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth” (2 Samuel 7:23 and 1 Chronicles 17:21). I love it.

Our enemies want to kill us. We just want to live, but we’re a people that will fight if necessary. I pray that someday we won’t need an army. But until that day comes, I thank God that we continue to have people committed to keeping us safe. ברוך שומר הבטחתו לישראל

About the Author
The author grew up in the USA and has lived in Rehovot since 1991.
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