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To be or not to be… an officer

That moment, those twenty minutes sitting in a stiff uniform under a beating sun with my hesitant dreams packed messily in bags, my head still half in the clouds and unsure whether I’d find my world intact when I found the ground again. My mind racing with a million thoughts a minute, the noises all cancelling each other out into a perfect calm. The serenity that accompanies sudden clarity of understanding exactly where you are had caught me completely off-guard.

From the day of my initial testing some four years ago, the army system had proved to be a maze. Sharp turns, shut doors, dead ends. Any attempts to navigate once inside would end in further complication. The best option at that point is to surrender control, try to appreciate the surroundings, and let the layout take you where it will until you finally wander through the exit. I had decided to draft regardless of my cluelessness, for reasons that have kept everything in perspective, but not to serve for a minute longer than the two years that other Israeli girls usually do. Staying on for more time was out of the question for me. Even the prospect of signing on an additional eight months for specific units was nothing short of terrifying when it was first suggested.

Towards the end of training, our commanders informed us privately of what scores the army had given us towards officer’s course applications during the phase of interviews and testing. With my lack of Hebrew at the time, I was sure it wasn’t going to be an option. It came as a shock when my company commander said that the army sees me as very compatible. Having had no idea of what being an officer actually entails, I decided I’d try for it, and the following week notified my new commander on the first day at my base of my interest in going to officer’s course once it would become available to me in another half year.

Adjusting after a transformative training to the reality of day-to-day life in my previous war room was intense. Getting used to only being home every other weekend, night shifts, studying several chapters of material in Hebrew on my own, memorizing maps, no heat and hot water scarcity in the winter, figuring out how to deal with kashrus issues, integrating into the tight-knit group of girls I worked and shared a room with, encounters with anti-religiosity, twelve hour shifts on base even on Shabbos and holidays- each of these bringing so many stories, teaching moments, and frustrations of their own. Officer’s course felt farther and farther away, and disappeared even as a remote possibility once I switched to a different war room after around half a year. I wanted to focus on making the most of where I was and this time around, I picked up the work much more quickly and with nonstop phone calls to answer daily, my Hebrew began to improve exponentially. Routine became almost comfortable, despite the ten to sixteen draining hours in front of a computer per day and being on call at night. Having every other week off for the most part, and never staying for Shabbos- better conditions than any other job I’d heard of in the army- almost compensated for the stress and lack of privacy. By the time I realized that the obstacles were gone, officer’s course was completely off the agenda.

A few friends from the army in different units started the course, one completed it, and they told me passionately about how fantastic their experiences were. Casually, I mentioned to a friend in the war room with me that I somewhat regretted not applying when I still could, and she told my commander, who said he wasn’t sure that it was too late and that he’d sign me up if he could. After several weeks, he told me that I’d have testing and an interview. They went better than expected, and around a week later, I was added to a WhatsApp group for the “hachana”, preparation for officer’s course that would begin the following Sunday. As it approached, one of my friends who had applied at the same time told me she decided to back out because she loves where she currently works and wouldn’t want to give up spending the rest of her service there and not know where she’d end up.

I tried to quell any apprehension that maybe I was making a mistake with the classic theological theme of “what’s been has been and what is to be has been” (without touching the can of worms that opens regarding where Divine Providence meets free will), that everything is ultimately for the best in some way and all part of a plan, evidently or obscurely, and simultaneously a chassidish singer’s Aramaic twist of a Talmudic adage, “what has been has been, from now on I’ll be sure to make the best of what’s to come”. Which was important, as I hadn’t taken into account the extra year I’d be signing on, the significance of relinquishing familiarity along with that control, or the simple fact that I knew nothing even of the course itself or what would be expected of me.

Several hundred pages of learning material were sent a few days before the hachana. There was no time to study on base, and no way to print out the pdf on my phone so that I could study chapters that were permissible to learn on Shabbos while I was home. I realized on Thursday while getting all the paperwork that there was no way to get any medical exemptions for the physical test as I had in the past, because hachana requires a higher level exemption that could take months to attain. All of Friday, I drilled the lists of Israeli prime ministers, chiefs of staff, and presidents into my memory and printed the history and culture related material to study over Shabbos, according to what’s permitted. After arriving around an hour early on Sunday morning, it was a blur of classes, studying, activities, tests, and brief intervals of getting to know people. Waking up at five am, beautiful weather, no running water after six pm, fresh pastries at the mini-café, squeezing in nonexistent time to write essays or study or plan a lesson, being taught about the inner workings of an M16 by a shooting instructor for Kfir who happened to be with us, sewage all over the first floor of the dorm building, helping people study Jewish history, getting lost on the first few days, reconnecting with friends from my training, accepting criticism, supporting one another, watching the sun go down and knowing there’s still a long night ahead.

By Tuesday morning, following the fitness test, I knew I wouldn’t pass. I couldn’t risk the stress on my knees, so I did the run at a walk and finished slightly too late. As someone who’s never formally done push-ups and was not aware of any associated nuances, I didn’t meet the requirements. The latter was definitely an embarrassing discovery, and all the more so when I found myself trying and somewhat failing to hold back tears in front of everyone in that busy, outdoor concrete mini-stadium. For a few minutes all I wanted was to go home, but then I understood what a unique opportunity this was: to experience the hachana without any definite commitments, without the anxiety in anticipating the admission decisions on Thursday. So instead of leaving early, I decided to take everything I could until then. Consciously, to wholly surrender the control I never really had, which after all is the essence of experiential bitachon. To delve into the Israeli history, the constructive criticism, the excitement of giving over classes, the friendships, the opportunity to impact others and hear from them as well, the concept of being not who you are or who you think others want you to be, but to be who you want to, at least just for a week. Authentically, too, because gone were the pressures of being constantly tested.

The first lesson I prepared was about multicultural society, which my commander, a religious woman, was very enthusiastic about. Another was about Zionism, which left me surprised at the multitude of historical misconceptions and perceived lukewarm ideological zeal in much of the audience, but also provided encouragement to develop a clearer understanding of Zionist history and of their own connection in terms of modern relevancy. I wrote in Hebrew, studied more, took in every moment, and thoroughly enjoyed it all. It all came to an end on Thursday in a conversation with my commander. I’d watched streams of soldiers go in one by one and return jumping from excitement, smiling and yelling, or running to be alone, crying on the floor to someone on the phone. When my commander invited me in, I told her I knew I didn’t pass and thanked her for an incredible experience. She expressed regret that there was no way to overlook the fitness exam scores and we had a nice discussion about the week that had felt like so much longer. I wished my friends luck, saw that there were no busses coming anytime soon and after looking around one last time, headed out the gates and got a ride from an officer on her way out to the entrance of the base to wait for my mother.

I held onto that final moment, the twenty minutes characterized by a strange and distinctly Israeli November heat. Clutching my pocket-sized tehilim that holds the weight of every heart poured out through it (to the rationalist in me a healthy habit to kill boredom and stress, to the chassidus in my blood a lifeline), begging God- and myself- only to give me the strength to take the person I discovered this week back into my old reality. To handle my failures with grace, to take everything life throws at me as an opportunity, to push myself but to know my limits, to be genuinely happy for others’ success, to learn from every person, to appreciate every stop in life before it passes into memory, to put my faith in a higher plan for the world and for myself when confronted with disappointments beyond my control. To try my best to help others and to do anything I commit to with certitude and creativity, passion and professionalism. And most of all, to remember that every day of my life is a test, even far out of the sight of the commanders in Bahad 12, which I left behind at once humbled and a thousand times more confident than I’d entered.

About the Author
Rivka Atara Holzer made Aliyah from Miami Beach in 2015. She attended Midreshet Lindenbaum and currently serves in the IDF.
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