The sound of barking orders startled me from sleep. I looked out to watch a group of soldiers in full battle gear scramble from an adjacent tent. Moments later, they took off running up a steep and formidable sand dune. Through the crisp night air of this remote Sinai Peninsula outpost, I could hear the muffled sounds of bouncing gear and boots pounding the sand as they ran up and down this dune, over and over. This Sisyphean drill provided me with a glimpse of what my life would look like if I were accepted into the legendary Israeli paratrooper unit known as Sayeret Shaked (pronounced “Shah-ked”). I should have been unnerved. Yet in the morning, when the Battalion Commander asked if I had witnessed the drill, and if that was what I wanted to do in the Israel Defense Forces, I responded without hesitation, “Yes.”
My choice to join the IDF grew from a seed planted long before. I came from a family with strong Zionist beliefs. I spent the summer of 1971 on a Jewish Federation tour of Israel, a year before attending a 10th grade program on Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee. After graduating high school in Ohio, I studied at Tel Aviv University’s overseas program from 1974-75. That year, I was inspired by a few fellow Americans who had joined the army and were “adopted” by Kfar Blum as “lone soldiers,” those with no family in Israel. Following in their footsteps, I made formal aliyah in the summer of 1975, and was adopted by the kibbutz. My army service began a few months later.
Looking back, my motivation for wanting to be a part of the IDF might be described as equal parts youthful idealism and a thirst for “structured” adventure. I was certainly compelled by all that the Land of Israel encompassed throughout Jewish history and particularly the desperate need to control our people’s destiny. Beyond my idealism, I found almost everything about the land seductive at that age. I looked up to the soldiers I met, and joining the IDF was one of those “callings” in life that you must answer, where nothing can get in your way. Responding “Yes” to the battalion commander in that Sinai outpost was the beginning of a life-defining adventure.
* * *
Shaked in Hebrew means “almond,” and is an acronym for Shomrei Kav ha-Darom (Guardians of the Southern Border). The word Sayeret means “reconnaissance,” and is regarded in the IDF as “special forces.” Shaked’s mission evolved from its start in the 1950s, operating out of the Negev as a unit tasked with combating terrorist activity originating from Jordan and the Egypt-controlled Gaza Strip. The unit evolved in the 1960s, with an emphasis on night operations, reprisal raids, and long-range reconnaissance patrols. During the early 1970s, Shaked distinguished itself by adopting modern methods to fight terrorists, especially in the Gaza Strip. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, the unit fought primarily against Egyptian army commandos and intelligence units, ultimately losing 32 soldiers.
Beyond its rich history of battle stories and bold daring raids, Shaked was also known for the high caliber of its soldiers, which included Israelis from a range of ethnicities from all walks of life: big cities, moshavim and kibbutzim; secular and religious; Jews, Druze, and Bedouin (the latter typically trackers). There were many important values that were emphasized in this unit, above all, camaraderie, respect, and love of the Land.
* * *
I entered the IDF in November 1975 and a few months later I was officially accepted to Shaked. That is when our company commander, in his deep and resonant voice, told us new recruits, “Atem tihiyu rotzchim,” literally translated, “You will be killers.” I was a bit shocked; I hadn’t signed up to be a murderer. But like so much colloquial Hebrew that I wasn’t yet entirely familiar with, he simply meant that we would be tough soldiers, not assassins.
Basic training in Shaked was grueling and began during a cold February in 1976 at a dreadful army base named Sanur in the West Bank. Shaked was infamous for its reputation for kadarim: punishing soldiers with torturous and sometimes humiliating tasks, intended to bond the group and break down individual resistance. One instance that stands out in particular was taking some “insubordinate” soldiers out late at night, ordering them to crawl along a rocky terrain for a few hours. This “rite of passage” in boot camp always seemed like the darker side of the unit’s reputation.
From Sanur, we moved on to training at a field camp near Ben Gurion Airport not far from the Green Line. Much of our time there was spent learning to capture entrenched “enemy” hill positions. This was physically some of the toughest part of our training. But the extreme hardship also bonded us, as we better got to know and trust each other.
Upon completing field training, we were off to airborne jump school, which was a highlight of my service. The moment before each jump was an adrenaline-addled, existential encounter with both fear and daring. But once I was out in the open sky, the chute deployed, the most eerie and dreamlike sensation came upon me. Moments later, the focus would abruptly shift to the fast-approaching earth, most of us falling over backwards as we hit the ground. More significant than the actual experience was the immeasurable pride we all felt completing the training and receiving paratrooper wings, and thus joining the prestigious ranks of Tzanchanim (Paratroopers). Jump school was followed by advanced combat training and orienteering/navigation. Although much of this time is a blur of memory, I do remember starting to feel incredibly strong, possessing endurance I could hardly believe. But like most, never foolish enough to feel invincible.
For the bulk of my service, Shaked was stationed at a permanent base in a mountainous region in the Sinai Peninsula called Um Hashiba. We were positioned there because it was strategically located along an area that had a reduction in Israeli forces as part of the disengagement agreement reached with Egypt after the Yom Kippur War, and in close proximity to an important “electronic warfare” base that we were assigned to protect. This was a very remote and desolate part of the Sinai, rugged and starkly beautiful.
When we had leave, I would head home to Kfar Blum. It was a very long trip from the Sinai to northern Israel. Oftentimes, I would hitchhike all night from Tel Aviv and then walk the last four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the junction at the main road and finally arrive at dawn. All that traveling netted me no more than two days of actual rest time every couple of weeks. Yet it was all I needed to recharge. The sense of family and community, both on the kibbutz and with my army comrades sustained me and had an enduring effect on me.
By then I had become a disciplined, idealistic and motivated soldier, good at marksmanship — just like my grandfather, Isaac, in the Hungarian army in World War I — and basic soldiering. I did struggle with navigation though, the already challenging map-reading compounded by my limitations in Hebrew. My three-man team would often be among the last to locate our target waypoints, and when we finally returned to our starting point at the crack of dawn, most of our company was already getting much needed sleep.
Our 14 months of training concluded with an exhausting 120-kilometer march in the Sinai Desert and up to Santa Katarina where Moses allegedly saw the burning bush. There we took part in a rather ragtag ceremony and received our unit pin: wings spread, a map of Israel at the center. That pin was symbolic of the brotherhood we had been building drill by drill, through our sweat, determination, and camaraderie. We were now, to our core, part of this special family.
In the last year of my service, Shaked was in the process of disbanding as a unit; it had become clear that Israel would eventually return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Many of my buddies had already gone on to Officer school. It was during this time in March of 1978 that Operation Litani was carried out in Lebanon, which was launched in response to the Coastal Road massacre in which 38 Israelis were killed by Fatah terrorists.
Our company entered Lebanon shortly after the campaign began. Much of our time there was spent lying in ambush at night, waiting for PLO guerillas to pass through. Mostly we were fighting to stay awake and keep warm. We were shelled a few times, but fortunately nothing hit us. After only a few weeks, we left unscathed. Operation Litani ended up being a precursor to the Lebanon War of 1982 and the resulting quagmire beyond, where I again spent time in the reserves.
* * *
Between the ages of 15 and my early 30s, I lived in Israel for a total of 13 years, eventually completing law school and practicing law in Tel Aviv. Despite my love for the country, the truth is that Israel became an increasingly complicated and challenging place to live. My youthful idealism waned with time. Eventually, the pull of returning to the US for better job opportunities and to be closer to my family was too strong to resist. I do often wonder what my life would have been like had I remained. For although Israel has changed over the years, it continues to evoke some of the same powerful emotions for me.
I hadn’t been in touch with anyone from Shaked since my active service ended. Then about four years ago, I got a call that there was going to be a 40th year reunion. While I wasn’t able to attend, this stirred up a deep well of memories, and prompted me soon to head to Israel to reconnect with some of my “band of brothers,” now more like a band of old-timers. It was truly emotional and meaningful to meet up after so many years. There is a connection and bond that defies time and place.
When asked, most everyone I know who has served in the IDF would do it all again. Most notably, when I think of my service, I find myself fondly dwelling on the camaraderie. My memories, though, of the army have evolved. Like many things in life, what I had envisioned before I joined the IDF did not quite match the reality of the experience. The day-to-day regimen of three years in the army, even when punctuated with danger or peak experiences, chavayot, at some point became fairly mundane and seemingly interminable. But it instilled in me tremendous tenacity; the desire to not only whole the task at hand, but to strive to go above and beyond. I also learned a great deal about the power of collectivism, giving the group priority over any individual. This is something that is evident to this day not only on kibbutz, but also in Israeli society at large.
Over these many years, I’ve come to realize that my time in Shaked allowed me to experience the incredible beauty of both Israel and the Sinai, combined with the strong bond and tremendous pride in having served Israel with this exceptional group of soldiers. My service connected me with the land and people in a deep and profound way. The experience was a most integral part of my life journey, a calling that could not be denied.
Looking back at that moment in the Sinai desert in the mid-1970s, and thinking of the night sky, the sand dunes, the soldiers’ indomitable spirit, and my answer to the battalion commander’s question… it all makes perfect sense.