Thursday, October 1, 2009

Yom Sayerot, Gatekeeper to the High Altar of IDFdom

מאתיים תשעים ושלוש, ma'taiim tishiim v'sha'losh, two-hundred and ninety three, two-hundred and... Under the hot sun, sitting in a crowd of over three hundred restless young guys,I whispered the number 293. Once, twice and without end.

The previous afternoon I had been assigned the number 293, and for the last eighteen hours that number, scribbled on both sides of my plain white t-shirt, had become my identity. Now an Israeli officer was reading off a string of numbers, ordering everyone whose number was called to jog over to a nearby tent. The few who made it to the tent, everyone knew, would be heading onto tryouts for the very top units in the IDF. Except, of course, if they failed to hear their number. After sprinting up and down sand-dunes for the past three hours, accurately hearing the number 293 should not have been very hard. Numbers and foreign language never come easy to me, though, and so I was anxious as anyone as the numbers slipped like mercury from the officer's tongue, passing one-hundred, two-hundred, three--wait, did I hear 293? Yes? No? Should I go? Will I stay?


Yom Sayerot is the brief but brutal tryout for the even more intensive tryouts (gibushim) for the most elite units in the IDF. In order to attend the week-long tryouts for Shayetet 13 (IDF "Navy Seals"), Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag, Unit 669 (the elite search and rescue unit) and submarine officer-ship, you must first "pass" Yom Sayerot. At the start of the tryout, you rank the three successor tryouts in order of your preference. Nearly everyone ranks the submarine officer position third, with most folks giving the tryout for Matkal the top spot and a minority preferring Shayetet (note: Shaldag and Unit 669, since the early 2000s, use the tryout as Matkal to select their soldiers. This was done to prevent motivated teens from having to attend more than one intensive tryout. In practice this means that if you want either Matkal, Shaldag or Unit 669, then you request the tryout for Sayeret Matkal).

My Yom Sayerot began at 3:00 PM on Wednesday September 30 at Israel's premier sports facility, the Wingate Institute, located south of Netanya along the Mediterranean coastline. Four hours earlier I made one final check that I had all the necessary belongings--white t-shirt, running shorts, shoes and socks, te'udat zehut [identity card], and a few medical and military forms--and joined the three other guys from my garin who were participating in Yom Sayerot. Six of the guys in my garin were staying behind, two of their own volition and the rest after the army had barred them from the tryout for medical reasons. Wearing glasses or contacts, i.e. anyone with an eye prescription, prevented some of the fittest guys in my garin from participating.

The four of us who made it to Wingate arrived with some idea of what was on deck. After speaking to a variety of folks, we came expecting a Bar-Or test in the afternoon and hours of exhausting sprints the following morning. The Bar-Or is the standard test of physical fitness in the IDF, and it is easy to prepare for as it consists of a 2k meter (1.25 miles) run and as many push-ups and sit-ups one can do without stopping. Faster and stronger means a higher grade, with a perfect score rumored to be a sub-seven minute run, seventy-five push-ups and eighty-five sit-ups. 2k times also decides which squad one is placed in for the all important early morning sprints. The sprints, all of which take place up and down steep sand-dunes, involve carrying sandbags, stretchers and mostly running faster than the next guy when your muscle and mind are both screaming surrender.

With all my knowledge of what to expect, Yom Sayerot still threw a few curveballs. Wednesday brought the biggest surprise. After two hours of registration, the 400 plus guys present were called up in groups of 100 for the 2k race. I did well, finishing in fourth place with a time of 7:10. My time meant even more, however, when we were given an early dinner and sent to bed before 8:00 PM. The food and ridiculously early bedtime meant there would be no sit-ups and push-ups. While I can crunch with the best of them, anything past sixty push-ups is still outside of my range. Limiting the Bar-Or to a brisk run, in short, worked in my favor.

The early bedtime was not all good news. Sleeping in a loaned sleeping bag, scrunched next to 400 nervous guys, is not easy to begin with. Throw in the fact all of us had arrived well rested, none of us have gone to sleep before eight o'clock since pre-school, and at some unknown early hour we would be woken up for hours of all important and infamously exhausting sprints and you can probably imagine why few folks slept much. I slept fairly soundly myself, by virtue of clinging to a calming memory from this past spring, a night with Lawrence of Arabia and friends in Washington DC.

By 4:00 AM nearly everyone was already up and moving, no doubt depriving our instructors of the pleasure of waking us up. Thirty minutes later word came that we actually had to get up, so I joined the tense crowd for a hasty breakfast. After brief remarks from a medical officer (a dozen guys took him up on his offer to quit), we were split into twenty squads of twenty guys each. As I jogged over to squad one, I overheard a guy remark that the intensity of yom sayerot was pretty overrated: a brief run, generous dinner, and early bedtime. Easy, right? Little did he know that the fun was just beginning.

Three instructors appeared, all grizzled veterans of Sayeret Matkal or the IDF's Navy SEAL unit (Shayetet), and ordered us to grab a few shovels and stretchers and follow them. We jogged out of view of our tents and suddenly were on the beach, except the ground was all jagged hills rather than smooth sand. The lead instructor had us drop the equipment and pointed out a steep sandy hill. "Everyone runs to the top and back in thirty seconds. Go!"

For the next three hours we tackled that hill over sixty times. This first round of sprints knocked out two guys, who quit when they realized that Yom Sayerot had suddenly gotten serious. Without giving us a chance to rest, our instructors then announced that the top six finishers of each sprint up and down the hill would now be recorded. Having heard in advance that the first round was not recorded, I now went all out, finishing in the top four every time.

Dozens of sprints later, we were given a few minutes rest. "Everyone drinks four cups of water," ordered the instructor, "and in ten minutes time twenty bags need to be tied up and filled with sand." After helping distribute the water and fill up the bags, I used the last precious minutes of the break to empty my shoes and socks of a Sahara's worth of sand. I also made sure to avoid lining up next to any of the really heavy looking sandbags, and as the instructor explained we would be carrying the bags on our shoulders, I added a few knots to the loose string that was tied around the top of the bag. My preparation paid off some forty minutes later, when the instructors recorded who had made the most loops of our hill. Three guys claimed twenty (one of whom I am pretty sure fudged his total), so my nineteen rounds were good for fourth place.

During our break a flock of goats came trudging along our dune. Led by a grand, shaggy white billy-goat, the animals provided great entertainment, especially when a neighboring squad was forced to sprint between the stubborn beasts. While the goats eventually wandered away, the guys in the next squad over were humiliated once again when some middle aged joggers appeared and provided an even more challenging obstacle. The best part came when the slower guys were passed in their sprints by some of the early hour joggers. Watching a latex clad overweight grandma overtake you on what is supposed to be a sprint cannot be a confidence builder!

Having finished with the sandbag exercise, my squad drank, I dredged my shoes of sand, and everyone was given a small metal shovel and ordered to dig a hole in the sand that was as deep, wide and long as the length of the shovel (about two feet). I dug my hole as far from our running path as possible, both to avoid having to deal with firmly packed sand and so that no one else would be nearby and have to deal with the sand that came flying from my hole. Digging on the sandy beach may have been the most satisfying of our exercises. The sun was up, the water was a deep blue and every morsel of sand brought back childhood memories of building elaborate sandcastles before the relentless ocean tide. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover I can dig with the best of 'em, as my hole met with the full approval of the instructors when they examined our work some twenty minutes later. One of the instructors had also also stopped by to chat while I was busy digging. He asked where I was from, what I had studied in university and, curiously, inquired several times whether I truly felt at home on kibbutz. I made sure to praise the benefits of kibbutz life, even taking the chance to name drop a kibbutz member who served in Sayeret Matkal.

The final exercise followed immediately after everyone had refilled their holes and thrown back some water. We were again sent sprinting up and down our sand-dune-- except this time the first eight folks would shoulder two weighted stretchers for a return jog up the hill. While I was always able to get under a stretcher (alunka), only once did I finish in the top four and hence get written down as carrying the first stretcher. My failure was frustrating, especially when I noticed the instructor looking at me as he announced in the middle of the exercise that the four guys under the first stretcher would get double points.

I had just set down the stretcher for the twentieth time or so when the instructor curtly announced that the physical exercises were over. Before returning to the tents where we had stayed the night, everyone was given a couple minutes to introduce themselves. It was fascinating to discover that the twenty bodies I had spent three exhausting hours with were real people! It was also intriguing how many of them turned out to be religious. Short of the guy whose tzizit had whirled during his sprints up the hill, I had no idea that most of my group were members of yeshivot or religious mechinot (post high-school preparatory schools). Some two-fifths of all 400 guys at the gibush were probably religious, a fact attested to by the large crowds at each of the prayer services.

The guys in my group were genuinely surprised when I divulged that I was twenty-four years old. Several even came up afterwords and insisted I did not look a day older than nineteen or twenty. The instructors, however, were most impressed when I told them of my recent marathon time in response to their question of how I had prepared for the gibush. One of them even whistled in astonishment, reflecting how rare it is to have such a long race under one's belt before the army.

I was most impressed with what one of the guy's divulged during our brief discussion. To the laughter of the instructors, this guy said he not only spoke Chinese like me but that he had even grown up there! Later he told me that his father has been living in Beijing for nearly eighteen years as one of Israel's leading businessman in China. We exchanged numbers and he assured me his dad, whose business involves agri-tech and irrigation, would be happy to talk to me.

Back at our tents, we were given a sheet of paper with everyone's number and ordered to provide our personal ranking of everyone else in the squad. The evaluation is known as a sociometric, and resembles a scene out of Survivor or The Weakest Link more than anything else. Sociometric evaluations are common in elite units and gibushim. But filling one out after only spending three hours with the other guys is kind of silly so I gave minimal thought to the rankings I doled out.

And then we waited. No one was very talkative, as much out of exhaustion as anxiety whether their performance was enough to continue on to the week long tryouts that are awarded to the top finishers from Yom Sayerot. On Wednesday night we had ranked which of the three possible tryouts--for Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet or Naval officers--we most preferred. Since most everyone's top choice was Matkal followed by Shayetet, in practice the best guys from today's tryout would be selected for the rigorous tryouts for Sayeret Matkal. Second honors would be to make it to the tryout for Shayetet, the Navy SEALs of the IDF. Enlisting as a naval officer requires sighing on for seven years. So although it is one of the most rigorous courses in the army, few guys were interested.

I waited, unsure as anyone if my performance was enough to push me over the edge. I had rarely been first in any exercise and four other guys from my squad had been really impressive. So when I heard the number 293, I did not believe. And as I trotted over to where those whose numbers had been called out were told to gather, I could not believe. And when a senior officer walked up and congratulated the fifty guys present for winning an invitation to Gibush Matkal, the tryout for one of the most storied commando units in the world, I was not sure what to believe. My amazement was only slightly tempered by the same officers curt conclusion, "this is only the first step, but take heart, you are on the road to places that no one else can imagine."

En route to Merkaz Canada in Metulla for a "fun day" together with all participants in the last three years of Garin Tzabar, I ran into a large group of Chinese Christian tourists. I figured they were in the country for the Christian Zionist "Feast of Tabernacles," an annual gathering of Christians in search of their Hebraic roots.

The curious bit was that no one in the Chinese group, including their Chinese pastor/tour guide, knew a word of English or Hebrew. They did not even seem to understand why their Israeli driver had chosen to stop at this particular rest-stop, not realizing that one of the restaurants in the mini-mall served Chinese food because its menu was all in Hebrew and English. The poor souls were eating food they had brought from China, not unlike religious Jews who must pack victuals from the home country when traveling abroad! They did have a small supply of halvah, though they admitted to me they had no idea what it was after having received it as a gift from a hotel in Jerusalem.

We chatted about Israel and China for the duration of my stop and before departing, we exchanged emails after their pastor inquired if I could perhaps assist them on the annual trips they intend to start running to Israel in 2010.


  1. Don't leave us hanging! It's already chag there!

    Fast forward.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Cool i never knew u were chinese

  4. How long did you serve?

  5. ultimately, 2 years. See comment to this post for further details:

  6. Brother,

    I am looking to apply too. Can you direct me to a resource of how you trained?