As an Israeli: Tests of Strength Within

This is a guest post by Roni Levin, St. Paul shlicha (Israeli emissary to St. Paul on behalf of the United Jewish Fund and Council).
Hanukkah brings back many memories. It is one of my favorite holidays, maybe because my birthday is always celebrated at the same time. Or, perhaps because over the years this holiday marked many milestones in my life including: Family candle-lighting, vacations in the desert, and Israeli army service. In December 2003, a few days after starting my Israeli army service, I celebrated my 19th birthday and with that, the first Hanukkah in uniform.
I began my training to become squad commander.
A year later, when I celebrated my 20th birthday, it was Hanukkah again, just a few weeks before the end of Officer’s Academy. Perhaps for you, thoughts of the army mean strict rules, weapons, and war. But for many young Israelis, the army symbolizes the transition between childhood and adulthood, responsibility, professionalism, and true friendship.
By the age of 20, I had 60 rookies and five staff members under my responsibility. The army was a defining experience for me and I faced many professional, personal, and social challenges.
One challenge was living in a tent with 12 other girls for six months in the cold Israeli desert.Okay, it was not as cold as Minnesota, but there was no heat in the tent.
Another challenge was carrying 22 lbs. on my back while walking 15 miles, or navigating through the Judean desert in the middle of the night without a map. The purpose of these trainings was to protect my country, but at the same time it tested physical strength and how you cope with stressful situations, self-confidence, and teamwork.
To me, the army represents good friends, responsibility, and pride. For many of the citizens of Israel, the army is also the largest dating site. My parents met in the army, when my father served as my mother’s officer.
This Hanukkah I ran in the Dreidel Dash 5K with the St. Paul Jewish Community Center – and it reminded me of one of my army experiences. When everyone joins the army, they are divided into different units according to their wants, abilities, and the needs of the army. The training regimen is determined according to the unit and the position within that unit. There is one thing that everyone does. It is called the Bar Or test. It is a test of physical ability that includes push-ups, sit-ups, and running. The test is usually conducted at the beginning and at the end of training, and sometimes even in the middle.
Though I considered myself to be in decent shape, I was always afraid of the Bar Or. No matter how much I practiced, when the timer started, I always felt like I had bricks attached to my legs. I was always the last to finish. Without passing that test, I could not have finished the Officer’s Academy, which was one of my biggest dreams back then. It was clear to me that I had to pass that obstacle and deal with my fears.
After months of training, the day of the test arrived. We began the final test with a full night of navigating, written exams, and then the Bar Or. We lined up, started doing push-ups and then sit-ups. Then we went outside to the course. I started to breathe heavy, and it was hard to lift my legs from the ground. I stood at the start-line with everyone else until the stopwatch began. Step by step, breath by breath, a kilometer there and kilometer back, and all kinds of thoughts were running through my head.
“Why do I need this? Maybe I should give up.”
Finally, clarity set in, and it was just me and the desert.
Why should I give up? After a month of training I could not let down my parents, friends, officers, and most importantly myself. Step by step, breath by breath, and after eleven minutes and fifteen seconds, twenty seconds less than the limit, I finished my task and completed the Academy.
Now Hanukkah is here and with it my birthday and another race. I announced to my friends and the coaches at the JCC that I planned to run the 5K, and there was no going back. I started to practice step by step, breath by breath. Then the thought came back:
“Why should I do this? Maybe it’s too cold outside.”
Clarity set in again. I can’t give up, and I must move forward. I can’t let myself down.
Seven years after the Bar Or, I’m challenging myself again in St. Paul.
Test day arrived. My heart started racing, and my legs felt heavy. The crowd sang Hatikva, and the race began. Step by step, breath by breath. My legs were working but the breathing was difficult. The Israeli flag on my chest would not let me stop. I took a few steps, did some power-walking, and ran again. Step by step, breath by breath, I could see the end. After 35 minutes I crossed the finish line. I completed my test. I did not give up.
This Hanukkah, again I did not let myself down. I proved my abilities to myself.
At Hanukkah, we talk about heroes, heroic acts, and victories. Some heroic acts are a victory of few against many. Sometimes it is a victory of human vs. nature. And sometimes, it’s about our own little victories over our challenges within. I encourage you to appreciate your small victories and to challenge yourself to achieve new victories.
May you all have a happy Hanukkah.
(Photo: lululemon athletica)