April 10, 2024
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The Effect of Shavuah Nivutim

Recently, I graduated from high school in Connecticut, and am currently on my gap year in Israel at a mechina, the place one goes to typically before joining the Israeli army. The goal of the mechina is to prepare its chanichim (students) from countries all over the world for army service, leadership and self-growth. We spend many weeks on kibbutz attending classes on a variety of topics. Every few weeks we get to explore Eretz Yisrael during seminar weeks, day and night hikes, and field trips. In addition, we have madasim (training sessions) to keep ourselves in shape. I have a year to challenge myself mentally and physically to become a more confident and well-rounded individual.

The highlight of my mechina so far has been Shavuah Nivutim (Navigation Week). Since the start of Mechina Olamit in Migdal Oz, Gush Etzion, I have been hearing my peers anxiously discuss their apprehensions about the week. Granted, I had concerns as well, but I grew up with my father passionately telling me stories of his Israeli army training, so I was looking forward to finally getting to understand firsthand how he felt.

When preparing for navigation week, the head of my mechina, Arik Speaker, sat us all down to tell us exactly how the week would play out. You can imagine the groans amongst the group when Arik announced we would need toilet paper since there wouldn’t be any bathrooms—or showers. He also told us we would be sleeping on the dirt in sleeping bags, and it gets rather cold, actually freezing at night, and we would have to carry our cans of food and liters of water, among other items, throughout our day and night hikes.

However, the loudest complaints came after we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to use our phones (not that we even could since there are no outlets in the middle of the desert). There went the hope of anyone planning on using Google Maps. After we got the rundown they dropped us off in the middle of the desert to find our way back.

We learned the most important navigation skills from a member of an elite unit in the army who led our navigation week. For many, including me, it was the first time learning terms such as shlucha (fingers coming out from a mountain), kippah (tip of a mountain), ookaf (the inbetween), zman gag (end time) and more. That night we were assigned our navigation groups of four to five individuals. (Boys and girls were separated.) Afterwards and the next morning we spent planning our first routes. The next morning, we departed around 6 a.m. for our first day of Shavuah Nivutim.

Each day we walked from around 11 a.m.-9 p.m., with the exception of a few breaks taken to eat and catch our breath. It was physically and mentally draining.

Every group got lost at least once. Most of the groups argued at least once. The majority, if not everyone, complained about a different part of their body hurting every day (mine being my back). Most of us grumbled about wanting more food, or a shower, or at least a tent to sleep in. There were tears, there were those who left, but at the end of the day, every mechinist (member of mechina) who finished the week would say that they had never experienced anything like it, and nothing felt as good as making it through.

Walking through the desert in Givat Goral with a map and compass in the blazing sun, up and down what felt like a million mountains, not knowing where I was, wasn’t easy. I understood the topography, but I still felt that I was walking around in circles because every mountain and every river looked the same. On the surface nothing about this week seemed enjoyable, so why did we embrace it? It was invigorating because, as actor Morgan Freeman once said, “Challenge yourself; it’s the only path which leads to growth.”

The experience of navigating in the desert gave me a chance to self-reflect. Why did I choose to come to Israel? Why would I put myself in this position of hunger, soreness, fatigue? What type of person do I really want to be, and what type of person am I becoming? We all learned things about ourselves we never expected to, and for learning critical navigation skills the most important part we discovered was that we can do anything we set our mind to. We were taught to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

I am not someone who can sleep with the lights on or noise. I like the room to be pitch black and silent. When we finally got back to camp we all crashed with the bright lights surrounding the chapack’s tent (control panel’s tent), and the noise from the soldiers nearby standing in their Chet formations. Every night I was so exhausted that sleeping in the dirt, with ants all around me, plus lights, noise and cold air, did not bother me. We learned to sleep in any position at any given time. Even the insomniacs had no problem sleeping during navigation week.

Then when we thought the week was over and we couldn’t walk up another mountain, we woke up to the Madrichot screaming the emergency call-up sign, “Hakpatzah, Hakpatzah!!” There was no time to change; we quickly shoved our hiking boots on and lined up behind the stretchers. After about an hour or two of sleep after the night navigation, we trekked up yet another mountain with stretchers on our backs covered in rocks, and very heavy items in our bags.

But it was so worth it to get to the kippah and have Arik stand before us and tell us how proud he was of us, and how far we had come this week. We received shirts and then we made our way back to camp. I told myself I would not carry the stretcher at all on the way back. I was too wiped out. I ended up carrying it for the entire way back with three other girls. We switched sides every few minutes to give our shoulders a rest. One girl switched out towards the end before the high hill to camp. I told myself, OK, I will too, because my shoulders were really starting to ache and so were my feet.

Running with the stretcher is the worst part. But then, I imagined my father and all he went through during his training, and I realized I had to finish it through. The worst part was the fear that the rocks and bags would fall off the stretcher because we were going up a very steep hill, but my father always says, “One foot in front of the other, Julianne.” Words cannot describe the bliss we felt when we put down the stretcher.

We celebrated the end of the week with a breakfast feast, our first taste of real food all week. I don’t think pastries have ever tasted so delicious, or grapes so sweet. My rusty mechina shower had never looked so good, my top bunk bed had never been so comfortable, and my phone had never looked so inviting. Thanks to the amazing mechina team and the incredible men from an elite unit, we were able to overcome a week-long challenge and come out better, more independent individuals.

I learned patience; I learned how to trust my teammates that they did indeed know where we were going; I bonded with my peers; and I realized that I am the type of person who likes to challenge herself and test her limits. The best part of the week, especially for me, was being able to shut out the rest of the world and all of our teenage problems, and focus solely on how to get from point A to point B.

I spoke to many people afterwards, and each person had their own story to tell and their own unique experience. There was one group who ran their entire routes to give themselves an extra challenge; there was another group who had to turn back two hours into their night navigation because one of their teammates felt ill; they memorized their entire navigation and ran it (in a safe manner of course) to get back to base the same time as everyone else, and even before some other groups.

Overall, this week taught us life lessons of perseverance, strength and the essence of camaraderie. The confidence my friends and I feel now is so much more heightened than before Navigation week. I cannot wait to see what else Mechina has in store for us, but I hope that whatever it is, it will make me feel extra uncomfortable!


Julianne Katz, of Stamford, is a former Jewish Link intern.

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