Post 19: The first tryout (Yom Sayerot)

Wingate, Israel’s national center for physical education and sport, is among the most beautiful places in the country. The institute, founded in 1967, is dotted with dozens of sand hills, all of which afford a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Netanya and the Mediterranean sea.

At about 2 PM on Tuesday October 12th, I stepped off the public bus with dozens of Israeli teenagers, all dressed, like me, in plain white T-shirts, short shorts, and running shoes. A 2.5 KM walk, throughout which I had to urinate due to the copious amounts of water I had drunk the night before in preparation, took us from the base of the institute to the location where our tryout was to be held. Our invitations were checked by soldiers in uniform, after which all 350 of us waited in line to check in with one of six soldiers on computers that verified our information. From there we were given numbers, which we were told to write on our shirts, and then sent for “medical examination.” This consisted of us sitting, three at a time, across from an impatient doctor who asked if there were any health problems we wanted to tell him about, effectively nothing more than a way for the army to protect itself against lawsuits.

When everyone had checked in, we were broken up into 4 groups of about 90. Each group ran what appeared to be somewhere between 2 and 2 and a half kilometers as a way for our testers to determine where our conditioning stood in relation to one another. I finished 27th out of my group of 90, which was not as well as I had expected to do but, as was made clear to us, was far from the most important part of the tryout.

After every group had completed their run, we were addressed by soldiers from mador sayerot, the people in charge of organizing Yom Sayerot. A month and a half ago I was told that there was no way I could not attend Yom Sayerot because the army had marked me for Ulpan. After a furious phone-athon, numerous personal appeals, and a fervent letter writing campaign to the office of Mador Sayerot, these soldiers knew me by name. I was later told that my efforts had paved the way for others with Hebrew issues to receive Yom Sayerot (“precedence,” as they call it in the legal world), which is a tremendous honor. After we filled out our sheets ranking our preferences (Matkal (referred to simply as “the unit”), Shayetet, and Hovlim), the soldiers began addressing us group by group, speaking to us about what was to come in the following day. A cute female soldier at the end of her speech recognized me, and called out my name with a big smile on her face. This boosted my popularity in the ranks. I didn’t have the heart to tell my new friends that the reason she knew my name was that Mador Sayerot is the biggest expense on my September phone bill. Smile and nodd.

As a quick point of information for those of you just tuning in, Yom Sayerot is the day of tryouts for the five commando units in the IDF. It’s a one day tryout that can earn you a spot in one of three later tryouts: Matkal (the Delta Force of the IDF), Shayetet (The Navy Seals), or Hovlim (The naval captains). There are a number of other special units within the major brigades as well, which are tried out for once a soldier has been drafted into that brigade, whereas Yom Sayerot occurs, for most Israelis, months before they are actually drafted. From the Matkal tryout, if you manage to finish it and don’t end up in Matkal, you can end up in an elite air force commando unit or the elite combat search and rescue soldiers that specialize in rescuing downed pilots behind enemy lines, or as most people do, with nothing. As I understand it, though we are never given an official “rank” at the end of the tryout, of those that successfully complete Yom Sayerot, those that finish in the front of the group at the tryout, if they so desire, are sent on to the Matkal tryout, the second group to the Seals tryout, and the third group to the Hovlim. The last group is sent home with nothing. In order to get an invitation to the tryout in the first place, you must have a physical profile of at least 82 and a high enough kabba (or intelligence score) to qualify you for the commando units (which is not a publicized number). You can speak with Liskat HaGius (the draft board), Mador Sayerot, or a number of different contacts that exist for lone soldiers in order to get an invitation. For those of you that are considering doing Yom Sayerot I recommend getting on top of this right away (as soon as you do your tsav reeshone, or your first notice), as things take a long time to happen in this country and you don’t want to miss your day (it only happens twice a year).

At around 7, after sitting around for a few hours, we were given sleeping bags, which we arranged on the dirt floor of the tent that was to be our home for the tryout. After setting up our sleep area, we were given dinner, which consisted of pasta and salad. We were given twenty minutes to eat, clean up, take apart the tables, and stand at attention.  At around eight, we were given a half hour to get ready for bed. Barring the dirt that flew up into your face every time someone stood up, and the blaring music from a party somewhere close to the base, I slept relatively well considering how much I was anticipating the following day.

Ultimately I didn’t have to wait too long for it to begin. People began to stir around 3:45 and at 4 we were ushered out of the tents. After a light breakfast (read: slices of white bread), we were organized into groups of 16-20 people. Each group had 3 commanders, one representative from Matkal, one from Shayetet, and one from Hovlim.

We were told to line up in front of our commanders, who ordered us to bring three chairs, 18 shovels, two Jerry cans, 18 empty sand bags, and two stretchers to the top of a distant hill. By 5AM, we were on top of a distant sand hill, our commanders were sitting comfortably in their chairs, and we were stretched and ready to go. The sand was extremely soft and the hill was quite steep, such that at the end of each sprint my shoe was full of sand. As an aside, I would recommend that anyone doing Yom Sayerot utilize the break time they give you to pour the sand out of your shoes. You’ll be lighter on your feet and it will help you avoid blisters. When all was in order, the head commander pointed to a bucket some distance down the hill, gave us an unreasonable time to get there and back, and sent us off sprinting down the hill, back up around the bucket, and ultimately in a line in front of him in the order in which we arrived. Each time we returned he would ask a pre-appointed individual in our group how long it took us, shake his head at our time, and send us off again (“tseh!”). Each sprint took between 15-25 seconds depending on whom you ask. At times I was so exhausted I could not stand up fully when I reported to the line. During those times I rose my eyes up just enough to stare at the logo of Sayeret Matkal displayed prominently on my commander’s shirt, a forceful reminder of why I was running up and down sand dunes at 5 O’ clock in the morning. What’s important to remember here is that no matter how fast you run you will not beat the given time, which is the whole point – to frustrate you and make you quit.  It is during this phase that a number of people drop out. While my group started and finished 18 people, one of my friend’s groups only finished four people. Nobody is sent home halfway into Yom Sayerot unless the commanders feel they are a health risk (i.e. they are throwing up too much or they are severely dehydrated, though I’ve heard of people who have fainted and been allowed to continue). For the most part, the only way out is on your own accord.

After about fourty minutes of sprints we were given a ten-minute break, told to drink four cups of water, and come back with our sand bags filled. With the sandbags (which weighed 35-45 pounds) resting on our shoulders, we were told to walk in a large circle around the bucket and call out the number of laps we had walked each time we passed the commanders. The point here was to test our integrity; to see who would cut corners, and who would report back with the right number.  We were told to walk “at our own pace,” thus it was up to each individual to push himself.  I did about 25 laps before they stopped us. After a seven minute water break, we were given shovels and told to dig a hole as wide as the shovel, as deep as the shovel, and as long as we could. Unfortunately my lack of Hebrew led me to understand that the hole was supposed to be as long as the shovel, as wide as the shovel, and as deep as possible, which I had to work like a madman to fix when I was corrected halfway into the exercise. The shovels we used, pictured here (http://bit.ly/ctvwSh), were American shovels from the Vietnam  war era. Just about the only thing they were capable of doing successfully was jamming on you and cutting you when you tried to fix them, which the current state of my hands will bear testament to. As we were digging our holes, two of the commanders came around to each of us to ask us questions. They asked me where I was from, how old I was, if I had attended university, and if I had any family here. They seemed impressed that I had come here by myself, which I assumed was a good thing. When they asked me how I had found the day so far, I told them without missing a beat that while today had been fun so far, I was ready for five real days of this at Gibbush Matkal, which evoked the first smile I had seen out of them all day (It’s the small victories in life).

We were given a brief respite after the sandbag exercise to fill in our holes and drink water. When we had finished and were standing back in formation, the next exercise was explained to us. Two stretchers were placed in the middle of our group, each with four sandbags strapped down to them (I would assume the combined weight was somewhere between 100-130 pounds), and two Jerry cans were placed next to the stretchers. The idea was that after each sprint the first eight people back would end up on stretchers, the next two with the Jerry cans, and the last 8 with nothing. The idea here was that to be first meant you ended up under the stretchers, by far the hardest of all the options, which was yet another way they were able to gauge who wanted the next tryout the most. After the first lap, those who arrived first did a second lap with the stretchers and Jerry cans and the remaining 8 did another lap like the first one. After a half hour or so, they announced that they would only count the first stretcher that arrived, so the two stretchers raced down the hill and back up against one another. I was lucky enough to have trained with a great bunch of guys under the direction of some very qualified ex-soldiers, and thus I was under the stretcher all but one time. The end of this exercise marked the end of the physical part of the day, which was a huge relief. (Please keep in mind by the way that each commander does things slightly differently, so my experience here may not be identical to the experience you will have if you go to Yom Sayerot in the future.)

After we stretched, we sat in a circle with the commanders, and went around saying our names, where we were from, what sports we played and how we had prepared (or not prepared) for that morning. I believe what was important here was not so much the answers so much as how you were able to express yourself within a group and how comfortable you were with public speaking. The commanders made notes in the books they carried with them, as they had been doing all morning, and we finally descended the hill towards our camp sometime after 9. After a light breakfast, we were told that since we were the last Yom Sayerot for that season, we would be taking down everything. All in all, between checking the stretchers and the shovels, taking down the tents, and emptying and stacking the Jerry cans, this took over an hour and a half, throughout which we all waited anxiously to hear who had made the cut. Finally, they sat us in a big circle and a Lieutenant Colonel came to congratulate us on making it to the end of the day, and, ultimately, to read the numbers of those who had passed to the next phases.

The list of numbers (each corresponding to a name. obviously.) of those who made it to the matkal gibbush was about 1 ¼ pages, a little over 40 kids in all, organized in no particular order. When he turned the first page and had not yet read my number, my heart sank. About 10 numbers into the second page, I finally heard my number called. The feeling of excitement was overwhelming. I tried to keep a straight face as I ran to sit in a group with the others who had been selected, but I must admit it was not easy. The same Lieutenant Colonel who had spoken to us before came over after all the numbers had been read and congratulated us on making it to the second phase. He told us that nearly none of us would make it past the next tryout but for those that did, we would be doing the most interesting and important jobs the Israeli army has to offer.

As the group of those who had been accepted disbanded and scattered, I saw a group of Colonels speaking in the distance. Among them was (name removed), the woman in charge of Yom Sayerot who had ultimately put my name on the list because she agreed that my Hebrew was good enough to warrant an exception to the rule. I waited patiently far enough away so as not to be intrusive but close enough that it was clear I was waiting to speak to her. When she finally turned towards me, I reminded her who I was and thanked her profusely for all of her help along the way. She told me she had saw my name on the list for the Matkal Gibbush and was excited for me, and wished me the best along the way. All and all it was a very exciting day.

At this point, while most people have passed one test, I have passed two. I had to fight as hard to get to Yom Sayerot as I did to successfully complete it, and as I approach the third and final step, I do so with the knowledge that my chances of success are minimal this time around. It’s not that anyone wants this more than me or that I’m not smart enough (intelligence is a huge part of the next test: you are constantly questioned, prompted to recite information, ect). My main point of stress is the numbers game. Of 400 that begin on November 7th, only 20 will become soldiers in Matkal (even out of those, many will not make it through the vigorous training).  All 400 of those candidates have passed through psychological screening, all of them have proven to be highly intelligent individuals and in good shape with the motivation to back it up.

Most good stories have a happy ending. This has certainly been a good story so far, but you shouldn’t expect a follow up blog post entitled “I did it!” or something of that nature. Whether I succeed or fail here there will be no such disclosure.  I will not be able to tell you if I am ultimately accepted, but such is the nature of this undertaking. I’ll gladly share whatever I can, but no more.  Thank all of you for your continued support.

10/20/2010

21 Responses to “Post 19: The first tryout (Yom Sayerot)”

  1. Jeff Latz Says:

    Corey – these posts are amazing, you are an amazing young man who continues to inspire anyone who reads these and knows you. I can’t imaging how proud your family must be. Thank you so much for including me in this. Be safe!
    Your once older brother, Jeff

  2. Debbe Feldman Says:

    Corey- We are so proud of you and what you have undertaken. Thank you for letting us share in your experiences.
    Lots of love,
    Aunt Debbie

  3. Aunt Sharon Says:

    Corey,
    I love reading your blog posts (as do a bunch of my friends who are now your groupies!) What you have already accomplished is truly remarkable and I am sitting here in Tenafly beaming with pride that I’m your Aunt (let’s face it – we all know you get all of that athletic ability, high IQ, and good looks from me!) Keep it up….you’re amazing!

    Love,
    Aunt Sharon

  4. Rauch Says:

    Bah! Try dealing with seventh graders…

    All kidding aside, keep it up, man! Great posts so far.

  5. Scott Lombart Says:

    Corey,

    Seriously? We don’t get to find out??? This is like reading about what happened nine months before december 25 year 0, up until the point mary returns from dinner…except i actually care what happens. I’m waiting for this news more than i’m looking forward to watching american football with people i dont have to explain the sport to.

    In all seriousness though, these posts are awesome. You’re charming the right people, and apparently recovering pretty well from that friday night. It must be an honor to take down those tents and stack those jerry cans.

    Keep up the good work Yul Brenner. I look forward to every post, leaving every one inspired to work harder. One of these days ill be abke to post before Aunt Sharon does. Adios amigo

    Scott

  6. Steve Oster Says:

    Achi,
    Sounds like you’re making good progress on achieving your goal. While thinking about you, I thought about a quote which has been most meaningful for me and want to share it with you.

    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles nor where the doer of deeds could have done better.

    The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

    Theodore Roosevelt said those words one hundred years ago at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910.

    Win, lose or draw, you’ve always had and will have our love and admiration! Please be safe.
    Love from Steve & Sandy Oster

  7. Josh Says:

    love the posts man. They make my day. I’m cheering for you!

  8. Tomer Ravon Says:

    Corey,
    Like you said:
    Ein davar Haomed Bifney Haratzon !!!
    Well done !!!! God lock with the Gibush

    Tomer

  9. Jon Beck Says:

    well done Corey, hope all is well

  10. Shari Beckman Says:

    Hi Corey,
    We continue to look forward to your posts with great anticipation!
    What you are accomplishing is truly amazing You’ve come a long way from WJC carpool!

    Love,
    Shari, Joel, Steven & Jake

  11. Darrin Goldin Says:

    Hey Corey,
    As they say, “kol b’rosh!” Good luck with the Matkal Gibush. In honor of your accomplishments, I’ll only eat two donuts today.
    Love,
    Darrin (Rachel + Jonah)

  12. Larry Halperin Says:

    Corey, your dad just forwarded me a link to your blog and I’ve spent the morning reading it, and catching up on your life. You’ve been on a pretty incredible journey since we first met in the alumni house at University of Pennsylvania in 2005!!
    We are all so proud of you and what you are doing. And, thanks for the hospitality you extended to Katie.
    All the best. May you go from strength to strength
    Larry Halperin

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