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Soldiers “R” Us: the warm, fuzzy army

chayelet irena naomi I’ve posted about them before, but okay, I’m STILL fascinated by chayalot – women soldiers, who are really more like girls because they’re just in their late teens and act more like a group of kids on a school trip than the highly-trained group of killers one normally associates with the word “army.”

I remember thinking about this when we were on our pilot trip back in February, and I took this picture of a bunch of them chayalim platformhanging about on a train platform, very much like they were waiting for a teacher to come and read them the schedule for the days’ activities.  Only kind of like Boy Scouts, because they were all wearing uniforms.  And oh, yeah, a lot of them do carry pretty scary-looking weapons.

But other than that, they’re just a bunch of kids… and it seems like one of the big army projects around here is sending kids – girls and boys – to tutor immigrant children and generally help them adapt to life in Israel.  They accomplish this through the medium of Hebrew classes and various lessons in painting and crafts.

Once, when Naomi’s regular teacher (Irena, shown in the big hug above) didn’t show up, I went to the office to find out why and discovered two big army guys, sitting around a table, cutting up used soda bottles.  “We’re making flowers!” they announced.

Surely this is how I would prefer to spend my army service, given the choice.  It’s sort of a messianic vision a la Yeshayahu (Isaiah):  nations will beat their swords into ploughshares, and soldiers will spend their days making pop-bottle flowers?  But perhaps the other army guys make fun of them for getting stuck in what may be regarded as even lower than a desk job.

(That same afternoon, a couple of actual Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) came in to volunteer, just a couple of years younger than the chayalim (far older than any Scouts I’ve seen recently in Canada), and looking not at all ashamed of their slightly goofy-looking Scout uniforms, scarf and all.  Not sure if there is a relationship between scouting and the army, but it seems like good preparation, if they also have to wear uniforms and make pop-bottle flowers with immigrants.)

Today, after a week of preparatory crafts, the chayalim and staff here put together a Chanukah party.  One chayal brought along a recorder and sheet music, the others corralled the children and ensured that the celebratory events went along with, okay, not-quite-military precision.

I assume the soldiers do these things mainly during fairly peaceful periods, and that if need be, they are deployed to somewhere more national security oriented.  I really don’t know at all how the system works, and lack the Hebrew to ask the chayalim and chayalot about it myself. 

How do they pick which ones will “volunteer” to teach the immigrant kids, as opposed to, say, foot patrols in the Golan?  Do they choose soldiers who have been wounded or frightened, or are otherwise unable to perform more rigourous duties?  Or do they rotate through the ranks, so everybody gets a turn?  Do they only pick soldiers who want to work with kids, or does everybody perhaps have to take a turn?

Although all branches of the army are easily identifiable by their distinctive shoulder patches (tag yechida / תג יחידה), which probably carry a lot of useful information for Israelis-in-the-know, I personally have no idea what any of the patches actually mean.  So the red flower logo on Naomi Rivka’s chayelet could mean she is in fact serving with the “Pop-Bottle Flowers” brigade.  I may never know.

But it is a very different thing, growing up with “friends” like these in the army than growing up in Canada, where (for most kids) the army is something distant, cold, and perhaps menacing. 

Kids who grow up in Israeli families probably know lots of friends and relatives who are serving, but for newcomers, adults and kids, the omnipresence of the army and the prospect of serving yourself (or sending your kids to serve, if you’re a parent) can be one of the most daunting and disturbing aspects of life here. 

So whether it’s done explicitly as a PR move or not, this project of sending cute, perky young soldiers to help little kids get used to life in Israel is utterly and completely brilliant.  The message:  Soldiers are young, fun-loving kids, just like you… just regular Israelis, just like you.

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