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Diaspora Jews go to boot camp

JERUSALEM, Aug. 7 (JTA) — Nadia Kahn, 24, doesn’t fit the typical image of an Israeli soldier in boot camp.

She’s petite (5 foot 1), half-Asian (on her mother’s side) and training to be an archaeologist.

Yet Kahn spent the last two months wearing baggy army khakis, toting an M-16, sleeping in an army tent and doing push-ups as part of Marva, a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Originally from Albany, Calif., the University of Chicago graduate has been in Israel since last October, studying Hebrew at a kibbutz ulpan and then at Hebrew University.

In the fall, she’s planning to start a master’s program in archaeology at Harvard.

Before she returned to Boston, Kahn wanted an experience that would give her a better understanding of Israeli society, of “how the army works,” and what it was like for her adopted kibbutz father, who served in Israel’s famed Golani brigade.

That is the goal of Marva, a program designed to give participants a taste of real Israeli life

For eight weeks, the group lives on army bases, learning about Israel’s topography by hiking across it, sometimes carrying stretchers weighed down by one of their fellow participants.

They become familiar with army base life, doing kitchen duty, polishing their black boots, cleaning their guns and waking up at ungodly hours.

The current group of 35 will finish its eight-week session this week. There usually are four sessions each year.

Initially there were 38 people who signed up for the program, but three dropped out — one because it was too strenuous, and two because of scheduling conflicts back home.

The 27 men and eight women, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, are from all over the globe, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, France and Germany.

Two participants in this latest group are British relatives of the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz.

Like Mofaz’s relatives, most of the Marva applicants hear about the program through friends or family after spending summers or semesters in Israel. Most Marva participants have at least one Israeli parent and want to experience what their Israeli relatives are doing in the army.

While Marva isn’t exactly like the basic training Israeli recruits do, there are many similarities, from the 14-mile hikes to the Spartan living conditions and the tough love from their commanders.

Some of the trainees were looking for a physically strenuous experience, while others sought an experience that would help them toward their goal of moving permanently to Israel.

If participants choose to move to Israel, the two months in Marva count toward their obligatory time of army service. Several participants plan to serve in the army after completing their university studies.

Lazer Berman, a 19-year-old Boston University student, plans to return after college to serve in a paratrooper unit.

Ditto for Sergio Weingarten, 19, a law student at the University of Glasgow.

“My parents wouldn’t be entirely happy,” Berman admitted, “but mothers get nervous, especially Jewish mothers.”

The Marva parents received letters assuring them their children wouldn’t be on active duty.

The group spent most of its time in the northern and southern parts of Israel.

Group members were not allowed free time in Jerusalem due to fears of Palestinian terror attacks.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence has not cut into the number of Marva applicants, according to the Jewish Agency. Some 200 people apply each year, and those numbers haven’t gone down, agency officials say.

The Marva program costs $1,600 per participant. Most participants pay only about $500, however, after subsidies from the Jewish Agency and the army.

Participants must be older than 18, Jewish and have a basic command of Hebrew. They need Hebrew to understand their commanders, who expect full cooperation during the two-month, quasi-boot camp.

The amount of discipline was something of a surprise to this group of “chulnikim,” Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “Jews who live outside Israel.”

Whether being instructed to unload a bus in 55 seconds or to run around sandbags, they were impressed with their commanders’ authority.

“It’s more than I expected, but they’re very professional,” said David Hewitt, a 27-year-old Canadian. “It really feels like they know what they’re doing.”

“I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really serious,’ ” Weingarten agreed in his thick Scottish brogue.

Rotem Keinan, one of the group’s two commanders, is a freckled 22-year-old with a friendly, open face.

But his trainees didn’t even know his first name until a few days ago. To them, he was just “the commander,” someone to be feared and respected.

Along with other IDF soldiers who spend time with Marva participants as part of their army service, Keinan said that working with Jews from all over the globe is a privilege.

“It’s really hard work, but it’s worth it,” said Keinan, who is running his fifth Marva group.

“It’s great to see them learning the ropes, working hard and bonding together as a group.”

It was certainly bonding for the eight women in the group, who have been showering, sleeping and cleaning guns together for the last two months.

“You stop worrying about whether the tent flaps are down or not when you’re surrounded by all these guys,” said Jordana Gluks, 18, from Bethesda, Md.

Gluks, who will start her sophomore year at Brandeis University in a few weeks, has spent a lot of time on various Israel programs, and wanted to do one that wasn’t just about sitting on the beach and having fun.

Marva certainly tested her physically, since she “hates exercise and always skipped” gym classes in high school.

Her fellow trainees had to push and pull her along on several hikes.

There were times she wanted to go home, Gluks said.

Instead, she persevered — and now “it’s the last Sunday of the program,” she said, grinning, while rinsing the pots and pans used to cook lunch. Kahn said she was slightly “taken aback by the testosterone level” displayed by some of her fellow Marvaniks, raising her eyebrows above her tortoise-shell glasses.

“I’ve done my best and proved myself,” she said. “But I’ll be relieved when it’s over, and it’s time for the closing ceremony.”

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