Masada: Then and Now

By Yael Lewis, Jewish History Teacher

We have just officially completed the third full week of classes at Heller High! Last week ended with a bang for me. Right before another jam-packed week ended and the fun weekend started for the group in Eilat, we had a tiyul, a trip, to the site of Masada. On Thursday I climbed up the mountain of Masada with the whole school and guided my class, ‘Kitat Gefen’, up to the top. On the way up, we saw Israeli soldiers hiking up with us as part of their army training. They struggled on the ascent with all of their military gear on them – it looked brutal.

Hiking up this place brought me back to my own army service… I made Aliyah right out of high school at the age of 17 from San Diego, California. I came to Israel with a program called Garin Tzabar, which grouped me with other young adults who wanted to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.). I went to live on a wonderful Kibbutz in the north and every week I would commute for four hours to my base in the south. There, I served as a physical fitness instructor for infantry soldiers of the Nachal Brigade during their basic training. My job was to give workouts and fitness tests throughout the week, run injury prevention sessions or provide

advice/tips about their physical training. Among other things, I was also in charge of going out on masaot, marches, with the soldiers. What does this mean? For the first three months of an infantry soldier’s army career and then for another four months of advanced training, the army builds up its soldiers’ stamina to have the ability to walk up to some 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) depending on what unit the army places the soldier in. In The Nachal Brigade, and all infantry units, start with three or four kilometer marches and can get to around 50 or 60 kilometer (30 or 37 mile) marches.

The last masa, march, after about seven long months of a Nachal soldier’s training is a 50 kilometer masa, march, from the Nachal infantry base outside the city of Arad to Masada, called Masa Kumpta, which translates to, ‘the march of the beret’. After completing this march, the Nachal soldiers earn their light green berets. The soldiers walk all night long, with me beside them, running up and down the two rows of marching soldiers, making sure that the head commander is walking at the right pace, that the group has enough breaks during the march and that the soldiers are taking care of themselves – doing stretches, drinking and eating. The soldiers carry water, their weapon, magazines and more – a substantial amount of weight. They wear their dark green uniform and their uncomfortable boots that only come off when they go to sleep (sometimes). They paint black stripes on their faces before they head out and by the end of the masa it’s almost all smeared off from sweat.

After walking for 50 kilometers, the entire brigade of about 120 soldiers must climb Masada, which is about 434 meters (1,424 feet) above the Dead Sea level. The soldiers are completely exhausted, but they make it to the top of Masada at sunrise just like we did on Thursday morning with Heller High.

Once on top of the mountain, we heard the story of the remaining Jewish people who kept the last stronghold in Judaea under the Roman rule in 73 CE, after the Second Temple fell in 70 CE. Although there are different historical narratives about what happened at Masada, one of the most famous and retold stories is that of Masada as one of the last Jewish strongholds in Judea after the Roman conquest, and Masada has traditionally served as an inspiration for early Zionist thinkers and the founders of the newly established Jewish State. In a way, climbing up Masada this past week and having marched up Masada with the Nachal Brigade always makes me think about the famous Masada story and the message it tells – that of the self-determination of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael.

After 2000 years, the Jewish people have a State, a Jewish Democracy. It is by no means perfect, but it exists with countless of people inside and out of it that constantly work for this country to improve and succeed – whether it be in high tech, education or politics. Today Israel has a military that can defend itself, and we, the Jewish people have a country that we can all call home.

This is the very reason I made Aliyah in 2008. I came to contribute to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a State that represents me as a Jew. When I made Aliyah, I constantly thought, I am so lucky and will always work to improve this special place and be part of the community of people who has hope to make Israel the best Jewish and Democratic State it can to live in a time in history where the Jewish people have a Jewish State. I have


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