Recent high school graduates endure rigorous basic training in their quest to become paratroopers. “Beneath the Helmet”
A few weeks ago, as I walked into a screening of “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front,” I was instantly conscious of the fact that my friend and I were the only two high school seniors in the audience. This set the scene for the film that I was about to see. “Beneath the Helmet” is about my peers, people very close to my age, who just happen to be overseas serving in a military. Being so conscious of my age, I thought that the stories could very easily be about me in a few months.
This documentary follows the lives of soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The synopsis of the film states, “At the age of 18, away from their homes, families and friends these young individuals undergo a demanding, inspiring journey, revealing the core of who they are and who they want to be… [The film] illustrates how these young men and women are defending not only their homes, but also the values of peace, equality, opportunity, democracy, religious tolerance and women’s rights.” This is all true. And yet, as an almost-18-year-old myself, with close friends living in Israel who are also about to enter the army, I relate to this movie somewhat differently.
I generally don’t think of myself as extraordinary in any way. Although I have many community responsibilities and I am preparing to go off to college, more often than not, I still think of myself as a kid. I have a lot of friends in Israel. My school has relationships with schools in Ofakim and Ra’anana, and we get to know the students when they visit America and when we visit Israel. We stay in each other’s homes and become family. We talk every day on WhatsApp. I love them, yet I don’t think of them as extraordinary either. They’re really just like me. We talk about music and television and celebrity gossip while we shop and eat and laugh. And yet, I know that in three months or so, when they show up for their IDF appointments, I’ll be inclined to think of them that way — as extraordinary.
But I don’t want to feel that way.
My Israeli friends, like all citizens of the country, are not extraordinary people. They are ordinary people who live in an extraordinary country.
“Beneath the Helmet” was incredible. It was well-made and its stories about a handful of recent high school graduates, were touching and poignant. Each and every one of these young soldiers captivates the audience. Their diverse histories, unique challenges and personal goals resonate because they are genuine, sometimes relatable and they are compelling.
The film essentially follows five soldiers: Oren, Mekonen, Eden, Coral and Eilon. Oren, a lone soldier, and Mekonen, a new immigrant, serve together in a paratrooper brigade under the command of Eden. Mekonen is enlisted while struggling to support his single mother and nine family members. Coral, a drill sergeant, helps new immigrants integrate into the IDF. And Eilon is the first member of his family to enlist.
In spite of the differences among these soldiers, there is a common theme that drives all of them to persevere. The film refers frequently to the question of “Why?” Why do they train? Why do they serve? Why we should care? One soldier answers these questions best by saying, “Because this is the People of Israel.”
Why was it necessary to follow the lives of these five soldiers? Because this is the People of Israel.
These soldiers are kids — on the verge of being young adults, but nevertheless they are still kids, who are entrusted with the security, and maybe even the existence, of the nation of Israel. They are sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. They have their entire lives ahead of them. They accidentally refer to their commanders, who are only two or three years older than they are as “bro.” They explain that their guns are like their girlfriends because they are always with them and always have to be tended and cared for. They dance and sing and laugh and want to have a good time. In America, they would be in their freshman year of college, joining clubs and teams and making friends and staying up late talking and dancing and partying. But because they live in our Jewish homeland, they are engaged in much more serious and consequential pursuits.
Why do they do what they do? Because this is the People of Israel.
Service in the IDF is mandatory because the survival of the State of Israel depends on having a first-rate army ready to respond at all times. As one of the soldiers in the documentary commented, “If we’re not here, so we’ll be overrun in two minutes.” All Israeli children know that one day they will join the ranks of the soldiers, but they aren’t prepared for the enormity of the experience when they show up for basic training. Some of the unit commanders explain that the soldiers’ attitude and mindset, the drive and commitment, must be extracted from new enlistees. The recruits must learn how to live independently, away from home while enduring intense training with no control over their day to day lives. Sometimes I don’t want to see my friends go through this. But then I remind myself why they do it.
Because this is the People of Israel.
The documentary explained in intimate detail just how much work goes into creating the mindset of an IDF soldier. Commanders take their soldiers to Har Herzl, where soldiers who lost their lives are buried. They tell stories to their units about the close friends they have lost. Watching the soldiers go through these hardships called to mind so many experiences in my own life. I remember visiting Har Herzl with my high school freshman classmates, some of who plan on joining the IDF as lone soldiers after graduation. I remember every Yom Hazikaron in my school, honoring soldiers who died while defending Israel. I remember last summer in Pennsylvania with Hagalil USY; during every recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish, we said the names of soldiers who were killed during Operation Protective Edge. I could remember crying every time I heard the song, “Million Kochavim.” I watched the soldiers in “Beneath the Helmet” tell their parents and grandparents what to do if they lost their lives in battle. I wondered to myself where they got the strength to be able to say such things. But I knew the answer.
Because this is the People of Israel.
The documentary accomplishes its mission of personalizing the stories of IDF soldiers, recognizing their accomplishments in the military and beyond and ingraining these stories into our collective psyche. During the film, we watch boys turn into men and girls turn into women. The soldiers swear to protect our land with their lives — “Ani Nishbar” (I swear) — because, as is said in the film, “The State of Israel? It’s tangible. It’s the spirit.”
This is a film that is absolutely worth seeing. But I hope that when audiences watch it, they open themselves up to seeing it through my point of view: as an 18-year-old. I hope that viewers are reminded that these soldiers who we glorify — and indeed, we should be in awe of them all — are just children. I pray for a day when my Israeli peers are able to be that way — children. When that day comes, when military service after high school is no longer the norm and people live in peace, then soldiers in Israel will be extraordinary people in an ordinary country. But for now, they must do what they do.
Because this is the People of Israel.