It is 9 A.M. on a hot Friday morning and four teenagers are struggling to haul their buddy up the steep incline leading from the shore to the entrance of Herzliya's Sidna Ali Beach, the effort clearly etched on their sweaty faces. Joining them on their way back, we meet up with a group of around 70 youths also engaged in intense physical activity. Several are running in the shallow waters toward the rest of the group doing sit-ups.
What we are watching is advanced training for teenagers determined to try out for a pilots course or one of the Israel Defense Forces' elite commando units. They have been participating in the workouts three times a week for the past year or two as part of a program offered by the Yuval Eilam educational center.
The intense competition to be accepted into one of the army's top combat units gave rise to Eilam's center, one of the first of its kind. All offer high-schoolers extensive preparation and physical training to withstand the enormous − but not always healthy − demands made by the IDF when it screens candidates for service in elite units.
Udi Jermon, who gives a course at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports training IDF preparation instructors, explains that apart from physical preparation these centers also run simulations of the tryouts themselves.
"These youngsters arrive better prepared and know what's in store for them during the selection process. They're put through tasks requiring group dynamics and participate in leadership workshops and community involvement," says Jermon, who is also head of the combat fitness preparation center at the Dror regional high school. "There are many groups active in this field, each with its own credo, but most are similar in content and character."
Yuval Eilam, who performed his military service in the elite airborne rescue and evacuation Unit 669, stresses that the physical training is only an excuse, a means to "educate, instill values, and make moral and successful people out of the young." As to why these courses are needed, he explains: "School doesn't provide preparation for the army. Everything done here should be part of the system, but it can't cope with it."
Eilam says it's absurd that people vacationing abroad for a week thoroughly investigate hotels and restaurants, but a teen enlisting for three years followed by many years of reserve duty typically doesn’t undergo any preparation at all. "Even I, going into the army in top physical condition, wasn't mentally prepared for what awaited me," he recalls. "Nowadays especially, when there's no respect for authority, the transition is sharp. It's a tremendous readjustment from everything we're familiar with in civilian life."
The cost to participate in a training group runs between NIS 250 and NIS 350 a month. The program at Eilam's center, for example, includes three sessions a week and a lecture for NIS 290 to NIS 360 a month. Activities are done in groups of 25 led by three instructors. Another program, Xpert Combat Fitness, offers three weekly sessions and a special monthly half-day workout for NIS 280 a month.
There is a problem here of inequality. Whoever can't afford to participate in preparatory courses won't have that competitive edge. But Eilam discounts that.
"I can say for our part that anyone who wants to participate does," he says. "We assist anyone who needs it − and not just us but our competitors too. The monthly fee isn't high relative to the number of hours and the content. And since these are older high-school students they often work and pay for it themselves."
A lower-cost alternative, however, is offered through the nonprofit organization for youth Aharai! ("Follow Me") at just NIS 170 for a full year. The organization, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoram (Ya-Ya) Yair, conducts training in 80 localities throughout the country, with an emphasis on outlying regions.
Girls still in the minority
Meanwhile, at the top of the hill one of the runners is gasping for breath and stops. "It's only his second workout and it's still a bit hard for him," one of the participants says as they rush to his assistance. Among the dozens of youngsters on the beach there are also several girls. They don’t register for these courses in large numbers since the frameworks are popularly seen as training for combat and commando units, and most really are.
But the girls registering for the course say they are doing it for the experience rather than as a means of giving them an edge in getting into an elite fighting unit. Nitzan, 18, from Moshav Kfar Hess near Tel Mond, has been coming to Herzliya for the three weekly training sessions for a year and a half. "I worked out with a personal trainer to lose weight and keep fit, and was nervous about joining a group," she says. "I'm a girl, and most of the girls here are like horses, and I find it stressful. But the instructors were reassuring and took some pressure off me."
Is it like an after-school activity?
"More like a home, a place for escape," says Nitzan. "And my fitness has greatly improved. At first it was really hard for me to run. In the first workout I barely ran five minutes but I didn't let myself give up. Girl friends of mine who enlisted and didn't go through this type of training are getting the shock of their lives."
Some of the army preparation groups conduct their activities in public parks, but Eilam says the experience doesn't come close enough to matching the type of challenges undergone in commando unit initiations.
Idan Pundak, whose Xpert Combat Fitness runs its activities in parks, disagrees. The former commander of the Duvdevan unit's anti-terror operations says not every training session has to simulate the toughest conditions. "For that purpose we have special training exercises once a month that take several hours," he explains. "Regular group workouts are scaled, focusing on building strength, cardiovascular stamina, muscles, social skills, command and control, all according to a gradual and laid-out plan."
Why is such a special framework necessary? Isn't it possible to work out independently?
Jermon: "Of course you can, and many youngsters train alone and reach elite units without prep centers. Still, the chances of a teen who participated in a prep center and did the simulations being accepted are much higher."
Jermon warns to be careful about programs with instructors who, despite having already served in combat units, aren't certified for teaching physical fitness.
Dotan Rosenblit, holder of a Masters degree in exercise physiology and owner of the Kosher Kravi center, agrees that this should be the overriding consideration when choosing a prep center. "A 17-year-old boy approached by an instructor who served in Sayeret Matkal and told to do this and that doesn't ask too many questions," he says. "The parents also let the child decide where to register and don't do much investigating about the qualifications of the instructors in the field.
"Preparatory training for the army involves difficult and highly intensive work," says Rosenblit. "The teenagers haul heavy weights and perform exercises at the level of top athletes. If the instructor doesn’t have the right training, there could be injuries and stress fractures with long-term effects. When you go to an exercise or yoga class you can be sure the instructor has a certificate. In this case it may be a necessity, but nobody out there is checking certification and the whole business is completely unsupervised."