Rafi Baldasare, 24, and Lilach Baldasare, 24, live in Yemin Orde youth village; flying to Bangkok
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Hello, can I ask in honor of what you’re going?
Rafi: I finished my army service on Thursday, and this is actually our honeymoon.
Lilach: A year late. We got married a year ago, but Rafi was in the career army.
Rafi: I was an officer in a combat unit. I did three years of compulsory service, and a year and eight months in the career army.
Lilach: Until now we met once a week, or every two weeks or three weeks. Now we’re starting to get to know each other. It’s really only now that we’re marrying.
And what’s he like?
Lilach: Very orderly. The army taught him efficiency.
What were you doing while he was in the army?
Lilach: I’m an instructor in the Yemin Orde youth village. The village is for at-risk youth, from grades nine to 12. They come from Russia, Brazil and France, many through the Naale program [in which Jewish adolescents from abroad spend three years studying in Israel]. Some of them are here without parents. There are 500 kids. It’s an educational institution, not therapeutic. They enter down in the dumps, and after the 12th grade they all go to an army preparatory course and then serve in combat units.
The institution is divided by ages. I work with Russian girls who immigrated to Israel at very young ages. We launder, clean and cook for them, pamper them. A lot of what I do is setting them on the right track. Motivation. I come in the morning and leave in the evening. Of course, we lived in a separate apartment in the village – like all the instructors.
Rafi: For me, it was like coming to a B&B. I spent the week in the army and then I went there, where everything is green and the air is fresh, with a view of Mount Carmel. I really love the place.
How did you meet?
Rafi: We met in the 10th grade. We were both group leaders in Bnei Akiva [a religious-Zionist youth movement], and then we went to a movement training course. After that we were together for two weeks, but we broke up quite quickly. I was in a high-school yeshiva in Mitzpeh Ramon, she was near Haifa, so a relationship wasn’t relevant. After I completed a squad commanders’ course, we renewed the connection via Facebook. I asked her if she wanted to go out with me, and she said no.
Lilach: I really didn’t want to go out with him. It was difficult: He’s in the field and comes back every two weeks.
Rafi: It was also clear that I would do an officers’ course. But from “not wanting to go out,” we ended up getting married while I was in the army.
How did you manage that?
Rafi: I’m hard to resist.
Lilach: It progressed, very slowly. He started to talk, then “Let’s meet” – and from the moment we met it happened.
Rafi: Now we are fulfilling a dream. We’ve waited a long time for this flight.
Lilach: We’ve been together exactly three years. We wanted to fly somewhere, anywhere – even Yemen. This is our first trip together. When he was in the army I flew down to Eilat to see him, that was my highlight.
Rafi: I think we’re at a very interesting stage ... one where nothing is clear.
Lilach: We’re leaving the village after four years. While he was in the army, it suited us. Now I want to develop and also to get into special education, which is the framework I taught in.
Rafi: I’ve signed up for the psychometric exam [for entering university], I’m thinking of architecture.
So what’s not clear?
Rafi: It’s very clear in the yeshiva what you’re doing, and how: Everyone is religious; you sit on your ass and study. You have a rabbi and you can ask questions, but things are generally set. And in the army, it’s the whole people of Israel. You sleep with them all in the tent, and it rains, and not everything is black and white. You realize there are people who have interesting, strong ideas. Things that I thought were unequivocal were undermined.
Rafi: For example, which is more important? Your religious level or the very fact of doing army service? Or you put on tefillin, and there is a trek from midnight until 10 A.M. – and the seriously religious people go to pray, and you say, “I’m going to bed.” You have to check yourself about the way you uphold the precepts. Even if the faith is always there. I’m not the same person I used to be. And suddenly you understand: I am my own master. I was an officer and a commander, I had soldiers with problems, religious and secular, godless and atheist. The whole spectrum.
Ido Appel, 39, lives in Tel Aviv, arriving from Larnaca, Cyprus
Hello, can I ask where you’re coming back from?
Limassol. I’m the coach of the Israeli cadets’ swim team, and we’re returning from an international competition in Cyprus, with 12 countries.
How did it go?
A historic achievement. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. We came back with 17 medals, 12 of them first-place finishes. It’s the first time an Israeli team won in overall points for boys – and against countries that are swimming empires. The girls finished second in overall points. And together, the whole team ended up in second place. At the end of the competition, there’s a party where the swimmers always exchange shirts and swim caps. For years, the other teams didn’t ask our swimmers to exchange items, but in the past two years they’ve wanted to. And I’m talking about countries like Poland and Austria, that don’t necessarily like us. It’s not to be taken for granted.
How many years have you been a coach?
Fifteen – meaning that my wife is a great maneuverer between her job, my job and our children. Being a coach takes up a lot of time, sometimes at the expense of the family.
Sounds like it also takes away your voice.
I’m very hoarse after an international tournament. The swimmers don’t hear you when they’re in the water, and you might be 25 meters [82 feet] away from them, but you still cheer and shout like a madman – for yourself, actually.
How do you prepare a swimmer for a tournament?
Sometimes you offer professional advice before the event – but that’s only to atone for your sins. You need a personal connection to the swimmers, to lift them off the floor and bring them down from the sky. This tournament lasted two days. Within half an hour, a swimmer can go from the heights to the depths. Crazy extremes. It’s not easy to manage the egos of 15 boys and girls who are operating in a pressure cooker, which makes the behavior of adolescents even more extreme.
How old are they?
The boys are 15-16; the girls 14-15. That’s the international definition for cadets, set according to physiological development, in order to create competition at a uniform level. The girls are more agile than the boys.
The boys are simpler, the girls more sensitive. I can scream and yell at a boy who trains with me, and the next day everything will be fine. But if you look at a girl swimmer in what she thinks is the wrong way, she won’t talk to you for two weeks.
Did you find any great swimmers along the way?
At present, I have swimmers at the very highest international level. Gennadi Touretski, who was Alexander Popov’s coach, once said, “To create a training program for Alexander Popov took me 15 minutes; waiting for Alexander Popov took me my whole life.” That sums up the coach’s hope. You have to wait and train so that the golden fish will arrive. Not for me specifically, but for Israeli swimming.
Were you yourself a swimmer?
Yes. I did freestyle and butterfly. Actually, I closed a circle. I coach at the Hapoel Petah Tikva club – the same club that kicked me out as a swimmer. I’ve been there 15 years. I also did a law degree and have a law office, but swimming still fills my soul.
Do you still swim?
I’m incapable of getting into the water. I even had a fight with my wife [about it] last year. Our daughter was 5 and a half, and it was time to teach her how to swim. I wanted to send her to one of my instructors, and my wife said, “Why have I been putting up with swimming for so many years?” I have to admit that she was right.
But why not?
I have a very sharp memory of my ability as a swimmer. Like every memory, it’s possible that I’m painting a prettier picture, but when I enter the water, I can’t do 10 percent of what I once did. It’s not just a nostalgic memory, it’s a motoric one: the movements, the feeling of the water. I run and work out in a gym – things I think I can improve in. I only get into the water when I’m sick with a fever of 39 degrees [Celsius; 102 degrees Fahrenheit] – swimming gets rid of all the crud inside.