What Makes an Army Jewish?

This activity meshes "gadna"-style training with examination of the ethos of the IDF. It includes physical army "training," discussion of life in the army, and personal stories and anecdotes from your Israeli staff who have been through their own army experiences.

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Core Learnings: 

Every Israeli teenager prepares for army service after high school
The ethos of the IDF incorporates Jewish values and includes leading from the front and the sanctity of every soldier's life
The IDF is a people's army; at its founding it brought together all of the pre-State fighting forces


Step 1: Introducing the Activity

Campers gather on the sports field, where one or more Israeli staff members instruct them to stand in rows and jog in place while they wait for the activity to begin. As everyone is jogging in place, the shaliach begins to tell his or her army story. Shlichim can use this as a guide:

Today you're going to experience what Israeli high school kids go through as they prepare for their army service. In Israel, when you finish high school you don't go straight to college; first you serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF. In Hebrew it's called Tzahal. Boys serve three years, and girls serve two years.

If you think you can graduate from high school and go straight into battle, you're wrong! When I was your age, all of my friends and I already were thinking about the army. What unit do we want to serve in? What we need to do to prepare for our service, what kind of position will let us make the biggest contribution to our homeland? Seriously, these are the priorities for so many Israeli kids.

And we knew that if we wanted the good positions in the army, we had to be in shape. Because when we were kids, we used to sit around and play as many video games as all of you probably do! And that's no way to prepare for the army. So we did a program called Gadna, where they helped us get ready for the army.

Today we're going to do a little bit of Gadna. I hope everyone can keep up! 

Step 2: Physical Endurance

After this introduction, the shaliach or shlichim lead the group through a series of physical endurance exercises. These should be developed by the GE and the shlichim based on the camp's layout and facilities, but they can include running around the sports fields, crawling under bushes and shrubs in wooded areas, climbing the rock wall, sprinting up and down a hill, and more. This should be rigorous but not so difficult as to wipe out the campers.

Interspersed between the exercises, the shaliach or shlichim continue to share stories with the campers that illustrate key understandings about the IDF. Topics to address include:

  • The IDF was established by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, just weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.
  • Prior to independence, several "underground" fighting forces had worked, usually independent of each other, to protect the members of the pre-State Jewish community and to advance efforts for independence. These groups included the Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi. (See Variations for more information on these pre-State groups.) Ben-Gurion and others said that now that the Jewish state has been born, all fighting must come under the command of one united force, and that was the IDF.
  • The IDF's principles are rooted in Jewish values, including:
    • Never leave anyone behind
    • Even return for the dead, everyone deserves a burial
    • Officers lead from the front, not guide from behind
    • It is illegal to follow an immoral order:
      • There is no excuse as “I was just following orders”
      • Every soldier is responsible for his/her own actions
    • The concept of “Purity of Arms”:
      • Weapons are to be used for defense and only when necessary
      • All measures are taken not to harm civilians
  • What is the responsibility of the officer to his/her soldiers?
  • Integration of the army and civilian society
    • A people’s army with universal conscription
    • Rather than go to college, everyone goes to the army
    • 18-year-olds are faced with life and death decisions
    • Parents are involved with their children’s army experience                   
    • The reserves
      • Many adult men serve until 40-years-old
      • These adults watch how the younger soldiers act and are treated, leading to transparency in the army

Depending on the age of the campers, you can go into more or less detail. For younger campers, the gadna pre-military training activities will offer insight into what Israeli high school students must contend with, while for older campers the emphasis on the values of the IDF as a reflection of the values of Israel and the Jewish people will have greater weight.

With proper preparation by the GE, the shlichim who lead this activity can make it a huge success.

Step 3: Wrap-up

Either in a room or around a campfire, the staff members who have led the activity lead a wrap-up discussion that reviews key points covered during the Gadna training and stresses the personal nature of the storytelling that has transpired and links to the bigger messages about Israeli life, the role of the IDF, the values of the IDF, and how Israeli teens view their commitment to military service. His/her wrapup should acknowledge that this part of Israeli life is very different from typical American middle school and high school reality, but by trying to understand it campers can strengthen their understanding of, and connection to, Israel. 

If this was an evening activity the program ends with nighttime announcements and campers head back to their cabins.


This activity can be supplemented with additional information about the pre-State defense organizations Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi.

If this activity is planned as an evening program, the gadna training begins when it is still light outside. By the end of the training, campers can gather around a campfire where the Israeli staff members can teach some army slang and review the messages they conveyed throughout the program.


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