When Or, 21, a front-line combat soldier, woke up last Wednesday, he was informed by his commanding officer that he would be given the next day off to spend at the country’s largest water park with his army buddies.

“I have to say, I was pleasantly shocked,” said Or (his last name withheld for security reasons), who had just come off an intense night of border patrol. “Sometimes, you need to just shut off to go on. … I think each person should serve his country at the highest level that he can. Israel needs good combat soldiers right now, so I signed on to do it.”

So on June 28, the organizations Yahad–United for Israel’s Soldiers and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, joined together in hosting a “Fun Day” for some 5,000 front-line IDF combat soldiers as part of “Soldier Appreciation Week.” The event took place at Shefayim Water Park north of Tel Aviv.

The day before, the sponsoring groups provided a similar day to some 5,000 lone soldiers with no immediate family in Israel. More than 6,000 lone soldiers currently serve in the IDF; about 45 percent of them are new immigrants, coming from Jewish communities throughout the world, according to the Lone Soldier Center in Israel.

In addition to the many attractions at the Shefayim Water Park, the “fun days” featured Israeli DJ Eran Barnea, game and fitness areas, an all-day  barbecue and dessert smorgasbord, and special performances, including one by Static and Ben El Tavori, a popular Israeli musical pop duo. IDF unit commanders, non-commissioned officers, high-ranking military offices and other supporters also attended the festivities to meet and personally thank the soldiers.

The pool parties kicked off the second annual “IDF Appreciation Week,” which runs through July 8 and benefits more than 50,000 soldiers. During the 10-day period, Yahad and FIDF also send ice-cream trucks to visit more than 24,000 soldiers on combat bases across the country, among other activities.

Yahad–United for Israel’s Soldiers and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces joined together in hosting a “Fun Day” for some 5,000 front-line IDF combat soldiers on June 28 at the Shefayim Water Park in Israel. Credit: Nir Buxenbaum.

‘A place to rest’

Soldiers were walking around in their swimsuits, laughing with friends and relaxing—something many of them rarely get to do, given the intense situation on all of Israel’s borders right now.

Ohad, 19, a combat engineer who leads troops into fields that might contain explosives, is also responsible for detonating them so the soldiers can pass through.

“It is very dangerous work,” he said. “Sometimes, I am admittedly afraid. But I understand that someone must do this job, and there were others who did it before me.”

He said the pool party showed that “the country appreciates what I am sacrificing.”

A group of women combat soldiers spent the day soaking up the sun and taking selfies. For them, the day was about reconnecting with their comrades off the border and the battlefield.

Fewer women than men were at the event for the front-lines soldiers, although the number of female combat soldiers in the IDF continues to rise. In 2017, according to an Israeli army report, some 2,500 female combat soldiers were in the field, including a first group of female tank commanders.

Rotem, 19, who commands a combat center in the Arava—a geographic area south of the Dead Sea basin—said many people question whether girls can handle the intensity of being an IDF combat soldier.

“We are stronger than we look,” she said. “Everyone thinks the boys do all the hard work, but we have equal strength, and we can feel good that we are not just serving in the army; we are fighting for our country, too.”

Adi, 20, who holds a similar position, said some people think women fighters are “weird or crazy,” but she thinks they are role models. “I tell younger girls, ‘You can be strong, too,’ ” she said. “ ‘You can be like me and fight for Israel.’ ”

Nikki, 20, said she wanted to thank Yahad and FIDF for the special day. She noted that in addition to the pool party, Yahad regularly provides amenities to soldiers like TVs and sofas, which help make their headquarters “feel more like home.”

“Some people think these items are not about our safety or are not really helping the soldiers,” she said. “But for me, it is so important to come back from a patrol—and sometimes, I am on patrol all night until 4 in the morning—and to have a place to rest. It gives me the strength to go out and patrol again.”

Four female combat soldiers enjoy this year’s break from duty. From left: Avigayle, 19; Nikki, 20; Rotem, 19; and Adi, 20. Credit: Maayan Hoffman.

Oz, 20, a tank commander, said he wanted to share the truth about the IDF on the Gaza border, where he is positioned and was serving only the day before the pool party. He said most of what people read about the conduct of the IDF in the news “is all lies.”

“Even when they [the Palestinians] are aiming at us with live fire, we cannot just shoot,” he said. “There is a long chain of command and permissions we have to get. The IDF goes out of its way to protect civilians, even when that sometimes means putting our own safety at risk.”

Added Yoan, 22, a combat engineer, “without the army, there will not be peace in Israel. But to have a strong army, we need days like this fun day to refresh us.”

Then, he jumped in the water to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.