Shavit Rootman (bottom row, third from the left) in uniform for the Israeli Defense Force | Courtesy

At 18 years old, the average Hillsdale freshman is typ­i­cally wor­rying about Western Her­itage,  getting enough sleep, and gaining 15 pounds. But when freshman Shavit Rootman was 18 years old, he was mem­o­rizing Arabic, sleeping in the sand, and car­rying a 30-pound machine gun.

“The first time you see combat is always the hardest time,” Rootman said. “But I think the training takes over. You just become robotic about it. You don’t think too much about it, espe­cially when you’re 19 or 20.”

Rootman is from Hadera, Israel, and came to Hillsdale to pursue a degree in pre-med­icine. The 24-year-old had to delay his college edu­cation because of his three years of mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Fighting for Israel may have not been a choice for Rootman, but it was a requirement he embraced, and he chose to serve his time with the IDF’s special oper­a­tions unit “The Duvdevan.”

Unlike the United States, Israel requires all 18 year-old men to serve in its mil­itary. But, according to Rootman, many avoid service by faking mental or physical dis­abil­ities. Rootman said that never even crossed his mind.

Rootman does not have many rel­a­tives — just his father, a 15-year veteran and test pilot in the Israeli Air Force — his mother, his brother, and his sister. Rootman never knew his other family members, but was inspired to serve because of his maternal uncle, who was killed in the Israeli-Jor­danian con­flict in 1968.

“Serving in the army is a big deal in Israel, and it meant a lot to me, espe­cially because my mother lost her only brother in the army,” Rootman said. “There was some­thing to fight for.”

Rootman excelled in sports and science classes at his high school in Hadera, taking a keen interest in anatomy and phys­i­ology. He was also one of the few members of his class who excelled at bas­ketball. When he grad­uated high school, and IDF recruitment officers began to see what class of the mil­itary would best suit the 18-year-old males, Rootman felt drawn to the special forces.

“I was always very inter­ested in the physical and close combat aspect of fighting,” he said. “That basi­cally nar­rowed it down to the Duvdevan for me. I was nervous, but it made me feel better that everyone was required to serve. I felt ready.”

But nothing would prepare Rootman for the extensive year and a half of training he received, he said. The first six months con­sisted of basic training with Israeli para­troopers, and the fol­lowing five months were devoted to learning special oper­a­tions skills, including Arabic, Krav Maga (the IDF’s close combat martial arts), sur­vival skills, land nav­i­gation, and sky­diving.

“Training was shocking,” Rootman said. “You barely eat, sleep on the ground, and we sky­dived five times. I’d never do that again. I basi­cally pooped my pants.”

The remaining time was spent learning a spe­cific job within the Duvdevan. Jobs in the unit are related to their counter-ter­rorism mea­sures, such as kid­nap­pings, hostage sit­u­a­tions, and under­cover intel­li­gence. Rootman’s job was kicking down doors.

According to Haim, one of Rootman’s older team­mates in the Duvedan, he showed promise from the beginning. The Col­legian is with­holding Haim’s last name for security reasons.

“He grew up before my eyes,” Haim told The Col­legian in a phone call from Israel. “He is like a younger brother to me. Hardship brought us together. Someone who starts ahead and stays ahead in training is fine, but Shavit worked his way to the top. He showed resilience and lead­ership skills. He should be proud of his service.”

Rootman said he couldn’t elab­orate much on his oper­a­tions, but was thankful that he never lost a fellow teammate in combat — with the exception of an acquain­tance from the Israeli Air Force, 20-year-old Tomer Hazan.

Hazan was kid­napped and killed by a Pales­tinian in Sep­tember 2013. Rootman said he and his platoon officer were the ones who found him dead. They extracted his body and met up with ally forces to exchange intel. After a debrief, they found the location of Hazan’s mur­derer.

His unit mobi­lized and elim­i­nated the target. Rootman said he wasn’t filled with emo­tions of ret­ri­bution but rather sorrow.

“That one was sad because you actually see the person who was involved in Tomar’s murder,” Rootman said. “Most of the time you’re a robot. You arrest and do what is needed, not thinking about who that person has harmed before you met them. This time, we knew.”

A few months later, Rootman’s mil­itary service was cut short. During a rescue oper­ation outside Jerusalem, Rootman’s leg was caught between two rocks, and he twisted and broke his leg. Rootman said it was dev­as­tating.

With his mil­itary career behind him, he moved to Munich, Germany, in 2014 to work as a private security guard for Jewish immi­grants. He also studied German at the local uni­versity. It was there that he met his girl­friend, Diana Steele. Steele grad­uated from Michigan State Uni­versity in 2014 and was spending her summer abroad.

Steele said when she met Rootman, she was imme­di­ately attracted to the loyalty he dis­played for his country and family.

“He sticks out, that’s for sure,” Steele said. “It wasn’t easy for him to move away from his family, and he misses them. He served in a elite unit of the IDF because he wanted to protect them. But he knows there are oppor­tu­nities here in America, and his family sup­ported him.”

Steele left Munich to work for Shaw Indus­tries in Denver, Col­orado, prompting Rootman to look stateside to pursue his edu­cation. Several friends and teachers back home in Israel told Rootman to look at private schools and sug­gested Hillsdale — close to Steele’s hometown of Ann Arbor.

When Rootman came to look at the school in the summer of 2015, he said he was won over by the low student-to-faculty ratio and the unique core cur­riculum.

“In Israel’s edu­cation system, I never had time to encounter phi­losophy or other major sub­jects that question why the way things are,” Rootman said. “So I knew I would encounter a bunch of stuff at Hillsdale that I knew nothing about and that would make me a better person.”

Rootman said he hopes to join the pre-med track or major in inter­na­tional business and German.

“When I graduate, I want to help people,” Rootman said. “And at Hillsdale, I know I’m going to learn the things that will chal­lenge me, make me a better person and give me the oppor­tunity to do that.”

Rootman said he is looking forward to his time at Hillsdale and in America, but the uncertain safety and security of his country and family back in Israel is con­stantly on his mind.

“In my unit I was pre­venting the terror attack of tomorrow,” Rootman said. “Threats to Israel come from all over, daily. The country is fighting everyday for it’s sur­vival. It’s scary.”

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Thomas Novelly
Collegian Editor-in-Chief, Thomas Novelly was born in Novi, Michigan, but was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, making him a self-proclaimed "Yankee gone South." Thomas began writing for The Collegian as a sophomore, and since has served as a reporter, columnist, and Assistant City News Editor. He has also worked for two major publications, interning at the Washington Free Beacon in D.C. and The Tennessean in Nashville. His work has been seen in National publications such as CBS News, National Review Online, Stars And Stripes, and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.