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.”