This article is a student spotlight much like any other, but it does acknowledge the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The BCITSA and Link Magazine do not hold a position in regards to this matter. While a certain position may be perceived through this publication, it is not done so intentionally. The conflict is extremely complicated with loss on both sides of the border.
Former Soldier // Volunteer // Leader
On a rainy afternoon, Ophelia Bar-Lev-Wise and I met at the Rix. It’s not every day that you meet a combat veteran. I was nervously fiddling with my pen, waiting for the meeting to begin. I wasn’t sure what to
expect, and there were quite a few soldier stereotypes running through my mind. When Ms Bar-Lev-Wise walked in, she had a commanding presence, a wide smile, and perfect posture. I wasn’t expecting her to be so young, or so warm. On the surface, Ophelia Bar-Lev-Wise is your typical BCIT student. Most evenings, you would find her at the library preparing presentations for her Business Management classes or attending BCITSA Council meetings where she serves as an elected Councillor. However, there is much more to Ms. Bar-Lev-Wise than meets the eye. In another life, she was a Staff Sergeant Commander of a Combat Search and Rescue Unit in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Following are some excerpts from our conversation.
LINK: As a born and raised Vancouverite, what made you decide to join the Israeli Defense Forces?
Bar-Lev-Wise: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study after high school, so in grade eleven, I began looking into the army. I flew to Toronto four times to attend seminars, where I learned about the history of Israel, the religion, and the process of enlistment. People came from all over Canada to attend these seminars. Usually, Canadians would go off into the American-Israeli units, but the year I enlisted was the first year they gave Canadians their own section. At the seminars, I met the people I would live with in Israel.
Once I decided, there was no turning back. On my last day of high school, on my prom night, I flew to Israel. I graduated and shipped off at the age of seventeen to join the Israeli army. It was very difficult to leave my family and friends. I was very close to my family. I’d visited Israel five to six times before, but I’d never lived there. I didn’t speak Hebrew, and so I couldn’t communicate with my Israeli family members.
LINK: How long were you stationed in Israel?
Bar-Lev-Wise: I lived there for four years and I served in the military for three years. As a rule, conscripted non-combat female soldiers only serve two years. I wanted to join the Search and Rescue Combat Unit. For women, it’s mandatory to sign up for an extra year of combat training.
LINK: What did being a Search and Rescue Combat Commander entail?
Bar-Lev-Wise: I was a lifeguard before I joined the IDF. I took paramedic training in Canada which helped me excel as a Search and Rescue Combat Commander. I enjoyed the field, and I rose up the ranks. I became an acting officer, and then I was put in charge of a group of 120 soldiers. Working with the team was a struggle at first because of the language barrier. I was in training for ten months, and I struggled to learn Hebrew. A lot of people don’t learn the language at all, but I set this goal for myself and I’m now fluent in Hebrew.
LINK: You were in charge of a mixed unit. Were there any times you faced adversity because of your gender?
Bar-Lev-Wise: Both men and women serve in the military in Israel, so traditional gender roles aren’t adhered to. In my unit, you get certain profiles* and my profile was the highest, it was like the perfect profile. Some of the guys that were in my unit didn’t have a perfect profile. There were still a lot of rude comments but because I grew up with two younger brothers, I knew how to deal with it. I brushed it off. A lot of girls don’t know how to deal with backhanded comments and would explode, but I knew that it wouldn’t help, that it would escalate the situation instead of de-escalating it. I proved myself. I knew as a woman I had to work ten times harder than a man to make it. If you work hard, you’ll get the respect you deserve.
LINK: Coming from Canada, did you feel like you were more critical of your landscape?
Bar-Lev-Wise: Being Canadian helped my position a lot. My upbringing was very multicultural. A lot of Americans and Israelis are very narrow-minded, the blinders are on. I’m not like that. I was in the position where I was the in-between because I saw the bigger picture; I could see both sides of things. So that was a big advantage for me. They trusted me.
LINK: What were your favourite parts of the four years you were there?
Bar-Lev-Wise: The people that I met. My closest friends are now scattered across the globe. One is from Sweden, one is traveling in France, one lives in Montreal and one is currently in Hawaii. You learn about so many different cultures. I interacted with 57 different languages while I was living in Israel. The military was very difficult, it’s not like what you see on TV. Its still conscription based and its mandatory for Israelis. I wasn’t training and waiting for something to happen, I participated in a war in 2014. I’ve lost friends in that conflict. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve dealt with a lot. You learn a lot about yourself and you make a lot of good friends for life because of those experiences.
LINK: What was it like coming back to your life in Vancouver? Would you ever go back to live in Israel?
Bar-Lev-Wise: I had reverse culture shock. I knew that I was going to have that. The summer before I started BCIT was hard. Coming back to a place where I grew up and where people’s mindsets were so different was difficult. There [in Israel], everything was ripped away from me and here everyone was so privileged. That was hard.
I don’t plan on living there in the future. I went back there this summer for three weeks and I don’t think I could live there. You’re fighting for a lot of things every day. After being at BCIT and being home for the past year and a half, I’ve decided to stay here. Although I am still enlisted in reserves, that chapter of my life is over. I am less than six months away from graduating. I want to grow in my life, do new things and have new experiences. I see myself excelling in business management.
LINK: What was the process of coming back and applying to BCIT?
Bar-Lev-Wise: I always wanted to go to BCIT—BCIT was like my Harvard. I am super biased towards it. I looked at a lot of different programs at BCIT and I heard a lot of good things about Business Management. I wanted to be a manager. I’m good at managing people and leading a team towards a common goal. When I came back to Vancouver, I applied to the program and I didn’t expect to get in. After I got in, I realized business was appealing to me because I’m very good with people. All my different past experiences have helped me to develop great interpersonal skills. I can go into so many different fields with business management.
LINK: How are you balancing your leadership roles and schoolwork? Has your military background helped with that?
Bar-Lev-Wise: BCIT is as intense as the military, to be honest—but in a different way. Military training was more about strategic thinking, BCIT is a lot of learning new skills and programs. I was never that great in school before, because I didn’t care that much. Now, I’m very interested in what I’m learning and I’m doing a lot better in school. I was a Set Rep last year.
The army taught me how important adaptability and cross-functional collaboration are to be successful at anything. While in the army, I dealt with so many different people with different issues. I learned to live with my unit, sleep with them, shower with them—everything. I learned a lot about different personalities. Coming to BCIT is very similar: You have so many people of different ages and backgrounds. Group project work requires so much collaboration. Adaptability helps me at BCIT. Most people don’t experience […] this early on in life, so I have that to my advantage.
Cross-functional collaboration is also important in good leadership. I was always organizing events on campus and focusing on collaboration. Being able to tap into other people’s strengths is so important. You’re going to need all your group members. This is how it works with any business or company that you work in. You’re going to need all these people. You can’t work alone. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and being able to tap into a cross-functional mindset is huge.
LINK: How important do you think it is to have strong leaders today? What advice do you have to others that don’t know how to take on leadership roles?
Bar-Lev-Wise: It’s very important. Many people are leaders but don’t realize it.To be a good leader, you have to be a good follower too. You have to go into the field, take initiative, meet people and join clubs. I was never a club person—not even in school, just sports. Now I’m in clubs, and I’m in the library every day, studying, and getting involved in so many different things. If you’re in BCIT, get involved in a club or volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to get your face out there and you’re not committing too much of your time. A couple of hours is a great way to start and people notice you for it. Be a role model. Don’t just talk about things, do them.