While the current ceasefire brings the battle between Israel and Hamas to another tenuous halt, 6,000 miles away, American parents of IDF “lone soldiers” continue to hold their breath.
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, of the approximately 5,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, close to half are American boys. 40 percent of these volunteer soldiers serve in combat units, leaving their parents – thousands of miles away – glued to the news by day, and losing sleep at night.
“He said that he wanted to protect the people of Israel,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president for university and community life at Yeshiva University quoting his son, Yosef Dov, 19, an IDF lone soldier in his sixth month of basic training. “He felt that just because he was born in America, it didn’t exempt him from that responsibility.”
His parents didn’t take the news of his desire to enlist lightly; it surprised them. “He’s not a rough and tough kind of boy who gets excited about guns and war,” says Rabbi Brander. “He’s very studious and talks about feelings; he has a poet’s soul.”
Their son presented a convincing case. “It was an emotional discussion,” says Ruchie Brander, an occupational therapist and mother of five. “As parents, we’d all like to know our kids are safe in their beds at night and we can tuck them in – forever if we could.” The Branders came to admire their son’s sense of duty. “He was (essentially) integrating the values we taught him,” says Ruchie. “He was making good choices; ones we needed to respect.”
Yosef Dov enlisted in the army’s Machal Hesder program, intended for religious students who, although not Israeli citizens, wish to serve. The program incorporates IDF service with yeshiva studies over a 21-month period of commitment. Entry into combat units requires preliminary psychological, fitness and Hebrew language tests. He passed them all. After completing a year and a half at Yeshivat Har Etzion, he went straight to basic training.
“I give him and other lone soldiers so much credit,” says Ruchie. “If you grow up in Israel, you get a letter in the mail letting you know when to show up for the appointment; your family drives you there. Yosef Dov made the appointment, went to it on his own, followed up the meeting, and made sure all his paperwork was in. He made this decision at such a young age, and was active in the decision every step of the way.”
The Branders deal with their worry differently. Ruchie admits to being a news junkie; her husband avoids the newscasts, preferring to talk about the situation with others. They both turn to G-d, often. “I have an ongoing dialogue with Hashem. There are fears you can talk out loud about and those that keep you up at night. That’s just for you and HaKadosh Baruch Hu. That’s how I cope.”
Meanwhile, she’s grateful he’s still in training. “If it were up to me, he would stay in training his whole army service. But, there’s another mother whose son is in one of those tunnels. My tefillot also go to those parents.”
Danny and Susan Newman of Teaneck are recipients of those prayers. Their son, David Joshua (known as “DJ”), 21, is a commander of a squad in the Golani Brigade, a group that has sustained the most fatalities and injuries during Operation Protective Shield. The fact that their eldest son passed away six years ago made the decision to allow their son (the only living child) to enlist nearly impossible.
“We came to the realization that we don’t control anything. Hashem does,” says Danny, a lawyer and former IDF lone soldier who fought in the Lebanon war back in the early 1980’s. The Newmans acceded to their son’s wish to enroll.
During his son’s active duty in Gaza, Danny came to appreciate the stress his parents endured during his deployment. “I was told that my mother would sit at the Shabbos table [fraught with worry] with a thousand-yard stare.” He recently called her to apologize. “I told her I didn’t realize what I put you through. It’s a lot worse when you’re the parent. While we’d love to wrap our children up in bubble wrap and put them safe and sound in their room, at the end of the day, it’s not our life, it’s theirs.”
Lone soldier parents watch their children grow up quickly.
Ofra Wind, an IDF mother, also from Teaneck, sees a marked change in her son, Natan Tzvi (Nati). “I see a more serious 21 year-old. He came home with more of an understanding of what his purpose is in the bigger scheme of life. ‘It’s not just about me,’ he said. They move into adulthood overnight; they become responsible for a nation.”
And for each other.
When Yosef Dov explained the rigors of completing basic training to his parents, he spoke of trekking straight up Mount Hermon, a steep incline. He emphasized that you’re not supposed to talk throughout the exercise. “Just when you think you’re not going to make it through, you feel the hand of the guy behind you pushing you up, giving you that extra help,” he told his parents. “And then you put your hand on the guy in front of you to help him. When it’s your turn to carry a stretcher [loaded with weight to simulate a human body] and you think to yourself, ‘I can’t do this!’ But, if I say, ‘switch’ I know someone else is going to have to take up that burden – so I’ll hold it a little longer.”
Ruchie thought, after experiencing the terror of battle, her son would second-guess his decision. Not so. “Early on, he told us that at every stage of your life you have a commitment to serve Am Yisrael. ‘Am Yisrael needs me right now, he said. I can serve Am Yisrael in a way I won’t be able to in twenty years.’
Apparently, this sense of loyalty runs strong (and early on) in every lone soldier. In 2006, in the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, at Nati’s bar mitzvah celebration in Zichron Yaakov, a siren went off, signaling another attack from Lebanon. Huddled in the shelter, Nati turned to his mother and said, “I’m not doing this when I’m eighteen; I’m going to make sure it’s safe for Jews.” Nati, along with 5,000 lone soldiers, are unhesitatingly keeping that promise.