By Stacie Stufflebeam
While we often talk about the need to protect the land of Israel, those of us living outside of the Jewish state don’t talk often enough about what that really means.
Though my husband and I live in the U.S., four of our sons have bravely chosen to serve as lone soldiers — soldiers serving in the IDF without parents living in Israel. All have served in combat units, all with a strong desire to protect Israel. This past week I got a call from my youngest son, our (6-foot-2) “baby.” He is in the officers’ training pre-course and wanted to talk some things through.
I was honored that he turned to me, and I was determined to be as supportive as possible. Together, we considered the practicalities and pros and cons of continuing on to become an officer versus being discharged and becoming a civilian. We talked about how COVID-19 might impact this decision and what the best path for him might be.
He talked and I listened — a skill I’ve honed as a lone soldier mom — and I tried not to insert my opinion, a skill I’m still working on, and only offer support (all the while thinking: I vote for discharge so I can stop worrying so much!).
During this discussion, my son talked about the need to be ready to lead his unit into war. Bam! With just one sentence, my wall — the one I’ve carefully constructed to separate the idea of protecting Israel and the actuality of my son protecting Israel — came crumbling down.
It’s not the first time. My husband and I have been lone soldier parents for almost eight years. At times, we had two — and once, for a few weeks, three — sons serving at the same time. Our first chayal is a Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge) veteran, and there have been many times over the last eight years that the situation has been tense and it seemed Israel might be on the brink of war.
If there has been any upside to a global pandemic for me, it’s been that things in Israel have seemed quieter than I remember them being for a long time. During the coronavirus crisis, I’ve had a chance to worry about other things in Israel, like how long the soldiers had to remain on base and how they were doing laundry. Were they getting enough to eat? Had anyone on base been diagnosed? All of these small worries allowed me to rebuild my wall, not of denial, but of separation between the idea and the reality that my son, a thoughtful soul, a gentle warrior, might have such an enormous burden.
We know that each of our children is on their own path and one of our most important jobs as parents is to help guide and support them as they make their way along that path.
Prior to the pandemic, we used to travel to Israel for our sons’ tekesim (ceremonies). Leading up to their Tekes Kumta (Beret Ceremony) the soldiers do a very long hike. For some units, parents are invited to join their soldier for the last couple of kilometers, a truly amazing experience we have been honored to participate in.
Several years ago, sitting with other parents while waiting to join our second chayal for those last kilometers, we struck up a conversation with another parent sitting with a soldier that I assumed was there to support a sibling. As it turned out, that soldier was a member of my son’s unit but had been injured and could not participate in the long hike. As we talked, the soldier told me that when he had been injured on a training hike, he had fallen behind and, as is the way in the IDF, his fellow soldiers stood by him to help him. He told us that one soldier in particular had stayed with him supporting him until the end of the hike. At some point we realized it was our son who had stayed on and helped him make it to the end. Now, this soldier was there to do the same for my son.
As my son’s unit came into view, this young man immediately fell in behind my son with his hand on his shoulder helping to support and push him to the finish.
Now, as I reflect on the conversation with my youngest son, I know one thing for sure: Just as that soldier literally had my son’s back, I will be there for my current chayal, at his back, supporting him on his chosen path. And, just as importantly, I know that all of Israel has his back as well.
Stacie Stufflebeam is the executive director of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation. She lives in Pittsburgh. This piece was first published by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an Exponent-affiliated publication.