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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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Parents of ‘lone soldiers’ discuss support group

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Former lone soldier Shira Forman addresses a parent support group.

TORONTO — In the past few years, a substantial infrastructure has arisen in Israel and abroad to provide support to “lone soldiers” – volunteers from abroad who serve in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

Lone soldiers have facilities set aside for them, rights to various perks, organizations advocating on their behalf, all in a bid to make their lives away from home more manageable.

But what about their parents? The soldiers may be alone while serving in Israel, but their parents are thousands of miles away, wanting the best for them, but often without the information or wherewithal to provide them parental support.

Last week, about 30 parents and grandparents of lone soldiers, or those about to enlist, gathered in the home of Perla and Ron Riesenbach to lay the foundation for a support group.

They heard from a spokesperson for the Association for the Soldiers of Israel, who answered their questions about resources available for their children; they also heard from Shira Forman, a lone soldier who recently completed her service, who described her experiences navigating lone soldier issues, and they traded information about the subject parents most like to talk about – their kids.

“For me, the group is a support system for Canadian parents with a son or daughter in the Israeli army. Some parents feel so alone and helpless and don’t know what they can do to help their child with a problem,” said Perla Riesenbach, whose son, Ariel, is serving in the IDF.

Referring to parents who attended the information session, she said that “there was a couple whose son has had many problems and they didn’t know what they could do about it from here. Now they do. They’re surely not the only set of parents in that situation. Parents have to know that they’re not alone, [that] there is some sort of ‘customer service’ that they can access. Basically, just like there is support for the soldiers in Israel, this is support for the parents in Canada.”

Todd Greenbloom, whose 20-year-old daughter, Jenna, is serving in the IDF, said he was worried about her during Operation Cast Lead. A support group would have helped him, he said.

“It’s like any kind of support group. When you’re going through [something], it’s helpful to have somebody going through the same thing. It’s empathy.”

While quite a few people asked about his daughter, it’s different when there are others going through the same thing, he said.

A recurring theme in his conversations with other parents “is the thirst for information for ourselves and to raise awareness in our children to be able to advocate for their own rights in Israel,” Ron Riesenbach said.

A number of speakers and parents noted that lone soldiers are eligible for all sorts of benefits – such as the right to be granted permission for a visit home – but they must actively pursue those rights.

A secondary agenda for the proposed group is for parents to interact, share information and provide support to each other, Riesenbach said.

“We’re an information organization and a self-support organization,” he stated. The meeting was intended to gauge interest in creation of a support group that might meet a few times a year and remain in contact through social media, he added.

Sigal Almog’s daughter, Shiri, is currently serving in the IDF. Born in Israel, Shiri and the family moved to Toronto when she was 10. “It was always her intention to go,” Almog said. “She’s so Israeli. Even though she came here, she stayed there.”

Almog came to the information session because, “I want to meet other people like me and see what they think and they are going through.

“I was in the army. I know about it. I had a brother killed in the army. My only concern is that she’s there and I’m here. If she needs anything, I can’t help her.”

Almog hoped she could learn from other parents the best ways she could provide long-distance support for Shiri.

Nira Rittenberg was also born in Israel, but she’s lived in Canada since she was five. Her son, Oren, 21, is planning to serve in the IDF. “It was something he said he’d do since Grade 9,” she said.

“People told us, ‘Don’t worry, it’s something that will blow over. He’ll find a degree, a girl, everything will dissuade him from going.’ That it won’t happen.”

Oren, who attended the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and Bialik Hebrew Day School, defied prognosticators. “He believes ideologically that this is something important to do. He believes supporting the state by outsiders is a message [for Israelis] also, and he truly believes it will make him a better person,” Rittenberg said.

While all his friends from the University of Western Ontario went off on job interviews, he hooked up with Garin Tzabar, the Israeli scout organization that assists foreign soldiers in Israel. He’ll fly to Israel in August as part of a group of 30 enlistees – four men and 26 women.

“He wants to be a combat medic,” his mom said.

The members of Garin Tzabar, a group formed for Diaspora Jews and children of Israelis who serve in the IDF, are adopted by the Israel Scouts and placed in a hosting kibbutz that becomes their home away from home during their army service. The soldiers experience their army service together as a social unit and provide mutual support and camaraderie, the organization’s website states (www.israelscouts.org).

If organizers in Toronto get their way, pretty soon their parents will have their own group providing mutual support and camaraderie, too.

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