A couple of weeks ago, while attending to a problem with my cellphone, I had a chance encounter with a guy who made aliyah from Toronto around the same time as I did. I run into him about once a year.
Besides the hassle of dealing with a defective phone, my acquaintance seemed more preoccupied than he usually is when I see him. It turned out he’d had a pretty sombre morning at the IDF induction office here in Jerusalem accompanying his second son as he began three years of military service in the tank corps. His first son, a 20-year-old, already serves in a combat unit. It had been a heavy morning.
I travel in different circles here in Israel. Mostly, my family, friends and associates are sabras – Israeli-born. But others immigrated to Israel as young adults, many from English-speaking countries. The majority of these veteran “new” olim did not serve in the IDF or only did short stints of duty. As they approach the age when their kids are completing high school and contemplating what to do next, some of these parents are perplexed, unable to help their kids decide which units they should aim to get into or what to do when they experience difficulties once they’re in the military. They simply don’t know enough about the multifaceted ins and outs of the IDF.
Because I served in the IDF professionally for 24 years and learned a thing or two about Israel’s military labyrinth during that time, I’m often approached by bewildered parents needing guidance and support about their kids’ tour of duty.
Some are anxious and need to know it’s OK to be that way. Their children are in combat units and won’t tell them anything about their service because they aren’t allowed to. They know their kids are doing dangerous things. They’re losing sleep over it, and like many other Israeli parents, they no longer travel abroad together. One parent is always in Israel – to deal with any eventuality that might arise.
Most of my friends’ kids want to make their military service a meaningful experience. The boys who can (yes – they’re still boys) covet elite combat unit positions. The girls also want to give of themselves, some, too, in combat roles, others in sensitive intelligence corps units, or as human resource specialists or helping less privileged soldiers with socioeconomic woes, to name but a few of the options open to them.
They give their parents tremendous pride. A friend recently called to tell me her daughter, who serves in a non-combat position in the Gaza division, will be recognized this coming Yom Ha’atzmaut as one of the entire divisions’ premier soldiers. Her mom, who can’t tell the difference between a brigade and battalion, let alone a division, wanted to know how good that is. I told her that it’s amazing.
Other parents don’t know how to handle their kids’ frustrations regarding the military. Those can be myriad. Many young people don’t get chosen for units they’d hoped to get into. Others want out of units once they get into them. Some have medical problems and don’t think the army’s taking care of them properly. Others can’t deal with being ordered to do things they don’t want to do by kids not much older than they are. For the first time in their pampered lives, they can’t ignore such orders. And yet others find the going too tough physically or emotionally. They want out – now!
And their uninitiated parents don’t know how to help them, or who to turn to. They’re just as exasperated and annoyed, and they worry.
These years of military service are a challenging, complex journey for kids and their parents – sometimes turbulent, often rewarding, but certainly not idyllic.
And in a nutshell, my friends, that’s the difference between living in Israel and living in the Diaspora. Your streets are usually cleaner. Your cars and homes are larger. Your bureaucracy is a bit less onerous, and, generally speaking, your bank accounts are more padded. But we, too, live well and enjoy the good things this country has to offer, and I for one would not want to switch places.
But while Canadian teenagers are busy choosing between McGill and U of T or Queen’s and Dalhousie, Israeli youths are choosing between Golani and Givati, pilot training, submarines or paratroopers.
May they all come home safely.
This article appears in the April 12 print issue of The CJN