Shlomo Touthang’s mother lives in Manipur, India, a remote area next to the Myanmar border in the country’s east. The last time he saw her was when he set out on the long journey to immigrate to Israel. Three years later, the oleh is serving in a reconnaissance unit of the Golani Brigade. There he is learning how to scout out the enemy, how to surprise them and how to go about being unnoticed.
Last Tuesday, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews taught him a lesson in reconnaissance. As he and 19 others stood on a stage at a ceremony at the Kirya military headquarters to be honored as outstanding lone soldiers, their mothers walked up behind them hugging them, giving them the shock and delight of their lives.
“I was so surprised and excited when I saw her on the stage,” he said the day after, the amazement still clearly showing on his face as he glanced over at his mother and father sitting by his side. “It was my dream for my mother to see me as a soldier.”
It took two days for Touthang’s parents, Daniel and Hoikhoneng, to reach Israel, the trip paid for by the IFCJ. The organization flew in 20 mothers and three fathers for a surprise that it has been working on for two months.
They came from Canada, the United States, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Mexico, Argentina and India.
On Wednesday, the organization treated the parents and their children to a 30-minute pleasure cruise along the Tel Aviv-Jaffa coast, a steak dinner at a restaurant along the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall and a visit in Independence Hall, the site where prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. They received spending money to treat themselves to an additional dinner for two nights, and all this on top of a week’s stay at the Crowne Plaza luxury hotel in the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv.
The backdrop of the surprise was the “Adopt a Battalion” event. The program, which connects soldiers with business and community programs, hosted its annual donors recognition ceremony on Tuesday at the Kirya. The project, now in its 10th year, supports the welfare of more than 140 combat battalions in the IDF.
Companies may donate up to NIS 100,000 a year to a battalion, of which 70 percent goes to recreational trips, ceremonies, holiday celebrations and general recreational supplies; 15% are discretionary funds to help lone soldiers or a soldier’s needy family; and the other 15% are for gifts for outstanding soldiers who receive honorable discharges at the end of their service. In return, the soldiers give back to the community by volunteering.
In order to keep the secret, the lone soldiers’ officers told them that they were representing their units in the “Adopt a Battalion” project, and that they should bring with their civilian clothes for a bonus week of rest and relaxation after the event.
The Touthangs are members of the Bnei Menashe tribe, who claim descent as one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. And once young Touthang learned about his family’s lineage, he said, he had a burning desire to move to Israel.
“It was always my dream to make aliya,” he said, fluent in Hebrew and just three years in Israel.
Indeed, the 23-year-old is no stranger to overcoming challenges. Starting a new life in a new country, Touthang underwent a formal conversion process while at the Shavei Israel absorption center in Givat Haviva near Hadera. He studied Hebrew at an ulpan intensive study program in Jerusalem, and he worked at the Soglowek meat factory in Shlomi on the Lebanon border. Finally, a year ago, he began his army service in Golani, immediately deciding to extend his mandatory service to three years from two in order to serve in the oldest reconnaissance unit in the IDF.
Marharyta Zaitsava from Belarus, whose son, Gnadi Steinman, is a corporal in the Teleprocessing Branch, also spoke of her child’s amazing courage.
“My son couldn’t even voluntarily enroll in the army in Belarus because he had health problems,” she said, pausing to wipe her eyes with a tissue.
Doctors told her that Steinman was meant to be confined to a wheelchair all his life, she explained through an army interpreter, only hours before seeing him and hugging him for the first time in three years.
“But when he went to the IDF, he felt much better, and that made me feel much better,” she said.
Nora Diaz, from Mexico, who has two sons in the army, said that although the one thing she missed most was not being able to hug them and kiss them, for the lone soldiers, who aren’t greeted by anyone when they come home from their bases every week, it was of even more significant.
“It’s very important for a mother to hug a son but also for a son to hug a mother,” she said.