For more than 100 parents from the former Soviet Union arriving in Tel Aviv Tuesday night, Independence Day not only marks their first visit to Israel but the first time these parents will have seen their children in years.
In a joint effort by philanthropist Steven Beilowitz, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern New Jersey, 130 adults whose children are serving as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces are to spend the next seven days touring the country their kids now call home.
Beilowitz funded a similar program through the Jewish Agency's "Project Keshet" two years ago with the hope of "bringing real excitement to Israeli people," Beilowitz said. "I thought it would be exciting to bring something to the news besides rockets being fired and Hamas." The tremendous success of the program in 2004 motivated Beilowitz, the largest single donor of the project, to sponsor a trip for another group of parents.
The soldiers, who are seeing their parents for the first time in as many as eight years, immigrated to Israel without their families and have since enlisted in some of the IDF's most elite units, said Vicki Angel, deputy director of the Jewish Agency's immigration department.
"The project is so special for the soldiers, who haven't seen their parents in years, and of course for the parents, some of whom don't even recognize their own children," Angel said.
"I cannot believe I get to be with my mother again," said Anna Furman, 19, who immigrated two years ago from Russia. "For several days already I've been counting down the minutes until I get to see my mother."
There are approximately 2,500 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, a status which often leaves the young immigrants feeling "lonely and in need of support," Furman said. "We're here alone, many of us, without family, and having a program to give us this support is so important."
Project Keshet began at the height of the intifada in 2002 to "give soldiers good feelings by reuniting them with their parents during such a difficult time," Angel said. She added that now "the main point of the program is to promote aliya among the parents of the young soldiers."
Dmitry Domye, 23, a field intelligence soldier who has not seen his mother since he moved to Israel five years ago, said, "I really want my mother to come on aliya and hope that the program will help to inspire her."
It is estimated that of the nearly 1,000 parents who have taken part in Project Keshet over the last four years more than 30 percent have made aliya.
The reunion kicks off Tuesday night with a Yom Ha'atzma'ut ceremony and will continue with visits to army bases, absorption centers, religious sites and tourist attractions throughout the country. It is to conclude next week with a special meeting with President Moshe Katsav.
"I'm in denial that this is happening," Furman said. "I want to meet the person who paid to bring my mother here and then thank him with all my heart."
"I'm proud to be able to reunite these amazing soldiers with their parents," Beilowitz said. "Their personal sacrifices to help defend Israel for all Jews make them the true heroes of this journey. It is an honor to be part of such a great project."