Mendy Boteach and his Unit Receiving their "Warrior Pins" on Har Bental in the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: SHMULEY BOTEACH)
Our son Mendy was a summa cum laude undergraduate at New York University when he abruptly informed us that he was suspending his degree to join the IDF. He was already a distinguished Israel fighter on campus, and friends and noted philanthropists told him that the battle against the Israel-haters at Western universities was equally, if not more, important. But he would not be deterred. Israel was facing genocidal enemies and he refused to remain in the safety of Washington Square Park.
Our daughter had already served in the IDF and we were very proud of Mendy’s decision to follow, but not as sure of his insistence on getting into an elite combat unit at the age of 22 – practically ancient compared to the 18-year-old conscripts against whom he would be competing. We felt he was setting himself up for disappointment. But there it was, just a few weeks later, my wife screaming on the phone with delight when Mendy called to say that he had indeed gotten in.
When you’re the parent of a lone soldier serving in Israel, your life changes substantially. In the first year of training, you struggle just to stay in touch. The army takes away a soldier’s phone for up to two weeks at a time. Phone calls are limited to 10-minute intervals. Even when you speak, your son is so tired that you barely get the minimum information from him.
And if you want to see your child for Jewish holidays, you’re taking the whole family to Israel (no complaints, but it can be expensive). And then there are the various special ceremonies that mark milestones in training that as parents you never want to miss.
Just listening to your son describing the grueling demands of training is itself mystifying, and you can feel pretty useless offering platitudes across a vast sea.
Just recently, on a cold mountain on the Golan Heights amid a steady drizzle, Mendy’s unit celebrated the completion of their grueling training in a moving and memorable ceremony. What made it bittersweet was the injury Mendy sustained just a few weeks prior to the completion, that forced him to undergo surgery.
As I watched this young man pull himself up the mountain with crutches, it struck me, three days before my 50th birthday, that I had raised a son who had already exceeded my sacrifice for the Jewish people.
To be sure, I have made the future of my people my life since my teen years. I had studied in yeshivas the world over and had led Jewish communal activities on four continents. But nothing I have done approximated the level of sacrifice the IDF demanded of my son, and which he delivered with all his might.
When Mendy’s name was skipped in the alphabetical reading of soldiers during the ceremony, I was puzzled. Then all the gathered parents and notables understood that his unit had prepared a special honor for him. Mendy’s name was kept for last, at which point his entire unit joined him in walking to his commander to have his warrior pin affixed to his uniform while literally surrounded by all his comrades-in-arms.
It was a special privilege rarely accorded in the IDF, and I’m guessing it was a token recognition by his friends of the fact that he is the only lone soldier in his unit, that his service was made more challenging by the fact that he is fully observant, and that, having sustained a serious leg injury, he still completed the training in one of Israel’s premiere and storied units.
And what did it feel like watching it as a parent? Like I was watching someone I did not recognize. Who was this olive-green clad young man with the submachine gun slung from his shoulder?
My wife and I raised this boy. We taught him to love democracy and freedom and to be immensely proud of his Jewish identity, all of which might account for the values which led him to the IDF. But how to explain his reserves of perseverance and courage?
I could never have endured the rigors of the IDF training that was demanded of him. I would have been knocked out in the first week. Truth be told, I used to get exhausted just listening to what they put Mendy through: sleeping in the mud and rain, marching tens of kilometers through the searing heat with heavy packs, going days with crusty crackers and tuna for sustenance, being left in scorching deserts to navigate their way out alone. And worst of all, being briefed by their commanders that they were being readied to battle the monsters of Hamas and the battle-hardened murderers of Hezbollah.
How did he survive it? How did he complete it? How did he flourish? From where did he summon the willpower to persevere? I honestly don’t know.
But as I watched him rejoin the line formation of his unit with the decoration that officially labeled him an IDF warrior, I was rendered silent as I watched a familiar face that was no longer familiar.
As parents, I believe we go through three stages of raising our children.
The first is to sculpt and mold them in our image. We try our best to create them in a manner that reflects what we think best for them.
The second is to begin to let go as we allow their natural personalities to unfold.
And the third? It’s when we stop sculpting, stop molding, and simply stand back and behold. It’s where we witness what are children have become and stand back in awe.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published The Israel Warrior: Standing Up for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.