Walking into my home in Hong Kong after more than two years of absence, the first thing that hits me is the delicious smell of our Shabbat dinner (Indian, which is my favorite) being prepared in the kitchen.
The Shabbat candles are ready on the mantel, and the challah cover is clean and folded on the dining room table. I help my younger sisters get dressed and comb their hair, and then set the table with my brother. Everything is exactly as it should be. This is my first time back since drafting into a combat unit in the IDF, and I can not get over my gratitude for being home on Shabbat and also for the upcoming holidays, the hagim.
While I’m beyond happy to be able to spend this time with my family, to be able to celebrate with my Jewish community and even pray in the synagogue I grew up in, it’s the sense of relief that really overwhelms me because I know exactly how I will spend the hagim.
I don’t have to figure out where I will daven. I don’t have to ask around for an invitation to someone else’s synagogue services or holiday meals. Although I do appreciate the Israeli hospitality that I have found to be more than abundant, it will be nice to not be a guest for once.
From my first days in basic training, I have been constantly surprised by the kindness of my fellow soldiers. Every Shabbat and holiday that we were given time off, my friends have invited me to join their families in celebration. This has taught me more about what it meant to be a tzevet (team) than any combat drill we ever did in training could possibly teach me. Even on base, where none of us has our families, we look to each other to make the most out of every holiday.
From our first Hanukkah, where we talked about the Maccabees and their relevance to us today, we found ourselves filled with pride that here we were on base so that our people could be home celebrating safely.
On Shavuot, we even had a short lived but very memorable water fight where we took a few moments out of our usually serious day-to-day lives to simply enjoy ourselves. As combat soldiers, we always find ways to make our holidays special even if it’s just for a few minutes between missions.
This is not to say it has always been easy. I remember how hard our first Passover had been on everyone. My bunkmate had cried herself to sleep the night before the Seder, wishing she was home for the holiday and missing her family. This had initially really bothered me. I hadn’t seen my family in almost a year, and she had been gone only 16 days at that point. My homesickness that Passover felt different from everyone else’s. Of course, I wanted to be home with my family but for me this was impossible. To me, spending Passover on base meant this would at least be one hag in Israel where I wouldn’t have to figure out where I was going to go and with whom I would spend it. I knew my happiness was a selfish one.
What about outside the IDF?
OUTSIDE OF the army, I have also been able to find community in so many different ways. From special family friends who opened up their Jerusalem home and hearts to me, giving me a place to spend Shabbat and time off whenever I want, to another family friend who immediately declared herself my “new Israeli Grandma”; as well as the close friendships I have formed within the lone soldier community.
Specifically within the lone soldier setting we have often talked about how lucky we felt to have both each other and so many others helping us, and that to us the term “lone soldier” simply does not make sense.
Living together we are some of the least lonely people there are. We have created a world for ourselves, where even after the hardest week we find ourselves coming home to others like us who understand exactly what we are going through, and are always ready to have a good time.
While the lone soldier community is undeniably great, around the hagim the “lone” part of being a lone soldier does, however, become apparent. One of the best parts of living in Israel is supposed to be immersing myself in Jewish life, but being in this in-between stage, not a child but not yet fully an adult with my own family, I have not yet found my place in the wider Israeli/Jewish society or a community with which to celebrate.
I know I am always welcome in so many different loving homes of friends who have become like family and I have spent my holidays going to a wide range of different synagogues all over Israel, learning different customs and traditions from a wide range of different communities, and I could not be more grateful for all that I have learned about the diversity of our people.
But the real challenge of the lone soldier is finding a place where my own family traditions can be upheld along with all the other great new traditions I have begun to pick up. I also know that finding a synagogue and community that I belong to is something that all new immigrants have to figure out, the only difference being, that I have to do this around the busy and unpredictable schedule that comes with serving. Perhaps, this will come more easily after the army.
Despite all this, I feel that being a soldier and physically defending my country, despite not being able to comfortably spend every holiday at home or with loved ones, has ultimately only brought me closer to my people and religion. So while, after two years I cannot say what Independence Day looks like in Israel outside of an army base, I can say that from base we too feel the celebrations, pride, and joy of our people.
The writer is a 19-year-old from Hong Kong. She made aliyah in July 2020 and is currently serving as a combat soldier in Isuf Kravi Unit 595 on the Syrian border.