For parents of 'lone soldiers,' free visits ease a bit of anxiety

Nearly 200 other parents from around the world flew to Israel for an expense-free vacation with their sons and daughters.

soldiers aim 88 (photo credit: )
soldiers aim 88
(photo credit: )
Devorah, a mother from suburban Baltimore, sits quietly as she listens to her son Yehuda, a member of a paratrooper unit in the Israeli army, describe how he was shot in the shoulder by Hezbollah forces last summer in Lebanon. to his mother's left. On her right is Devorah's middle son, a baby-faced 19-year-old who also immigrated to Israel. He is training to be part of a unit so covert he can only be identified by his first initial, E. "Emotionally it's very hard. One week I worry about you," she said, turning to E. "The other week I worry about Yehuda." "I'm sick to my stomach a lot of the time," she confessed. "I know they're doing the right thing … but it's painful." The day she received a call from E. that Yehuda had been wounded in Lebanon made it clear forever just how much danger her sons had put themselves in by joining combat units in the Israeli army. Lone Israeli soldier Mathew Bielski stands with his mother Margo of North Woodmere, N.Y., at the Olga Holiday Village near Hadera. In late February, Devorah and nearly 200 other parents from around the world flew to Israel for an expense-free vacation with their sons and daughters sponsored jointly by the army, the Association for the Wellbeing of Israeli Soldiers and the Jewish Agency for Israel. The soldiers are known in Israel as "lone soldiers," since they serve the nation alone while their families remain abroad. Their path is challenging, training and serving long weeks on bases or in the field without the presence of their families. Devorah worries not only about her sons' military missions but about them returning to apartments in Tel Aviv over the weekends and having to scramble to do their own shopping and laundry. "One of the things I feel most badly about is that I cannot do more for my boys," she said. One thing she can do from afar is raise funds and buy equipment for their units. Devorah has brought over combat boots, equipment bags, knee pads, hydration bags and flashlights from the money she helped raise in the United States. During her holiday with her sons, Devorah and the other families traveled around the country to places such as Jerusalem, Masada and the Galilee. They stayed at a seaside guesthouse usually reserved for soldiers. Many of the visiting parents came from the former Soviet Union, while others flew in from the United States, France, England, South Africa, South America and elsewhere. "We want the lone soldiers to have this time with their own parents," said Shuki Gutman, spokesman for the Association for the Wellbeing of Israeli Soldiers. "We think to be a soldier in the Israeli army is a difficult step, especially for lone soldiers, so we do what we can for them." The organization also supports the soldiers in other ways, such as finding them host families for the High Holidays, providing university scholarships and sending plane tickets to an average of 600 soldiers a year to visit their parents. E. says his friends back in the United States lead a much different life. While he trains for secret missions in the West Bank, "they're watching the Super Bowl and drinking beer," he said. The hardest thing, E. says, "is not being there for my little brother." But he doesn't mind missing out on the typical American college experience. "I think of this as an investment," E. said. "I'm getting so much in terms of discipline and work ethic." Devorah adds, "Kids in America don't have the level of responsibility my boys have." That responsibility can come with a price: the phone call that your son or daughter was injured - or worse. Margo Bielski of North Woodmere, N.Y., whose son Matthew is in an elite unit in the paratroopers brigade, said she tries to keep her fears at bay. "I wanted you to be a soldier guarding a kibbutz kitchen," she jokes with Matthew. "I understand why he's doing it. In my heart I understand why," she says. "On the one hand I'm very proud, and on the other hand I'd like to have him in graduate school in New York, to see him on Shabbat." Matthew, 23, who joined the army in September 2005, is the grandson of Zusia Bielski, who with his brothers was a famed Jewish partisan during World War II. "I was raised on Zionist ideology," he said. "I was told stories of resistance and fighting instead of about camps and ghettos. I was in college and sitting in the dorms and heard about bombs in Gaza where soldiers were being hurt, and I asked how I could just sit there." He said the Israeli friends in his unit are somewhat baffled that he volunteered to join their ranks. "Every day they ask, 'Bielski, why are you here?' " he said. "It's hard to be away from family, friends and New York pizza," Matthew Bielski admits. He said he misses his family and finds it difficult to hear his Israeli friends complain about missing their families, who are so much closer. "When they say it's hard not having been home in 21 days, I say it's hard not to have been home in a year, so stop crying," he says. Bielski's father, a former U.S. Marine, came to Israel in 1973 to volunteer during the Yom Kippur War. But when Bielski decided to join the Israeli army, his father was concerned, Margo Bielski recounts. "He was worried about him trying to be a hero, like his grandfather was," she said. Yehuda and E.'s family also has a military legacy: Their father was in the English army stationed in Mandatory Palestine, and they had a great-uncle who was a pilot in World War I. Rachel Biton of Cape Town, South Africa, who was visiting her son, said it was difficult to deal with the uncertainty of having a son in the army, especially when she was so far away. "You just pray and hope not to hear bad news," she said. "You just don't want the phone to ring." Devorah looked drained as she heard Yehuda relate some of the details of his injury in Lebanon, including his decision to stay in the field even after being wounded. He didn't want to leave the men he was commanding. "I've always been less scared of something happening to me than about the people who would miss me," Yehuda said, as his mother stared ahead. Devorah kidded that she won't let her third and youngest son join the Israeli army as well. "I don't think his shackles will come off for long enough," she teased her older sons, whom their younger brother adores. She abruptly changed the subject to one she much prefers. "I expect my children to marry in Jerusalem and have lots of children," Devorah said. With a mischievous look, she adds, "And soon."