Widow for life

Nava Shalom says IDF widows and orphans are a struggling underclass.

IDF coffin 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF coffin 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Even though it's been more than 26 years since Nava Shoham's husband was killed in combat, the progression of time has done little to ease the pain that is heightened every year on Remembrance Day. "I still wake up each morning with Ra'anan and fall asleep with him every night. But definitely during this time of year those feelings are sharpened," says Shoham, an attractive 50-something, as she recalls those first few years after her husband - a reserve paratroop major - lost his life during the First Lebanon War. "My household was smashed into a thousand little pieces and I had to glue each piece back together to make it whole again," says Shoham, who was left to raise the couple's two children - Lior, then aged six, and Hagar, seven months - on her own. "Even though the pieces of the pot were put back together as one again, that pot is never as strong as it was before and life after that point is very, very difficult for any widow." As voluntary chairwoman of the IDF Widows and Orphans Association, Shoham, who peppers her speech with many more such analogies during our hour-long interview, believes that army widows and their orphans (in Hebrew terminology children who have lost only one parent are also considered orphans) do not receive the attention they deserve from state or society and are, in fact, a struggling underclass who, despite losing their loved ones for the safety and security of this country, are treated with cautious respect, and in some cases, outright suspicion. "We've heard people accuse us of creating a profitable industry out of being a widow," states Shoham, the gentle tone in her voice taking on a harder edge. "Some people think that IDF widows are wealthy and that we get loads of benefits from the state, but the truth is that the majority of the widows are not well off at all." In fact, "while the remuneration [received by many widows] does reflect the average market salary because it is only one income per household, many of the women find themselves struggling to support their families." For more veteran widows - those who lost their husbands before a 1999 law was passed forcing the IDF to compensate the bereaved families in addition to their Defense Ministry benefits - the situation is even worse. "Over Pessah we distributed 88 food coupons worth NIS 500 so that IDF widows could hold a decent Seder with their families," she says. "Sometimes I have to ask myself why a widow whose husband lost his life defending the country is forced into a situation where she has to accept charity." WHILE SHOHAM does not have all the answers, she is clear on the challenges facing the nonprofit organization. "There are many things that I want to change, but obviously I can't do it all at once," she says. Among the issues on her agenda is the determination to see through legislation presented in the Knesset late last year forcing the state to recognize IDF widows as such for the rest of their lives, even if they remarry or find another permanent partner. "When my husband went off to war, he did not ask what price our family would pay, he went because it was his obligation to the State of Israel," says Shoham, who has a lifetime partner. "Therefore, it should also be the obligation of the state to go on supporting us so that we, in turn, can support our children." In addition to the bill, which is set to receive its second and third readings next month, she also intends to fight some of the inequalities in benefits, including justice for an estimated 900 widows whose husbands died fighting in the reserves and are therefore not entitled to a standard Defense Ministry life insurance policy, like wives of professional soldiers. "I also want to make sure that widows are given a permanent place of respect in all the national ceremonies for fallen soldiers," continues Shoham. "We get calls every year from distraught widows who have not been invited to the ceremonies in memory of their loved ones. It doesn't happen a lot but just the fact that it happens even once is bad enough." ESTABLISHED in 1991 as the voice of the orphans and widows of fallen IDF soldiers, the association is the main body recognized by the State of Israel to represent this population. Its goals are simple: to provide social, emotional and financial support to the widows and orphans of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Funded in part by the Defense Ministry, membership fees and dwindling donations from abroad, the organization reaches out to its roughly 8,000 members via its free summer camps in the US, student scholarships, wedding gifts and subsidized day trips or weekend breaks for the families. However, perhaps its flagship program is the yearly bar/bat mitzva celebration, which includes a visit to Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem, a traditional ceremony at the Western Wall and a big party afterward. "I'm not religious, but I feel this is a very important part of our activities," says Shoham. "One of the hardest parts of being a widow or an orphan is when you have a special event like a wedding or a bar mitzva and the father is not around." Fighting back the tears, she recalls: "When my husband died, I did not have enough money to pay for my son's bar mitzva; instead we held a small family meal because that was all we could afford." "Everyone thinks that the suffering of a widow is only temporary, until she meets someone new, but it isn't," Shoham says, adding that the phrase commonly used on Remembrance Day - "with their deaths they commanded us to live" - is simply not true for the families of deceased soldiers, who struggle daily to move on with their lives. "It's so much easier for the person who died than for those who have to go on living. When a woman loses her husband, she loses so many other things too. It's not only her financial security but her social support network, and her emotional stability is completely pulled out from under her." Doesn't constantly hearing the stories of other IDF widows as part of your work bring back painful memories of your own experience? Not really, because like I said I'm living through the pain every day. For me it never really goes away. The truth is that I believe my own experiences are very helpful to other widows. I can relate to them and understand what they are going through. When they say that they have a lump in their throat that is choking them through their grief, I know that lump. When they tell me that they get up in the night after dreaming about him, I know that dream, and when then they tell me that they are constantly waiting for him to open the door and walk back into the house, I can tell them that I've also had that same expectation. Have you figured out any way to reduce such pain and suffering? No. I don't think that I will ever have the power to reduce such heartache, but the first thing I can do for them is to give them a hug, which in these circumstances is not an insignificant thing. It might help reduce their suffering a little bit. I can also offer them a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold and just generally be a partner to their fate. When they become part of our organization, they feel like they have a home. All the women [at the association] know my personal cellphone number and call me whenever they need something big or small. How did you manage to rebuild your own life after hearing the terrible news of Ra'anan's death? I have no idea where my strength came from. At first it was probably from having no choice but being forced to take care of the children. When you are a widow with children, there is no time for crying, you have to get up in the morning, change the baby's diaper and take the other one to school. A widow is not allowed to cry in front of the children and is usually forced back to work quickly because of the financial difficulties. What else usually changes? As well as losing her financial security, a woman usually also loses her social support system. It is hard for her to be friends with the same group of people. Everyone else is in couples and some people get worried that this single woman might steal husbands! A new social reality has to be created and that is where we come in because we run a wide range of activities for the widows and we learn to rely on each other. Do you believe that the state does enough for these families? The government takes care of them up to a certain point. During the first year, army officers and social workers from the Defense Ministry usually come to visit, but after a certain point that all ends and the widow just becomes another number, another file. It's clear that the treatment of IDF widows by the state has to change. The government needs to realize that a widow has to continue raising her children in the same way she would have done if her husband was still alive. Also, society needs to understand that we've paid the ultimate price and because of that a widow must be looked after for the rest of her life both emotionally and financially. For further information on the IDF Widows and Orphans Association, visit www.idfwo.org.