'It's almost like being with them'

The Jewish Agency's satellite conference lets parents link-up with their lone soldiers here in Israel.

parents 298.88 (photo credit: )
parents 298.88
(photo credit: )
Dressed in her khaki army uniform, Amalia Habob looked at her mother. "Are you wearing a scarf, Ima?" she asked. "No," her mother Shoshana responded, standing to show her daughter how she was dressed. Turning around like a runway model, she displayed a tight-fitting white shirt that came down below the waist. "Where did you buy that?" Amalia wanted to know. Moments later, a mother from the Ukraine and her daughter serving in the IDF shared a similar moment, the latter letting down her hair, which had grown long with blond streaks, to show her family, who spoke to her excitedly in Russian. One didn't have to speak Hebrew or Russian to understand - these were typical day-to-day exchanges between mothers and daughters. What wasn't typical, however, was that the mothers and daughters were thousands of kilometers apart and the exchange happened entirely via a TV screen. Joseph and Shoshana Habob were among a roomful of parents of "lone soldiers" - youngsters serving in the IDF who do not have parents in the country - invited by the Jewish Agency's New York office this week to communicate via a satellite television hookup with their sons and daughters. A similar hookup allowed parents in the Ukraine and Paris to participate as well. For many parents of "lone soldiers," the opportunity to interact with their children was the closest they had come to seeing them in many months. Though many speak to each other on the phone daily, and sometimes more than once a day, seeing them is rarer. "With all the available technology, this was something different," said Michal Gutman, an aliya emissary in New York who organized the event. "Even though you can speak with your soldier on the phone, this is almost like being with them." Many of the parents took photos of themselves alongside their child on the big screen, as if they were standing side by side. The group of parents encapsulated the diversity of the local Jewish community. It ran the gamut from secular Sephardi Israelis, to Ashkenazi American Jews, to haredim. They differ from each other in many respects: the way they dress, where they live, and how they identify as Jews. But what they share is the experience of having a child serve in an army who is thousands of miles away. This is what the Jewish Agency was trying to emphasize when it decided to organize the global link between the parents and their children, the first time a satellite conference of this kind has been arranged. "What you saw is just a small indication of what we do," said Boaz Herman, executive director of the Jewish Agency for Israel Aliya Department in North America. "They [the soldiers] sacrifice a lot to be in Israel and they deserve it." Today there are 5,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, 2,400 of whom are recent immigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants who serve in the army end up remaining in Israel. But while much attention has been given to the lone soldiers themselves, less has been paid to the parents, who often also suffer alone. Judging by this week's meeting, they were thrilled to have an opportunity both to communicate with their children and with each other, and many said more such events should be made available. One Lubavitch family whose second child is now serving in the army has rarely had any contact with Israel, let alone with other parents of lone soldiers. "My parents never had the opportunity to connect with Israel," said Chanie Schwartz, whose brother Ari is now serving. Ari's parents didn't even know which unit he was in. "This is the first time they have come together with other families and that they've had an opportunity to see other parents who are going through the same thing," she said. Another haredi couple seemed less than thrilled that their son was serving in the IDF. The father reminded his son in their discussion that studying Torah should be valued above all else and asked him how much he had been able to study. Then they talked about when and under what circumstances growing a beard was permitted in the army. The son had been allowed to grow his beard during the counting of the Omer, but to his father's dismay, would soon have to shave. The mother and grandmother of one soldier were furious about the way the army had treated their son, who served during the recent war with Lebanon. According to the family, his unit was sorely undersupplied, leaving him without real food and a warm jacket. The family was demanding that he be released in November, six months before his service is over. Several of the parents present were Israelis who had moved to the United States many years ago, and were now seeing their children turn in the other direction. "Israeli parents say, 'What did we do wrong that our kids go back to Israel?' Herman said. But having grown up speaking Hebrew and visiting Israel, it is "natural" for them to return, he said. "Then Israelis have the dilemma of whether to stay here or go back." The Habobs are a perfect example. When Amalia Habob first told her parents she was leaving for Israel, they threatened to disown her. Since then they have come around, realizing they had no choice. Now they say they are "very proud" of her and think even American kids should have to serve in the army to build self-confidence and communal responsibility. "When I married and moved to the US., I never believed my kids would feel this way about Israel," said Joseph Habob, whose son Shlomo has also been dreaming about joining a combat unit in the IDF. Now Joseph, who works in the limousine business, is convinced Amalia won't return to the US. More than that, he said, his children's love for Israel may provide him with an opportunity to also move back. Habob said he moved to the US 25 years ago for financial reasons. After fighting in the first Lebanon War he was fired from his job, and felt he had no option but to move to the US, where his wife's family lived. Though he was angry at Israel for not providing for him after he had served the country, he said he had always dreamed of returning, adding: "Now my daughter opens the door to me going back."