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The loneliness of the lone soldier’s mother

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TALI FEINBERG

“Last week, he was on the Lebanese border. He called me before to tell me he would be offline, and then I didn’t hear from him for almost a week. You just try not think about it.”

The mother spoke to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity. She says her son has almost completed his two and a half years of military service, and is in the paratroopers. He spent his gap year after matric in Israel, and “fell in love with the country”, later choosing to move there.

He believed that serving in the army was a vital way to integrate into Israeli society. Even though he comes from a small town, and never had Jewish schooling, he is now fully integrated and fluent in Hebrew.

“He was on the Gaza border for six months,” she says. “As well as being worried for his safety, I’m worried about his mental and emotional well-being.”

But there’s a positive side to it. Lone soldiers are well respected in Israel. This became evident when the mother went on a recent visit to Israel on a tour with Momentum Tours, the ministry of diaspora affairs, and Nefesh B’Nefesh, specifically for mothers of lone soldiers.

She joined women from around the world who had little in common but the fact that their children had chosen to leave the comforts of home to serve in the army of another country.

“The lone soldiers of today are in many ways the modern-day heroes of the Jewish people who have chosen to demonstrate their Zionism in a practical yet selfless way,” says Momentum Tours founder Lori Palatnik. “But it’s critical for us to remember that their parents are joining them in this call of duty. This special visit gives us the chance to salute the role of the mothers in their children’s experience.”

The mother says their children joining the IDF isn’t something most parents have control over. In most cases, they are simply informed that this is what’s going to happen.

In Israel, the mother witnessed how lone soldiers are treated like heroes and taken care of by the communities around them as if they are their own children. For example, her son lives on a kibbutz when he is not on his base, and has a kibbutz family. “The mother is my hero. She does everything for him that I would love to do, but can’t,” she says.

Another example is when the son of another mother on the tour needed to have some washing done. An Israeli woman did his laundry, and returned it before Shabbat, showing just how much Israelis care for these lone soldiers. These families are so revered that on their tour, the mothers were invited to visit President Reuven Rivlin at his home, which was a highlight. “We were treated like royalty,” she says.

For the rest of the time, they toured the country and met army officials to learn about their children’s new lives. Lone soldiers are treated the same as their Israeli counterparts in daily life, although they are given one day a month to do administrative tasks, and have to go home for one month of the year. “They are generally treated very well.”

A recent expose in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, explored the high number of recent suicides by lone soldiers, which it attributed possibly to the fact that they aren’t always screened as thoroughly as Israelis, and might not be prepared for the realities of life in the army unlike Israeli children, who have prepared for it their entire lives. However, this mother says her son was extensively screened, and has access to mental-health support.

Just before their last Shabbat on tour, the mothers were given a surprise. They were at a lecture, when suddenly all of their soldier children burst into the room. “Everyone was crying, hugging, and taking photos. We couldn’t imagine how they brought all our kids to us from bases across the country. The soldiers were put up in a hotel, and we spent the whole of Shabbat together.”

The mother says the tour has exposed her to just how revered lone soldiers are, and how Israeli society revolves around the army. Her son reports that his Israeli counterparts think he is “mad” for doing this, but he sees it as a responsibility, a rite of passage, and an act of service. “It’s been a very positive experience. Yes, there have been lots of ups and downs, but he has grown as a person. I would say it’s more of a growing and learning experience than going to university.”

Now back in South Africa, the mother has stayed in close contact with the other mothers of lone soldiers she met on the tour. She is part of a very active WhatsApp group that will have supportive Skype sessions over the next year. “We come from all over the world, but now we have a connection and someone to talk to about our children serving in Israel. It’s special.”

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