Our aliyah is all highlights until today. My previous articles and posts describe the lighter side of daily life through the eyes of olim chadashim, new immigrants.
Recently, those eyes shed tears, as my wife and I hugged our friends at the first annual IDF memorial service for their youngest son, David. They are our friends and former neighbors. Their children grew up with ours. One of theirs just married our cousin. The connection is long, strong, and deep. Made more so, because when David was pressing his folks to let him join the IDF as a “Chayal Boded,” a lone soldier, his father asked me about the conversations and experiences we had with our youngest son who was completing his nearly two years as a lone soldier in the IDF.
My enthusiasm for the experience haunts me, as I wonder whether it contributed to their decision to let David sign-up. My son came home healthy, in one piece, and mentally better prepared for adulthood than when he joined. David lies in Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. He rests among the graves of other heroes who gave their lives in defense of their nation.
It is a gathering of the young: 19 years old, 20, 21, 22, 32. They lie not far from the recently deceased Prime Minister, Mossad Operative, and Lehi fighter, Yitzhak Shamir.
Privates and officers lie side-by-side not separated by rank, because in Israel, “follow me” means I will always be with you.
The IDF website defines lone soldiers as those “who do not have a financial supporter during their service, such as: soldiers whose parents who have emigrated from the country, new immigrants who have arrived in Israel on their own, orphans and soldiers who do not have contact with their families. If you are a lone soldier in need of aid, apply at the IDF Recruitment Center. “
That’s not the whole story. Sometimes men or women cannot find a place for themselves in their late teens and twenties. They are betwixed and between the doors to careers or further education that others find so easily. “Boded” often implies lonely more than alone. But David did not die alone or lonely, and affirmative reports from his training experiences confirm that he was with the friends he wanted to be with when he died, not lonely. They all share a virtue of audacity and love of Israel.
Each week there are inspirational stories about other “Chayal Boded”s in the news. It is almost as if joining the IDF is going off to summer camp with pictures of happy, smiley faces. A Canadian Jewish boy is now a Captain in the IDF; he loves Canada, donning a Maple leaf T-shirt for the camera. There is a report about a Russian girl who makes aliyah alone, serves in the IDF as an “integral part of making aliyah,” and eventually enters the legal division as a defense attorney. A young man from Brazil joins the IDF where he is now a prosecutor. These are “feel good” stories, but there is another side, no less inspirational, but more emotionally challenging.
What do Chicagoans know of soldiers dying? It was 67 years before I ever knew a family who lost a son in war, the war in Iraq. A Jewish boy much like David, a lone soldier in the armed forces, because he loved his country, and joined the armed forces for his personal, private reasons. His death is metempirical, an anomaly to us. It is the worst nightmare every day for his parents. The military and religious funeral was performed in our synagogue. The Army planted large American flags lining the sidewalk to the entrance for the slow processional of the young man’s coffin and his family.
Soldiers from David’s brigade were at the memorial service donning their purple berets as the service began; they continue the missions that ensure Israel’s independence and security. The Army Chaplain lead the Psalms, the kaddish, and chanted the prayer for mercy recited at cemetery and memorial services for the souls of the departed.
We pray that the soul finds a resting place in the Garden of Eden. Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery is about as close to reaching that Garden as one’s mind can imagine it to be here on earth.
We stand among the graves. The graves are perfectly aligned with identical headstones, tranquil and serene. The smell of greenery and a summer breeze through the shade from the trees overhead. Perfectly pruned greenery offers comfort to mourners. Soldiers are buried in sections according to the wars in which they died. David is in a section reserved for those who died in service since 2000. It is nearly full.
On David’s grave is his beret and company insignia among some other tokens. Another’s grave is adorned with birthday messages, the soldier’s company flag laid out, his picture, and keepsakes from brothers, sisters, perhaps a girlfriend. Stuck in the dirt amid plants and flowers of another soldier’s grave is a child’s plastic windmill with green and yellow polka dots. On another grave sits a tehillim – a Book of Psalms, beseeching others to recite just a few on his behalf.
All the graves have many stones lining the edges left by mourners, in accordance with Jewish tradition, as a reminder to all who visit that people care and remember.
David’s Mom tells us about this beautiful young man with a wide smile. How he was great with numbers and math. The youngest sibling often asserted his independence, while deeply aware of his reliance on his older three brothers.
The soldiers from his brigade listen intently. Some knew him, some never served with him. The rest of us tremble, knowing David was like our son, or so easily can be one of our children.
And then, we all went home leaving him behind with thousands of others, forever nestled in the hardscrabble soil of Israel in the land. Not alone or lonely, but with the people he loves in the merit of his ancestors.