The morning sun finally began to peek over the Judean Mountains some six hours after I began my hike from the Herodion (just outside Jerusalem) to the Dead Sea. While the full moon had provided sufficient light to hike through the night, the morning sun revealed the true beauty of these mountains. Although we were completely exhausted, the sun and the amazing views gave me and my group of family and friends a new found sense of excitement, energy and adrenaline. I had heard many times that a sign of the Israelis love of their land is how much they hike the land. I finally understood the concept. This feeling peaked at eight in the morning, when we finally arrived to the Dead Sea. Ironically, I never felt so alive. This land has history. Thousands of years of stories live in the sand.
Its not just the land that is amazing. Its the people.
Just as we were finishing the eight hour hike, one of my friends began showing signs of extreme dehydration. We were a mere kilometer away from the finish, but he couldn’t take one more step. We were sitting on the side of the trail as he attempted (unsuccessfully) to take just one more sip of water. So we went for help. At the end of this trail is a small army base. One of our guides (a former Navy Seal) ran to the front gate of the army base and told them of our situation. Five minutes later, my friend was in an air conditioned car, hooked up to an IV of fluids provided by the army. When a high-ranking officer came out and asked what was happening, our guide simply said “someone was very dehydrated, so your soldiers brought us an IV, which I put in.” His answer: “Ok, great, Chag Sameach.” His soldiers coming out of their base to help a random hiker – Par for the course.
A couple of weeks ago, I was given the amazing opportunity to see and feel what it is like to be a parent of one of these extraordinary soldiers. Since my brother-in-law and cousin are volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces’ paratroopers unit (Tzanhanim) as lone soldiers, I was lucky enough to be there as a “parent” to be part of this amazing and integral part of Israeli life.
As most thirty-something guys, I was looking forward to seeing the military exercises, a shooting exhibition, and maybe some parachuters. While I did see all of these things, something else ended up being the true highlight of the day.
The events of the day indeed began with an exhibition of the Tzanhanim training exercises. Hundreds of parents, siblings and friends sat in the desert sun to watch the troops execute different maneuvers, including the crowd favorite, when six paratroopers parachuted down from an airplane above, with a few even flying down wearing Israeli flags or Tzanhanim flags.
All family members were then invited into a large auditorium to hear from the commander of the base and watch a movie about the storied history of the brigade. The events were equally impressive and formal, as could be expected from a military base.
Then, things changed. It was time to let go of the military formalities for a couple of hours, and to let these soldiers be children.
The parents were directed to find their sons at their dorms to go say hello. We all started walking en masse to the dorms to look for our soldiers.
Within minutes the area transformed from a military dormitory to a beautiful gathering of families with their young sons. What I saw was nothing short of amazing. Every parent had brought bags of their son’s favorite foods and each set up a spread for their son to enjoy (devour) with his family. Each family sat on the floor for the next hour of so in circles, enjoying this feast together with their son. Amidst the formalities and seriousness of a combat unit basic training base, the feelings of family, love, history and pride were palpable. I couldn’t help but walk around to soak some of this in. I saw hundreds of Jewish mothers taking pictures, hugging their sons, and feeding them anything from sushi to steaks, hamburgers to falafel. I saw proud fathers with their heads held particularly high. I saw tears of pride in the eyes of many. I saw younger siblings running around and being in absolute awe of all of these real-life heroes. Magically, each of these combat soldiers, clad in army green, looked (and surely felt) like little boys in their parents’ dining room.
My family and I felt right at home amongst the crowd. My mother-in-law, who was in town for the event, brought her son beef empanadas and lamb chops – his favorite.
We were there, doing the same thing as the rest of the families, hugging and kissing our soldiers, sharing with them some of their favorite foods, and running around in awe of our very own, modern-day, heroes. We also had the pleasure of hosting another 5 or 6 lone soldiers from Argentina, England, Canada and the United States, welcoming them into our family and showing them our love and appreciation for volunteering from abroad to protect our Jewish homeland.
On a personal note, I couldn’t be more in awe of my young brother-in-law and cousin, who at 18 and 19, respectively, left the comfort and luxury of South Florida and the fun of college life in the US, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Despite their young age, they felt that it was important to put their lives on hold to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. At 18 and 19 they have sacrificed more for the State of Israel and for the Jewish people than I have in my 32 years. This was a day that my wife, my daughters and I will remember forever. I hope that it will shape the people that we are from this point forward.
On this hot fall day, I was given a glimpse at what every Israeli parent goes through and feels when their child joins the IDF. On this day, I truly felt that my decision to come to Israel for the year was the right one.
This is a glimpse of life in Israel from the Inside-Out.
Am Israel Chai.