Michael Kohler

A Lone Soldier’s Service: Through the Eyes of His Father

I thought about writing this article for some time now. With a son who made aliyah in 2021 to serve as a lone soldier in the IDF, these past few years have been filled with experiences, emotions and stories that I thought could be interesting for people to hear, or potentially helpful to parents whose children are serving or considering serving as lone soldiers. I had some ideas in my head.  Some anecdotes to share and advice to impart.

And then came October 7 and everything changed.  Within two weeks of that attack, I posted a blog entitled “It’s Still 1948” in which I wrote about my son — who by that point had helped rid Kibbutz Be’eri of Hamas terrorists — saying, “I pray for the day when this is over, and I can hug him and tell him how incredibly proud I am for him fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.”  Now, more than 5 months later of which he spent almost 4 months fighting in Gaza, I will have that opportunity as he has completed his military service and will be returning to the U.S. shortly for a month-long visit.  There is, of course, a tremendous sense of relief that he was not injured, or worse, during this time.  But, tempering that excitement unfortunately is a remaining pall of darkness and sadness that there are still hostages, including a close-family friend Omer Neutra, held by Hamas, that antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment has grown globally beyond what could have been imagined, and that Israel remains embroiled in its never-ending War of Independence and fight for not just its existence, but for its acceptance, by all nations and people of the world.

So, instead of light-hearted anecdotes filled with bad dad-jokes of the trials and tribulations of a New York born and raised 21-year old serving in the IDF, I offer some observations and take-aways that will remain with me from this experience.

First, the selflessness and sacrifice exhibited by my son and all lone soldiers in the IDF cannot be understated.  While it is true that those who choose to serve in combat positions, like my son in tzanchanim (paratroopers) may go through more physically or psychologically demanding training and service, all of these young adults have sacrificed at least 2+ years in the prime of their lives to voluntarily commit themselves to the belief that they as military-age Jews also bear the burden and responsibility to protect and defend the State of Israel, and in doing so, Jews the world over.

Thinking of my son’s sacrifices, I recall his determination to take additional classes while working incessantly on his Hebrew and graduating college in three years forgoing a senior year he could have enjoyed on campus with friends so he could draft to the IDF as soon as possible.  I recall speaking with him at midnight on a Saturday evening in August 2022, while his entire family was celebrating at his cousin’s wedding and he was already at 7AM on a bus back to base to continue his training.  And I recall his story of another “meal” of out-of-the-can tuna fish followed by a night shivering in the shetach (fields) dressed in his sweat-soaked uniform and full gear while propped against a rock trying to get whatever rest was possible.  Little did he realize at that time that those nights would prepare him well for his many nights in Gaza.

The second take-away from this time has been the tremendous community support we, but more so our son, have received.  This was true before October 7 as people understood the commitment he made and were proud that he chose to serve in the IDF, but it took on a whole new meaning after October 7.  That day and in the days that followed, my wife and I were bombarded with texts, emails and calls asking about his wellbeing.  It was extremely stressful as we ourselves had little news or knowledge of where or how he was.  We formed a WhatsApp group to speedily update friends and family on whatever news we learned, and this group quickly grew to more than 500 people – our friends, his friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, colleagues – from near and far concerned for news of his safety.

Like so many throughout the world during these past months, we all felt helpless not knowing what to do or how to help Israel in its time of need.  In some way, I think our son came to embody and represent to many in our community more than just one more IDF soldier fighting Hamas; but rather one of their own representing his friends and family and community in this struggle in which they were otherwise unable to tangibly assist.  Of course, we never framed it in those terms for him, but he was aware of and so very thankful for the support he felt from so many who were proud of, cared for and were concerned for him.  I’m proud to say that this community recently made a $5,000 donation, plus provided mishloach manot for Purim to all the members of Kibbutz Erez, our son’s home when not in the army, who have been displaced since October 7.

Lastly, the relationship we have developed with our son’s host family will undoubtedly be a long-lasting takeaway from his years of service.  Through the Garin Tzabar program, which assists lone soldiers draft to the IDF, our son was sent to live on Kibbutz Erez sitting on the northern border of Gaza and assigned a host, or adoptive, family.  Beyond the delicious home-cooked meals (which we were fortunate to have experienced several times), the constant offers to do his laundry, and the adorable 4 and 8 year-old little boy and girl to play and make dancing tik-toks with, it soon became apparent to us just how much they truly cared for him and how lucky he was to be paired with them.  In fact, I wondered: why were they so good to him?  Why did they choose to host a lone soldier?  Why did they drive hours to his ceremonies and go out of their way to be there when we couldn’t?

And then I realized: they just got it.  I believe they understood and respected the sacrifice he was making and felt this was the least they could do.  I believe they saw this 21-year old, American Jewish college graduate who moved half-way around the world to voluntarily join the IDF, to endure the difficulties and hardships of training and months of service…for what reason???  Why is he doing this???  To put himself in harm’s way to protect them and their children, should god-forbid the worst ever happen?  Yes…that is exactly what he was doing.  It was clear: both our son and his host parents both truly embodied the Talmudic teaching, כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh – All Jews are responsible for one another.  He was doing what he could to care for them, and they were doing what they could to care for him.  Ashkenazi, Sephardic, English speaking, Hebrew speaking, Anglo/European, Moroccan…it didn’t matter.  Jew and Israeli is all that mattered and what made this relationship what it is.

And then as we know, the worst did in fact happen.  Thankfully, through the heroics of the kibbutz’ first-response team, Kibbutz Erez and his host family were saved.  That morning, our son’s battalion (G’dud 890) was helicoptered to the area, his was brought down by an RPG and they encountered terrorists near Kibbutz Alumim before spending the next 72 hours in Be’eri.  His host mother and father were our eyes and ears in Israel trying to learn about “our soldier,” as they wrote in the battalion’s WhatsApp group chat.  We had become part of their family, and them a part of ours.  When we visited Israel in the weeks after the attack in late October and visited with them in Mitzpe Ramon, where they were relocated, the emotions were high, and tears of joy flowed knowing how close this beautiful family had come to becoming victims of Hamas’ rampage.  So, while our son’s service has ended and their role as “host family” has technically ended, we know that we will remain משפחה לנצח ותמיד – family forever and always.

Had I been asked before October 7 about my son’s experience in the IDF, I would re-tell funny, or not-so-funny stories he shared about long hikes, kilometer after kilometer weighed down with equipment, or about learning how to shoot, or about guard duty in Hebron in the middle of the night, or about standing around waiting, waiting and then more waiting.  Why?  For what?  I don’t know – but that is apparently what you do in the IDF.  But now, everything has changed.  Now, I can only focus on his fighting in the days on and after October 7 and his months in Gaza.  His service and experiences have taken on a whole new meaning for me, for those around him, and I am sure most significantly, for him as well.

About the Author
Michael Kohler is on the Long Island Regional Board of the American Jewish Committee, is committed to strengthening the relationship between US Jews and Israel, and professionally works as an immigration attorney on Long Island, N.Y. The opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of AJC or any other group or organization.
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