Ronen and I were not particularly close as teenagers. Being second cousins, we met mostly at weddings, funerals, and the occasional Erev Chag. We would chit-chat or play around, or just hang out at these family events. I knew his younger brother — they resembled each other like two peas in a pod. Ronen knew my older brother, who is four years older than the both of us. We never had a meaningful relationship as the two branches of our family rarely interacted.
Perhaps a Sabra’s most memorable day is Enlistment Day. Whether your time in school was a pleasing experience or resembled jail-time spent for a crime you did not commit, whether you came from a supportive home or one which was falling apart, the army was a major “interrupt” and enough to shift you out of your paradigms. True, one’s enlistment process begins about 18 months prior to high school graduation. The final Enlistment date is also known months in advance. Yet, one cannot comprehend joining an army such as the IDF until one jumps in the water. The psychological effects of service in the IDF is inexplicable, unfathomable, and the time one spends there feels surreal. For some, enlistment is a momentous occasion where they operationalize the important Zionist ethos. For others, it is a daunting vetting experience where they are forced to replace a familiar lifestyle with seemingly endless hardships. I was simply shocked at the change and went with the flow.
Ronen and I stumbled upon each other at an IDF induction center, one of only three in the entire country. It was a balmy August morning. The center, part of a larger IDF compound, was packed with teenagers carrying large civilian bags, accompanying families, and uniformed instructors unsuccessful in directing the chaotic crowd. I was accompanied by my father, my sage. While trying to find our way among the masses and unhelpful signs, we turned a corner and stumbled upon Ronen and his father. The two dads smiled and exchanged words of which I, the dazed but Good Soldier Švejk, remember nothing. There is also no recollection of my conversation with Ronen. After a short time, we parted ways.
Ronen was assigned to the Armored Corps, as was I. A few days later, I was re-assigned to the Anti-Aircraft division, under the Air Force command.
Ronen was killed when his tank was attacked by Hezbullah on October 18, 1997. My father broke the news the next day and a shock rippled through my mind.
Nowadays, I am a father. It is easier for me to imagine the gist of the conversation between our two fathers, Israeli war veterans who accompany their sons to the Service with minimal uncertainty: “Would you believe this day came?” “Time passes so fast. It’s like it was yesterday that I was carrying him on my shoulder.” “So where are you going, do you know yet?” “He wants to be a combatant. I think the options are Armored Corp, Artillery, or the Air Force’s Anti-Aircraft division. You?” “We don’t know yet. They called him for another medical review. His brother went to Armory but then he was injured in training and was reassigned. I guess we’ll see.” “Three years and then that’s it.” “Yep, then they will have the time of their lives. Send me back to that age.” “Well, we’ll see you around.” “Good luck.”
As life progresses, Ronen occasionally crosses my mind. It happened during my wedding, when I held my first born, when I relocated to the USA, and when I waved my older son off as the school bus took him away for the first time. It was a miniature induction-center experience.
Once again, I felt the need to apologize to Ronen and his family that I returned.
Ted Oded Avraham is the founder of JeSSI, The Jewish Student Satellite Initiative, where Jewish and Israeli youth collaborate in a space-tech challenge.