So Not College! The IDF Experience Explained for Diaspora Families and Friends

“She was just accepted to Binghamton,” read the post above stunning pictures of an old college buddy’s lovely daughter holding her phone with the acceptance message.

“These college tours are super exhausting,” wrote a different and very dear friend.

All over the globe, children grow up and spread their wings. That is the way of the world; an exciting time for kids and parents that may, of course, be fraught with worry as well. Nonetheless, physical independence (though often, not financial) is paramount and off they go! Laundry, food shopping, cooking and cleaning are part of these young adults’ new realities – along with choosing classes, majors, joining fraternities and sororities, hooking up and partying.

I share my friends’ excitement and I am happy for them. But, here in Israel, when our children finish high school and turn 18, we live a harsh, alternative reality.

During a recent get together, a close American relative chuckled, “Those Israeli moms actually have WhatsApp groups for their soldiers, right. They think it’s like third grade.”

“Those Israelis even spoil their soldier kids. What??? He can go fight Hamas but can’t do his own laundry, make their own bed, cook his own food? What a joke!”

“You really need me to bring X (candy or treat) for him all the way from… NYC? Melbourne? Johannesburg? London? Can’t you just find something similar?”

“What an army? They let them home every few weeks. In the Red Army, they wouldn’t come home for years”

I define myself as a liberal Zionist. A product of the American Reform Movement, I chose to make Israel my home a quarter of a century ago. In both my professional and personal spheres, I walk the talk, working with Jewish Arab shared society organizations and I am proud to have close friends from all religions and levels of observance throughout the country. Clearly, we are not some gung ho militaristic family but nonetheless, recognize the blessing that this miracle nation is for our people and accept our civic obligations while continuing to work towards a more equal society.

Military service in Israel is not a choice. It is mandatory for all (Jewish) young people (with limited exceptions) and a necessity for the country’s survival.

With military induction, life comes to a standstill; nearly three years for boys and two years for girls. My first-born son just completed eight months of the IDF’s most grueling basic combat training programs and my second son is scheduled to enlist this coming spring. I can’t explain details of what he went through because I know very little. I understand that much was classified and the remainder he chose to spare his poor mother. I do know that they are pushed to (and often past) their physical, mental and emotional limits.

I also know that the past three months he spent by and large in the field and was awarded a phone for a few minutes a week before Shabbat. During that short time I desperately tried to understand how he was doing and to tell him how much we loved him and valued his immense efforts. The weeks in which I perceived his voice as tranquil were the good weeks. During those conversations when I sensed his brokenness, I was left broken as well.

We rarely knew if he would be released for the weekend (Friday afternoon to Saturday night or early Sunday morning). When I was indeed fortunate to collect him from the train station, my heart was full but also ripped to shreds. I looked into his exhausted eyes, set deep in his army-regulated close shaven face and clean uniform while he carried an immense backpack full of filthy, mud dried uniforms and his weapon.

What is a mother (or father) to do?

How can she ease his pain? Fight his exhaustion? Help lift him up for another grueling week or month?

So….. We cook. A lot. Their favorite foods.

We search in 4 (or 14) supermarkets and online shops for their favorite treats.

We ask a relative or friend abroad to send a special snack or item.

We do their laundry using the best smelling detergent and fabric softener that we can find. We then fold their laundry and iron their uniforms, placing them back in the bag.

We make sure their sheets are fresh and clean and often even put a piece of quality chocolate or marzipan on their pillows.

We give them space.

We give them quiet.

We let them sleep. As. Long. As. They Please.

We listen.

We keep quiet.

We pack them delicious sandwiches before they head back to base on the 5 AM train – a last sweet reminder of home.

Welcome to our world. It is So Not College.

About the Author
Zimra was born in Budapest and grew up in New York City. She immigrated to Israel in 1994 and for the past two decades has worked with diverse for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Currently, she serves as a resource development expert on the Civics and Shared Education team at the Center for Educational Technology (CET) in Tel Aviv. Zimra is mother to 4 children, ages 11 to 20. Inspired by her 16-year old son Amit, a lower limb amputee, she is passionate about competitive wheelchair basketball and spends much of her free time rooting for her favorite teams. Today, she and her family are living in the Negev.