Thursday, July 31, 2008

Two Rights Don’t Make a Wrong

Or perhaps...I should call this, "Staying True"

So there’s a long story and a short story developing here.

The short story is that despite almost a month of planning and special training, Elie is not going to be stationed for the next eight months at a training base in the south commanding a unit of incoming soldiers. Instead, he’ll be stationed more towards the center of the country and as he did for the last four months, he’ll be commanding a unit of soldiers guarding a sensitive area where Arab communities and Jewish communities are very close together and where, before Israel built the security fence, dozens of terrorists simply walked a few minutes across a field to enter one of several Jewish cities and towns. There, in their quest to become martyrs of Islam, they murdered innocent men, women, and children.

The security fence has done wonders to stop more than 90% of these attacks, but the fence must be monitored and patrolled and there are cases, for work or medical emergencies, where Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel and so there are crossings and these too must be manned. Elie’s group will be involved in the first task, monitoring and patrolling to prevent infiltrations. That’s the short story. The longer story comes down to two rights in conflict and the army’s attempt to avoid a wrong.

Elie was raised in a religious home, attended religious schools and was taught two fundamental principles in our home: you have your principles and beliefs, stay true to them; and, everyone has their own principles and beliefs that may or may not be the same as yours, respect them.

At the age of 18 (give or take a few months), every Israeli, male or female, is supposed to go to the army for mandatory service. This is the law, as it is written on the books. In practice, a large number of young Israelis, secular and religious, avoid the draft, typically in one of several ways:

Many girls do national service rather than the army. This allows them to serve their country while avoiding issues that may compromise their beliefs.

Many religious men choose to study Jewish law and religious text. Very early on, the Israeli government recognized a fundamental Jewish concept, God. To believe in God is to believe in the necessity to thank Him, to pray to Him and so the State recognized that there would be those who would fight on a physical level and those who would “fight” on a spiritual level.

Many secular men (and women) choose other ways to get out of the draft, such as claiming psychological problems, pacifist beliefs, or all manner of other excuses. They simply don’t want to give up to three years of their lives for Israel. Several of Israel’s pop-stars and famous models fall into this category.

And finally, many religious and secular young people are not really physically or mentally capable of serving in the army, or are married and the army chooses not to take them. Some come to live in Israel at an older age and the army decides that they will not be drafted.

And then there are those, like Elie, who do not avoid the draft and even those who acknowledge not only their obligation to serve, but show gratitude for the healthy bodies they are given. Within the army, they are given time to pray each day (three times per day, as perscribed by Jewish law). Within the army, they fulfill both a commitment to protect this land on both a physical and spiritual level, combining facets of Judaism and Zionism. They believe one without the other, is weaker than the two combined.

Even before entering the army, each young man receives a profile, a rating based on his physical abilities. Those above a certain rating are asked, “will you agree to serve in a combat unit?”

Elie answered that he would, and so he does. Young women are not expected to serve in combat units, but there are those who wish to serve in this way, and the army accepts this commitment as well. That is one of the rights involved in the long story.

The second right is on Elie’s side. When Elie went into the army, after they asked him if he would serve in a combat unit, they asked him if he was willing to serve with girls. I didn’t know this at the time, but Elie reached into himself, into his beliefs and the way he was raised and decided that he didn’t feel comfortable with this and so he told the army, as a religious young man, no, he did not want to serve in the same unit with girls.

His goal was to serve the army, not be distracted by women. The time for socializing and matching up with a special woman will come, God willing, but not now, not under these conditions, not in the same unit. The army has faced this choice many, many times and it was nothing for them. They simply put Elie in a combat unit with other men, which meant one of the majority of the units that exist, as most women do not choose a combat role.

For the last 18 months, this issue was a null point. Elie served his country, did his training, guarded its borders, and trained for a day when the country would need him to defend it. And then the army asked Elie to command a unit of incoming soldiers and Elie agreed.

Elie was trained as to what this meant and what he would have to do. He was taught about the special psychological needs of new soldiers and remembered his own first weeks in the army. After three weeks of training, Elie and his group of fellow commanders prepared to go to the training base and on the last day, before they left, Elie’s commanding officer told Elie that the unit he was being given would have five women in it.

Elie came home that night for the long weekend and told me his dilemma, “What did you tell them?” I asked.

“I told them ‘no’.” His decision had nothing to do with women in the army or in combat, and everything to do with how he would be put in a potentially uncomfortable position. As a commander, Elie has been privy to the problems and concerns of his soldiers. In training and in command, he has offered his fellow soldiers emotional support and even physical support.

Each time I have been around Elie as he greets or leaves his unit, I’ve been deeply touched by the amount of physical contact between Israeli soldiers. They hug, they pat each other on the shoulder, they shake hands when they part company, and then they do it again a few days later when they are reunited. They touch each other as a sign of support, a sign of affection. It’s a connection in the deepest sense of the word.

When Elie served in the ambulance squad, without hesitation, he touched anyone who needed his assistance, man or woman. At the scene of a car accident, without hesitation, he would help all passengers, any that needed him. This is a necessity and well within his upbringing. True to his beliefs, Elie knows that saving a life is the most precious of requirements. Touching his fellow soldiers is not done out of necessity; it is done out of love and caring. Other armies, perhaps even most armies function without this extra affection that is so characteristic of our army.

“What does that mean? What happens now?” I asked him, and Elie was smart enough to know that I wanted to know what would happen to him. Would they force him? Could they force him? Could they punish him for not following orders?

No, they cannot force him. Elie is within his rights to refuse. No, they will not force him. No, they will not punish him. They tried to convince him otherwise, but Elie stood true to himself and, in some ways, to the principles upon which he was raised.

What the army decided to do, in the end, was pull another commander from Elie’s g’dud (division) and bring him south for training. And Elie, will go back to his original unit as a commander at a checkpoint, helping guard Israel’s borders with his soldiers.

Women have the right and the honor to serve in the Israeli army, even in a combat role. Men have the right to stay true to their religious upbringing. By assigning Elie to an equal role as a commander on another base, the army has found a way to honor two rights without being wrong.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Israeli Domino

So much of life in Israel is determined by what happens in other areas of our lives. This is true in many areas including the army. Elie is about to begin as a commander of incoming soldiers that are typically recruited into the army by early August. But, last year, there was a teacher's strike that delayed the high school seniors from taking matriculation exams by several weeks. Those few weeks have thus delayed the army from recruiting these same high schools students and, by extension, delays Elie's group of commanders from beginning their task.

On the bright side, it has given Elie's group more time to prepare, to learn what they will need to know. More time has been spent getting them physically ready and helping them to bond as a group. This last week, there were several events of significance. First, they heard from Rina Hever, the mother of Guy Hever, an Israeli soldier who went missing more than a decade ago.

Guy's mother lives with one of the worst nightmares a mother can imagine; Guy disappeared without a trace and no word has ever been received. She is convinced he was kidnapped and is now in Syria but no ransom or negotiation requests have ever been made. Guy was in an artillery unit and so the artillery division allows her to speak to its soldiers about Guy, what happened to him, and her hope that he will come home one day. This is yet another way that the army shows that it remembers and cares, both for those in the army now, and for those who were part of it in the past. I cannot imagine the courage it takes, year after year, to come before the sons of Israel, while your heart aches for your own son.

Elie also spent part of the week at another place where he learned about two other soldiers. One was named Koby and he was a commanding officer when he was killed in action. A few weeks after Koby's death, one of his soldiers committed suicide. His family came and told Koby's mother how distraught the soldier had been and how much Koby had helped him and the others.

Koby's mother is yet another brave mother of an Israeli soldier. She listened to all that these soldiers told her, about how Koby had helped them and about what an incredible commander he had been. He understood and supported his troops in the physical and emotional challenges they faced to become soldiers.

She gathered notes on the special things he had done as a commander and now gives courses to other commanders to help teach them about the responsibility they are about to undertake. New soldiers are under pressure to learn so much in such a short period of time. Most make it and are better for the experience; and some need help. This is what Koby knew instinctively or perhaps as a result of his own training. And, this is what his mother now teaches. It is a hard time for some new soldiers - suddenly separated from their normal support system, their friends and family, they need someone to watch out for them and that is, often, the commander.

Elie and I discussed this quite a bit and he gave an example of how this is already known in the army. In the first weeks of training, after the soldiers are "dismissed," the commanders just happen to be nearby, watching and evaluating.

At one point, as a group, Elie and the others were taken out to relax. The army even gave special permission for each soldier to drink up to 1/2 a liter of beer. I found this particularly amusing because our family is notorious for simply not liking alcohol. We simply don't drink. It's a taste that we never acquired and therefore never helped our children acquire.

A few years back, at Elie's preparatory academy, Elie was made the "designated guard" because everyone else was drinking, while Elie simply wasn't interested. More often than not, wine would go bad in our house sooner than being finished and so we seldom even open a bottle. So it made me smile to think of the army giving special permission to a boy who doesn't really drink alcohol is a special treat. I asked him if he drank the beer, and he told me he did. Did you like it? I asked. Well, it wasn't bad, Elie told me, with a smile.

Finally, on Thursday, as the week drew to a close, these commanders were taking bowling - a final chance to unwind before they meet again on Sunday in the south. There, for the next two weeks, they will be put through the training that they are expected to give the incoming soldiers over the next two months. It will be a hard couple of weeks of intensive lessons, shooting exercises and more. They deserved a break, and the army recognized this and gave it to them.

Another pressure for these incoming commanders is that despite starting "late" because of the delay from the matriculation exams, Elie and the other commanders are still expected to finish on time so that they can take part in the army's next rotation. For Elie, this means continuing with these soldiers in the more advanced training, longer lessons, and since the initial weeks will take place in the desert in the summer, it will mean beginning training long before dawn when the heat sets in. The army will not cancel its restrictions for operating during intense heat, so Elie and the others will train around these requirements.

It also means, because of the delay, that we have had Elie home most weekends and will have him home until the soldiers come in, at least for the next two weeks. He came home Thursday (I met him at the bowling alley and drove him first to his grandparents house to say hello and then home for the weekend). Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend with Elie joking around and simply being wonderful. He helped get things ready on Friday (helped in the shopping and cooking), helped organize, and simply be around.

As usual, Elie's younger brother got the candles ready for the lighting as the Sabbath comes in and brought the plates and glasses to the table and his youngest sister set the table. We sat down to our meal and my husband said the traditional kiddush, the blessings over the wine. Each Friday night, he also says a blessing over each child. Elie's oldest sister was not home this weekend and so Elie rose to receive the first blessing.

My husband hugged him and began the words, as his hands were placed on Elie's head. Elie is taller than his father, and bends his head low to receive his blessing. There are three blessings, actually.

The first: May God bless you and protect you.

The second: May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you.

And the last: May God raise His face to you and place upon you peace.

It's the last one that gets to us each time and there is a slight hesitation when my husband says the word "shalom." Peace. Peace should mean safety for a soldier, just as war would mean danger. That single word covers all that we wish for Elie - safety and health - peace.

As we sat down to the meal, Elie noticed that there were different kinds of glasses on the table. This is typical with families with children, especially in Israel where the floors and counters are made of stone. There is little leeway here. A glass falls; a glass breaks. You buy a set and when that goes or is on its way out, you buy another. Eventually, you have single glasses from previous sets and while you may try to make a matching table when there are guests, this is eased when it is just family, as it was this weekend.

Elie's sister had apparently set the table, giving his father and me the "large" glasses, while Elie and the others received slightly smaller versions. Elie asked me where the large glasses had come from and I explained that they are what remains of the previous set. I went off to serve the soup and as we all sat down, Elie grinned and held up his glass and took a sip of ice tea. It took a minute until I realized that while I had been in the kitchen, he had swapped glasses with me and I now filled a smaller one without noticing.

Everyone laughed and then later, while he was in the kitchen, we poured his drink into a third cup. I poured my drink into "his" cup and then his drink back into "my" smaller cup leaving it beside his plate. Elie came back, and as he took a drink, I raised my glass and sipped my drink, grinning right back at him. All the time, I watched Elie's eyes, and knew the exact moment when he realized what I had done. It started in his eyes and by the time it stretched over his face and ended in a laugh, we were all delighted. It was so good to have him home.

It was like that all weekend. He was constantly "wrestling" with his younger sister, delighting in her shrieks and setting her down, only to have her rush right back at him for more. He got in a taffy fight with his brother - each throwing taffies at the other, and laughing when our dog actually ate one. We talked, we ate, we relaxed, we laughed. This is, ultimately, what the day is for, and it was magnificent and, in many ways, yet another result of the delay in matriculation exams, giving Elie more time at home.

It's now Saturday night. Elie's backpack is packed for his return trip tomorrow. Mostly, I'm calm and relaxed myself. For the next few months, Elie's experiences will be similar to those he had at the start of his training, but from the commander's perspective. Just as they began by making Elie run a meager half a kilometer before building up to the many kilometers he can now run, so too, he will begin with his soldiers. There are few unknowns here from my perspective. He knows how to dress so that he won't be too cold in the winter. He knows how often to drink so that he won't dehydrate. He knows how to shoot and handle a gun and now will teach others the realities and the responsibilities. He knows his rights, what the army allows and what is not allowed.

Other mothers are now counting down until their sons go into the army, worrying and trying to find comfort. They are wondering what to buy, what their sons will need, who will comfort them and befriend them. Others stand where I once stood, on the edge of change, on the edge of tomorrow.

I go back to the early pages of this blog and marvel at how far Elie has come and even more, how far I have come. I was so nervous, so unaware. The unknown stretched ahead of me and I prayed that it would all go well, that Elie would find friends and comrades, but more, that he would find those who would care for him.

He has found so much in the last year and a half or so. He has found the friends and comrades, but even more, he has found himself. And, within himself, I believe, he has discovered someone he can like and respect. He has conquered the challenges in so many ways and he has done it while retaining that special humor that is his alone. It's the humor that has him switching glasses and then watching, with that gleam in his eye, to make sure that I notice it. It's the confidence to laugh when the same trick is played back on him.

If I could tell each of those mothers of new soldiers something, it would be simply a message that your son will be so much more than he is, but still remain all that he was. I can't tell you not to worry and not to fear. That would be hypocritical because I still worry and fear. So instead, I will tell you that amidst all other emotions, don't lose out on the chance to feel pride beyond all that you have known, and honor and gratitude. Focus on each time he is home, enjoy it, celebrate it and try to have faith that all you have done to bring him to this point, will be enough to see him through it. Release him back to the army with joy, and that's how he will come back to you each week.

May God bless the incoming soldiers, the outgoing soldiers, and the soldiers like Elie who are still making their way through - may He place upon you peace.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I Cried Too

This week, after two years, Israel confirmed the truth it did not want to know. Our soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were dead and had likely died within hours of their being taken across the border. All the rest, the comments from Nasrallah that they would be killed if we didn't negotiate, the hints that they were alive, all meant to torture the families and Israel as a whole.

Finally, the Israeli government released some information, trying desperately to prepare us. We were told that they were likely both dead. The Germans, who were involved in the negotiations tried to warn us as well. But then the families would come out and say that there was no proof and the circle would begin again. All signs pointed to their having died during the initial attack. We all knew it, until we saw the coffins. For most of us, there had been no doubt, until we saw the coffins.

Then, Lebanon TV was broadcasting pictures of the coffins and we could no longer deny the truth. My eyes filled with tears when I saw the coffins, when I read about how the families were suffering. All of Israel cried, I believe. They were tears we had held for two years, forced back by the hope that somehow Israeli intelligence would be wrong, that somehow this time, Hizbollah would be humane. Israeli intelligence was right; Hizbollah held its tradition of inhumanity to the point of indecency, cruelty and utter monstrosity.

The inevitable discussions of whether it was a fair and just idea to exchange 5 terrorists, including Samir Kuntar, and 190 bodies for our two soldiers' bodies filled the airwaves and news sites. Politicians jumped in to praise or condemn. Lebanon began their celebrations even before their hostages arrived and Israel quietly began mourning. We are right to mourn, and right to feel pride in our mourning, our soldiers.

Elie came home today and after dinner I asked him what he thought and how he felt about the prisoner exchange this week. I told him that I'd cried, that I just couldn't believe it...even having known it would be.

"I cried too," Elie told me and in those three words I realized how far he had come and how open he was. There is no shame in crying this week. The greatest shame goes to the people in Lebanon who didn't cry, but danced and celebrated the return of a child-killer.

May the Goldwasser and Regev families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may they know no more sorrow. And for Nasrallah and Kuntar and Lebanon, may you know no peace; may you sleep forever haunted by the memories of those you have murdered and may the truest of justice be yours, if not in this world, than in the next.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How DO You Wash a Bullet-Proof Vest?

So, Elie was home last week and at some point, he asked me if I could wash his bullet-proof vest which, after months of wearing it, smelled rather bad. Now, after giving birth to five children and dealing with most normal kid-related things (colic and diaper rash and chicken pox, kids sticking their tongues out and calling my kids bad names, late homework and no homework and temper tantrums; sun burns and boredom) and so much more. I have to say I have finally reached the point where almost nothing is surprising and I even handled washing a bullet in my washing machine with humor and relative ease.

But this one got to me. Here's this smelly thing, sitting in my living room all week reminding me that I had promised to 'wash it" for Elie. So, I turned to my cyber friends and asked in humor - help! how do you wash a bullet-proof vest? Two pointed out that in the American army, they collect the smelly and issue a new one. Another asked, why not follow the instructions on the label? Nice thought, that. except that Elie had written his name across the label and even if he hadn't, the label was so faded, I could barely read half the Hebrew words.

They sent me links with all sorts of suggestions and cautions and in the end, I did what one recommended - soapy water and a brush - not soaking it, not submerging it. I towel-dried it - the towel came away black. I washed it again and towel-dried it. This time, the towel came away brown - ah, progress. A third time and the worst of the smell was gone. The green coloring hadn't improved much, but it did seem to be less dusty looking.

Best I could do and another mountain conquered or at least experienced. So, in case you were wondering how to clean a bullet-proof vest, the answer is: soapy water and a towel, and one more thing - love.

That's right - love. It's another small thing I can do for Elie and I do it with such joy. Silly really but these are the only kinds of things that I can do. I don't know if Elie senses the reasons behind these actions, but I know that he appreciates it. It's an unspoken thing, as so many things are with young men Elie's age. But I'm hoping someday he'll put this all into words for himself, put the pieces together and realize the emotions behind the actions.

For now, I take each job for myself and take simple pleasure in each. This time, while cleaning the bullet-proof vest, the vest and I came to an agreement. I'd clean it; it would protect Elie and watch over him. I definitely got the bargain end of that one!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

And the anger...

Tomorrow, while Elie is learning how to command new soldiers, two of our soldiers will be returning home. Tomorrow, after two years, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev will be brought back to Israel. For two years, Hizbollah has dangled their captivity before our eyes and hearts.

Cruel and inhumane to the end, they refused all requests by the family and international communities to at least allow the families to know their condition. There's no question they were both severely injured during the kidnapping. Israeli military sources believe one was killed and one survived, but barely. No confirmation from Hizbollah; agony for the families.

If you ever want to see them come home, teased the devil incarnate, Hassan Nasrallah, surrender our murderers back to us. In the end, the pressure became too much, and this is what we have done. Tomorrow, Samir Kuntar goes back to Lebanon to massive celebrations and cries of victory. And tomorrow, Israel will plunge into mourning.

By all accounts, tomorrow Karnit Goldwasser will find herself a widow and Miki Goldwasser will learn that she must bury her son. Elie is angry about the deal; many Israelis simply cannot understand and accept exchanging terrorists for dead bodies.

But my anger is caused by the cruelty involved here. I've now heard reports that Hizbollah is announcing that one of the soldiers died (as Israel said all along) and one was taken alive. Even at the last moment, on the last day, Hizbollah continues its cruelty. Imagine the families at this moment. A death confirmed, but not. Whose son was killed immediately; which lived to suffer on? Is he still alive? Probably not...and so when did he die?

I don't let myself think, even for a moment, of how I would feel, what I would do in their place. I can't imagine the pain and so I welcome the anger as someting I can understand. Tomorrow the sadness will be confirmed, but the anger burns even today.

And the Guilt...

Ok, that might be too strong a title, but I've found a new emotion when it comes to Elie. He called last night to tell me what was happening; to tell me that next week he and the commanders were going to yet another resort to continue the training beofre the course. He told me that for the next four weeks or so, he'd be coming home for the weekends.

The phone rang as I was walking out the door; my husband ahead of me. We were going over to the neighbors to take part in a gathering honoring the memory of the father who had passed away a year ago and it was important to get there on time because the gathering began with the sons saying Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, in memory of their father.

It comes down to being torn, the feeling that you have to be there on the other end of the line whenever your soldier son calls. I needed to go. I needed to listen to him. There was nothing urgent; nothing that I needed to do for him (except wash the bulletproof vest that he left with me...and how DO you wash a bulletproof vest, anyway?).

So, after listening for a few minutes, I cut Elie off gently and explained I had to go. He was fine with it. We said our goodbyes and I went to the neighbors...and sat there feeling guilty. Perhaps guilt is the wrong word, but my heart just hurts a little. Silly, really. He's fine and doesn't sound lonely. Nothing is wrong. They probably just finished the evening early and he had nothing else to do and so called home.

On the scale of things to feel guilty about in life, this is probably rather silly and yet another thing I won't tell Elie about. He's coming home Thursday relatively early - maybe we'll go bowling again. I'd rather deal with the laughter than the regret.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Focusing on the Goal...and Having Fun

Sometimes I wish I could record moments of my life in order to save a precious event, but even as they are happening, one piled upon another, I know that the first is slipping away in my mind as I enjoy the new one. We were invited to a wedding Wednesday night in Jerusalem, held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The ceremony took place with the sun setting behind the happy couple, as they faced east, to the Temple Mount.

It was a wonderful moment, a joyous celebration and a relaxing one for me as well. But even as I was enjoying watching the ceremony and then the dancing; while I was talking with friends and smiling at the ecstatic parents and beautiful bride, a part of my brain was tracking Elie.

Once again, Elie was on his way home, this time for an extra free day - Thursday. He had already told me that he'd dropped his cell phone. I could probably start a whole story just about the adventures of his phone in the army. Amazingly enough, the army almost expects each soldier to have his own phone and this becomes a major communication tool. Without the phone, Elie is cut off. With it, he is easily reached and when necessary, can be called. This was the case when the Arabs said they'd captured a soldier and every commanding officer was ordered to immediately verify all his soldiers were safe. This was the case several weeks ago when the army practiced "mobilizing" Elie and his unit.

So, Elie is very connected to his phone as part of his army service. This time when he dropped it, the screen broke and while it is under warranty, it still had to be addressed. Elie decided to go with us to Jerusalem to take care of errands on Thursday and when he returned, we all decided to have a fun night - bowling.

So, I took my four youngest children: Elie, his two brothers and his youngest sister to the nearby bowling alley. It was an experience to watch them all bowl, each with their own style, strengths and weaknesses. The alleys are very modern. That means there is a machine that scores for you (and tells you the speed with which you throw the ball). On average, I throw a respectable 20-22 kilometers an hour. My younger son was throwing around 15-18 and my eight-year-old daughter only around 5 km./hour. Although it didn't happen this time, the ball has been known to surrender to the greater cause and simply stop along the way. No matter what, she remains determined to take her turn and roll that ball down.

Elie's middle brother simply enjoys and has yet to understand the finer points of angles and dots. He kept joking about how the computerized system kept recommending that we hit the center pin. "Gee, Ima, it says you should hit the center pin," was his constant refrain. Shmulik throws the ball in the high 20s, but doesn't take the game seriously at all. For him, there is only the joy of the game and the actual pins and points mean little.

And then, along comes Elie, and the ball goes zooming down the lane at over 30 km. per hour. The only problem is, Elie kept missing the pins. He kept pointing out how fast; I kept reminding him how many points I was getting. The goal, I said again and again, was to knock the pins down, not throw the ball as fast as you can. "You're being beaten by your mother." Now, if that wasn't going to get him going, I didn't know what would.

There were jokes about my being old (and yet I still beat him soundly) and laughter throughout. My daughter played with the guard rails that block the gutters. The ball rolled from side to side as it slowly made its way down the lane and ever-so-gently knocked some of the pins down. At one point, she bowled down the wrong lane, while Elie was about to bowl and that too caused a round of laughter.

Another time, Elie's ball flow with incredible speed, yet again, firmly into the gutter. But as it did several times, the power of the throw caused the ball to jump out and knock some pins down. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was wrong, or at least partially wrong. Yes, it's about the goal of accomplishing the task, but it's also about the trip along the way. What lives on after isn't the score you get, but the fun you had.

The younger two finished their three games more quickly and went off to play air hockey. Elie's 12-year-old brother was easily defeating his younger sister while Elie, Shmulik and I were playing our third and final game. Elie went over to quickly make several points for his sister to even out the score and put her in the lead. Having accomplished his goal of putting his brother on the defensive, he came back with a smile to play some more. It's part of that special relationship they have - Elie and his younger sister.

Later, though it was already quite late, I had to do the weekly shopping and at first, Elie thought to go with his middle brother to take the littler ones home and to bed. But something made him change his mind and so he came and helped me do the shopping. I can't let him know how precious these moments are for me.

The rest of the weekend passed quickly and calmly. There were several discussions related to the army and where Elie is going. Elie is bothered by the fact that Israel is about to release the child-killed Samir Kuntar. Elie understands that the world has many shades, but in this one, he sees black and white. He feels for the families but justice is not served by releasing this murderer. He isn't wrong - there is no justice in this prisoner release.

This week, Elie is back to the sports complex near Netanya where he and the incoming commanders for the training courses will have time to meet each other and become a team. For the next few months, they will be each other's support system and friends. The incoming soldiers will have each other. They will see their commanders as mentors, as task masters, as hardened soldiers demanding that they learn and perform.

They won't see Elie. They won't really get to know him - not yet. That will come after the Tekes Kumta, when Elie will meet them as equals. For the next four months, Elie will be "Commander" and they will say, "Yes, Commander" and "No, Commander." Elie will visit their homes and explain to their parents what is expected in the next few months of their sons' lives. What Elie will have is other commanders with whom he will share, consult. They will all live together, separate from their soldiers.

The commanders will run faster, be stronger. They will push themselves to the limit, and make it look easy so that the soldiers will try to emulate them, follow them and give them their loyalty. This week is his last chance to rest, Elie explained, his last chance to sleep for a while before the marathon begins; before the training starts.

Concerned, I said, "but you got six and a half hours sleep during basic training. Won't you get at least that?"

"No, that's what the soldiers get," Elie explained. And when they finish with them each night and finally let them sleep, the Commanders have to prepare for the next day's training. They have to watch these men to make sure the sudden pressures of the army are not overwhelming. They have to teach them discipline; teach them to measure everything in minutes. Be on time; follow orders. Stand, run, sit, eat, shave. Do it all, again and again, when you are told. They must break them of the boys they were and build them into the men they will become and all the time, they have to watch to make sure they aren't breaking them too much; that for all they are pushing them down, they are building them back up even stronger.

Some days, Elie will be lucky to get two or three hours and sometimes he won't be home for three weeks. He could see that I was not happy with that, "I'll be fine. It's not that long." And as often happens now, I am the immature one. I am the one who wants to complain that it isn't fair and that he needs to sleep too. I want to tell him that commander or not, he isn't superman; that he can get sick and exhausted and dehydrated just like anyone else. While you are so busy making sure your soldiers drink enough in the desert training, who will make sure you drink enough, Elie?

"Will I at least get an invitation to the Tekes Kumta like I did for you?" I asked and Elie just smiled. No, I won't get an invitation because it isn't my son finishing the course, at least not in the simplest meaning of the word, but it is my son learning a new facet of leadership, a new level of his abilities, a new sense of independence. Elie will watch that his soldiers drink enough and that he does too.

And so the circle comes back - like the bowling, it's about focusing on the goal. The trip down the lane is important, but the real success comes with meeting the goal and, if you can, having fun along the way. This week, Elie will have fun bonding with a group of soldiers with whom he will serve for the next 4-8 months. In a few week's time, new soldiers will come in. They will begin their basic training, while Elie and his commanding officer watch from the side.

The goal will be to assess the soldiers and choose the ones best suited for the tasks ahead. But somehow, as I watch Elie move through his army service, I know he is having fun. Yes, you have to aim and focus on the goal, but the goal alone is not all there is. Sometimes, the growth is really in the path along the way, and the fun you have in getting there.

Yes, I know the army is serious business, perhaps the most serious we have ever experienced in our lives as a family. I don't make light of it for a moment. I see it and hear it and dream it. I see the gun my son carries; the bullets and the magazines. I see the helmet and vest meant to protect him from being shot. I hear about the weapons and the armored vehicles and I dream, I have nightmares of phone calls and officers at my door. No, not for a single moment when Elie is away do I forget what it means to have a son as a soldier. Thursday night was a reminder that if you focus only on the serious business, you might just miss the glory of the trip and probably half the benefits.

"I hate the weather here," Elie said with a smile as he got out of the car this morning and swung his gun onto his back as he breathed in the humid air beside the coast. Even in that, there was joy. I left him there to his week among the commanders, happy for him and for us.

The best moments in life are the ones in which you combine both the goal, and the joy. Have a safe and wonderful week, Elie - see you on Thursday.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Waiting on Tomorrow

Elie has finished up north and is simply hanging around until he comes home tomorrow. It all depends on when the next commander returns so that Elie is free to leave the base. If he comes back tonight, Elie can be on his way home early tomorrow morning. Otherwise, later in the day, he'll take the trip out of the base on the same bus bringing the returning commander in.

Elie is looking forward to the challenge, to starting fresh. It wasn't easy commanding soldiers who had entered the army at the same time that he did, ones that he'd trained together initially. There were challenges dealing with commanders, situations, and physical conditions. He grew as a person, as a soldier, and as a commander.

Now, he moves to a new place and a new group of soldiers. All will look to him as the authority; none will remember sharing a tent with him. He leaves behind friends of many months. Or stays up north. But others will be with him again. Yedidyah, Or's commanding officer when Elie first entered the army, will be on the southern base with him.

Elie will be home on Thursday, through the weekend, and go next week to begin preparing for his next rotation. In the initial phase, he will watch the incoming recruits and decide which ones he wants on his team. He'll pick about a dozen, with the help of his commanding officer. These will become the more elite unit that Elie will command.

He sounds a bit down, a bit anxious. It reminded me of those days before he entered the army, when all the preparations had been done and there was nothing to do but wait for the day he would enter the army. So, that's where Elie is.

In a very selfish way, I am in a much better position. Though nothing is known in the army until it is known, this past Shabbat I asked Elie my standard question, "what does this mean for you, if..."

If...for the mother of a soldier, is usually "if there is a war," but to say the "w" word is to make it real, so we trail off, and they understand.

Training is a full time, year round endeavor for the army. Boys are taken into the army, they serve their three years, and then they are released to civilian life and a yearly commitment to return for reserve duty. At the end of three years, when they are released, a new group must take their place and so, training continues, even during a war.

What will happen in the next few months if there is a war? Elie will likely remain with his new soldiers, continuing training. At some point in the future, I might feel that it is wrong to feel this relief and yet I know that I am being honest with myself in saying that I feel this way. These past 16 months or so have been an incredible journey for Elie, and for me.

I've watched as Elie developed, matured, learned. And I too have learned. Months ago, I accepted that we never know what tomorrow will bring, peace or war, vacation or a re-assignment. Now, as we wait for Elie's new rotation, new faces, new challenges, we do it more calmly. In many ways, as we approach the half way point in Elie's army service, we have become veterans, even knowledgable ones.

It's almost midnight here; Elie has long since gone to sleep. Tomorrow will come soon enough for all of us, if we but wait.

One last note. Almost 9 months ago, Elie's friend Re'em was in a terrible car accident. Elie struggled with the guilt and pain of visiting with Re'em, knowing there was little that he could do. After several trips while Re'em was mostly unaware that Elie was there, we finally visited on a day when Re'em was doing well, was awake, aware, charming and strong. He has a long road ahead of him, but the most precious of all things - his smile and personality, came through.

We are hoping to go visit Re'em on Thursday. This time, I don't feel the need to go along, to help Elie and make sure Re'em isn't upset by Elie's attempting to cope. The last visit was wonderful and I was once again the target of their jokes about my Hebrew. They banded together "against" me, as they always did before. So, if we go Thursday, I'll stop in for a minute to say hello and then wander off to leave them together for a while. Re'em too had to grow up suddenly, both in the army and now after the accident.

My youngest daughter continues to pray for Re'em, saying his name each morning and wishing him a complete recovery. After the visit, we'll return home and all be together. My oldest daughter and her husband are coming for the Sabbath and with great joy, I will close my telephone again and enjoy the day. Tomorrows will come when they do - the trick is to learn to accept today and live it. It's an acquired talent.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Moments of Peace

Sunday morning in Israel. It started, again, with my dropping Elie off at the Central Bus Station in Israel. Once again, I was one of a line of cars, each pulling to the side. Parents get out as their sons open the trunks of the cars and load their backpacks and guns on their shoulders. A hug, a precious hug and they walk off into the large building.

For me, it's back to the busy work week with appointments juggled with children out of school, bills to be paid, meetings, classes, two weddings and a bar mitzvah. The children may be free from school, but I am anything but free from work and this coming week promises to be one of my busiest in a long while. For me, that makes this past weekend even more special.

It started with my planning to drive up into the Golan Heights on Friday morning to get Elie. A last minute delay in training meant that he would only be released late Thursday or early Friday. I woke at 4:25 a.m., even before my alarm went off. I had put a bottle of Elie's favorite drink (ice tea) in the freezer. I grabbed that and some brownies and headed out. I left the city (Maale Adumim) and drove towards the Dead Sea. Dawn was just breaking; all was quiet. Does it get better than this, I thought to myself.

I took the turn-off to the Jordan Valley, leaving the mountains of Jerusalem and the plains of the Dead Sea behind me. I saw a fox cross the road (I think it was a fox) and fog to my right hovering over the land. No, this is one of those moments you cherish.

The sun was just breaking through the clouds over the Golan Heights a little over an hour later, as I approached. We had agreed that Elie would call me when he woke up and there was such wonder in knowing he was safe and asleep. He called a few minutes after 6:00.

"Hi Ima, where are you?"

"Right next to the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee]." (Which means I was already 2/3 of the way there.)

"Wow, what time did you leave?"

"4:30," I told him. I can see sort of where your base is. The base was not, of course, on the map, but Elie had told me what major intersections and roads to take and I agreed to call him when I got to the closest point that was identifiable on the map. From there, he would guide me.

I was about to pass a gas station, when I decided to pull in and make a pit stop. I bought Elie a bottle of chocolate milk, a national institution here and was back on the road in minutes.

Thirty minutes later, I called Elie and he guided me towards his base, promising to make his way to the front. The land was so beautiful, stretched out before me. Syria participated in the attack against Israel in 1956 and again increased their belligerence in 1967. In a preemptive attack, Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967; Israel knew that to surrender the heights for anything less than full peace would be insane.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked with little warning, on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Only when Israel proved that it could shell Damascus, was a ceasefire quickly arranged. Many lives were lost, but the Golan remained in Israeli hands. To travel up to the Golan is to understand the geography and topology of war. As I drove to Elie's base, most of northern Israel lay before my eyes. In friendly hands, the Golan is a wonderland of beauty - fertile, filled with water, and standing proud over the plains of the Galilee below.

In enemy hands, the northern part of Israel would be most vulnerable. I waited for Elie to come to the front of the base and when he did come, it was with two friends who would join us for the right. One helped Elie carry his backpacks and it was clear that Elie would have had a very difficult time making it home alone.

We drove back the way I had come, down the mountains, around the sea and through the valley. The boys had long since fallen asleep, even Elie, by the time I got to the last checkpoint before entering the Jordan Valley.

A guard waved to me and I lowered the window, "Where are you going?" he asked. It's a standard question and really, the answer doesn't matter. What matters is the few seconds it takes you to answer. In those seconds, the guard will determine - friend or foe; safe or dangerous. Before I'd said a word, his eyes moved to the three sleeping soldiers in the car.

I could read his mind. Our soldiers wouldn't go to sleep, if you couldn't be trusted. "Have a safe trip. Shabbat shalom," he said as he waved me through.

When I got home, I cooked quickly. Elie helped some. We threw in his clothes to be washed. His father and brother did the shopping. His younger brother watered plants; his sister set the table.

For the first time in...I can't remember how long, I closed my cellular phone. I typically leave it on in some discreet location. Most people know that I don't answer the phone on the Sabbath and so it is very rare that it will ring. At most, it will beep a message or ring once until the caller realizes it's probably a wrong number. In an emergency, everyone knows, you call and call again. Were the phone to ring repeatedly, if someone were hurt, I would know.

Closing my phone, to me, meant that I was at peace with where everyone was. My married daughter was safe in her Jerusalem home with her husband; the rest of us were safe at home.

The sabbath passed in peace and quiet; sleep and talk. I'll write at some point about the things Elie told me and the places he is going in the weeks to come but the most important part of the weekend was that once again, with Elie home, I was able to rest to a level that I can't do when he isn't home.

It was one of those wonderful moments, as when I drove through the Jordan Valley with the dawn just breaking. The truest blessings of life are not only to have and collect such moments, but to recognize them as they are happening. With that, comes true peace.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Did you hear that?

Elie called this morning. Actually, he called Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. He has a problem. He's coming home this weekend and needs to bring ALL his stuff home because next week he leaves his team to become commander of an incoming group of soldiers. What Or was to Elie when he first started in the army, Elie will not be to a new group.

As Elie didn't call Or by his first name for the first few months, so too these new soldiers will call Elie only by "Commander" and Elie will be tough on them. He'll make them run - as an Israeli commander will, by telling them, "Follow me." He'll test them and teach them about their responsibilities with a gun. And behind his back, they will complain to each other and maybe even give Elie a nickname (his group called one of the commanders, "Barbie" and another "Solomon").

And finally, he'll walk through the night with them and share in the pride their parents will feel when they too receive their turquoise berets. But that's in the near future - after Elie gets home. So, how will Elie get home? The long and short of it is that I agreed to drive up there and get him and all his backpacks filled with the stuff he's brought up there (the fan, the extra blanket, the outdoor cooking grill, and more). It's probably a 3 hour drive and I'm wishing he will call any second and tell me to leave, though it might well only be early tomorrow morning before I can do that.

He's not even sure how to tell me to get to the base up there...and that too is part of the fun, though I decided I'm going to make sure I get there during daylight hours. So, still trying to coordinate when I would get him (today until the evening or first thing in the morning), Elie explained that he was involved in offering artillery for a huge paratroopers exercise taking place in the north. Yesterday, they thought they would finish, but fired much fewer shells than expected and so today, the exercise continues.

"Did you hear that?" Elie says after a loud boom came through the phone.

"Yes, what was it?" I asked.

"We just shot."

"Elie, that is so cool."

And it was. Of course, it was cool because it is just an exercise and no one was hurt (except, perhaps, some plants there on the hill in the distance). Like other times Elie has told me about training exercises, I didn't write anything. I'm not sure why - after all, it isn't like our enemies can't hear the booms too. It isn't like they are going to suddenly cross the border and attack. After all, if they would attack, it would be with the hopes of catching us when our weapons aren't loaded and ready to shoot. Where's the logic of attacking artillery units that have their guns loaded and pointing in one direction when all they would have to do is swing around and go "boom."

But still, being cautious, or perhaps superstitious, I didn't write, until I saw this posted on a popular news site:

Today, the IDF Paratroopers Brigade finished its biggest brigade-level exercise ever. The exercise lasted more than seven weeks, and the commanders and soldiers of the brigade practiced different scenario types and objectives, including air assault exercises on the Golan Heights. The exercises focused on wartime scenarios involving difficult conditions and realistic logistical challenges.

Yup, they did practice today, and it was so cool.

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