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My Son, the Chayal

Beth Popp Meiri

As I write this, it is Day 15 of Operation Swords of Iron, the Israel-Hamas War. Like you, I was devastated as the attacks of October 7, Shabbos Shemini Atzeres here in the US, became known. Like you, I care deeply for the welfare of Israel and fear for the safety of the residents. Residents who are spending more time inside of their maamadim (safe rooms) and miklatim due to the number and frequency of air raid sirens. Like you, I fear for the safety of the soldiers called into action. I know too many friends whose children are among the 350,000 reservists called up. My sons have many friends who are serving. One of those reservists is my son Yonatan. He is sitting in an undisclosed location on the Gaza border, where he is a tank commander as a reservist in the IDF. It seems surreal to write that sentence, though I have been saying it for 14 days. It’s not surreal. It is very real.

Yonatan first started talking about going to Israel and serving in the IDF before his bar mitzvah. By the time he was a senior in high school, the question was when he was making Aliyah, during shana aleph, or after. He had a very strong connection to Israel, though we had never had an opportunity to take him there to visit. It was philosophical. It was religious. It was emotional. It was intense. It was unwavering. And it still is all of those things.

He went to Yeshivat Har Etzion (“The Gush”) after high school, acclimated to life in Israel, made friends with families in Alon Shevut, with Israeli students in the yeshivah, and worked hard to make his Hebrew fluent. He made Aliyah through Nefesh b’Nefesh in August between shana aleph and shana bet. The sendoff at JFK was emotional, with a large contingent of young adults making Aliyah. They all wore t-shirts that said “Olim l’Tzahal”. Yonatan jokes that he gave us 5-6 years to get used to the idea of his making Aliyah. I fully understood Hesder included active duty army service for at least 18 months. He was drafted in August 2018. His friends and rebbeim from yeshivah went with him, since his parents were 6000 miles away in NY. I was sent videos. It was a joyful sendoff. The draftees were very cognizant of serving the Jewish People and their nation in its own army. While it may have been obligatory military service, it was an obligation they embraced and looked forward to fulfilling with their service. He completed basic training, and I was able to make a 5-day trip to Israel to attend his Tekes Hashbah’ah (swearing in ceremony). Again, I could not help but notice the combination of seriousness of purpose and pride the new soldiers and all the families in attendance had. Extended families attend the ceremony, and it has an air of joy and celebration. I cannot describe how moving it was to have my son among the young men being sworn in to the armored (tank) corps, known in Hebrew as shiryon. There was another ceremony when he completed the specialized training for shiryon, when the soldiers get the berets signifying their units. Fortunately, one of his brothers was in yeshivah in Israel and was able to attend, along with the family which “adopted” him as “their lone solider”. He served for a number of months, then took the commander’s course. He graduated as a commander at the end of February 2020. My husband, who had not been able to attend the Tekes Hashba’ah, went to Israel for the Tekes for graduating as a commander. There was a flash flood in the Negev, and the soldiers could not get from their base to Latrun for the ceremony, which was cancelled. He graduated without the ceremony, and they got a few days together. Which was good, as within the month COVID hit, and travel stopped. He served longer than the minimum 18 months due to being a commander.

He finished his service during COVID, “cut his card” (Israeli’s show they are no longer in active duty in the army by cutting their Army ID card). He returned to yeshivah and stayed an additional year. He started college last year and did miluim for the first time. He decided to change his degree. The first day of classes was October 16th. His unit had miluim scheduled again just as the semester started. I worried about it making it difficult to start the semester missing classes for the first week. They say, “be careful what you wish for, it may come true.” I think a corollary is, be careful what you worry about, it may come to seem absurd.

He was in yeshivah for Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, when he got word that his reserve unit was activated, as were many of his friends, not to mention the talmidim/chayalim on active duty who make up shiur gimmel and shiur daled in the five year Hesder program. His youngest brother, Binyamin, was also in Israel, learning in a different Hesder yeshivah. He is in the process of making Aliyah and was able to be in communication with Yonatan as soon as Yom Tov ended in Israel.

We (my husband and I and our other two sons) were in NJ at our brother/sisters-in-law for the chag. We heard Shabbos afternoon that something significant had happened, and were, like everyone, hungry for information and worried. We got some additional information on Sunday (Simchas Torah) mostly through newspapers. The day proceeded strangely, as we found a delivery of a case of water bottles and a pint of ice cream delivered to the doorstep. Of course, none of us had placed any orders. When Yom Tov ended, my phone rang within a minute. Binyamin called, telling us they were both safe and filling us in that Yonatan had been deployed to the Gaza border. Binyamin had spent the day with some friends helping their rebbi with seven young children (including triplets) under age 11, as rebbi’s wife is an emergency medicine physician, who was called in to handle the influx of injured arriving. They had parents in America too and knew they would be worried and finding the inability to be in communication because it was still chag in America stressful. They came up with the idea to send an Uber Eats delivery to their parents in America, with a note saying they were safe. The mystery of the water bottles and ice cream was solved. (Though the note which was the most important part of the delivery didn’t seem to have been included!)

We had a brief call from Yonatan, and the four of us huddled around the phone, hanging on every word of the short call. That has been the theme of the last two weeks. He got leave for 24 hours (the day President Biden was in Israel) and I was able to give Binyamin permission to leave his yeshivah so the boys could see one another.

Yonatan and his soldiers don’t want to have to fight a war. He would much rather be in his college classes. He understands, as we all do, that this is not a choice in light of the massacres in the South on October 7 and the continued holding of 200 hostages. Since they must fight, they are going into their service with seriousness of purpose. They understand what is at stake, personally and for Israel and the Jewish people. They again have a sense that they have been privileged to be charged with this responsibility. They know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. And are part of a significant event in Jewish history. They are davening and doing all they need to do to prepare for their missions. Today he shared some thoughts with us related to part of the tefillah the soldiers say before going out to war. They very much feel and appreciate the support of every Israeli and all of us outside of Israel. Their ability to keep this mindset amazes me. And I see how it has helped them get through these first two weeks of a war, which we are all hearing may last months.

I keep getting asked “How are you doing?” I am not OK. None of us are OK. I get a lot of support from chats of other parents of lone soldiers. We have had multiple Israeli friends, who have several of their own children serving, calling us to see how we are doing and volunteering to help if the boys need anything. The achdus and the selflessness astounds me.

I keep getting asked, “How do you do this?” There is no question, this part of being a lone soldier mom is much more stressful than Yonatan’s earlier service. One of the other lone soldier moms shared a thought which has become my mantra. “My son has his mission, and I have mine.” We all have a mission right now, whether in a uniform or not. Whether in Israel or chutz laAretz. The soldiers have a commander who tells them what their mission is and what their role in the mission is. Those of us who aren’t soldiers have to figure out what our mission is. I have come to believe that my mission is to daven, advocate, and “keep my head in the game.” I need to remain mentally in a place where I can be supportive when Yonatan is able to call or text and help my husband and sons (and our extended family) through the stress of having children in a war zone, with one on the front lines. I’m careful about what I watch of the myriad of videos posted on WhatsApp chats and on the news. When we had an opportunity to raise a significant sum of money to buy some equipment Yonatan’s unit needed, I embraced it. Having something tangible to do, in addition to davening, is helpful.

The corollary to “my son has his mission and I have mine” is that the residents in the south had to push themselves out of their comfort zones to try to save others and try to save themselves. Families were silent in their safe rooms for many hours without food or water, knowing they could not make a sound lest they be discovered. Driving a car after being shot through the car door. Signaling rescuers and delaying the terrorists by offering them food. Perhaps part of our mission, especially being outside of Israel, is to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Whatever that means for you. It could be some aspect of your observance that you can push yourself to do. If you’re not someone who usually writes letters, write to a public official about the plight of the hostages or thanking them for their support of Israel. If you’re not someone who usually goes to rallies, go out of your comfort zone and attend a rally. Find something that you can do that will help Israel in the war and help you contribute to the success.

There is no shortage of good causes to donate to. The needs are enormous: Equipment for soldiers, hospitals coping with large numbers of injured, evacuated families, people who can’t work because their employers are not functioning right now, families of the injured and families who have lost one or both parents.

And we need to daven. For the safety and success of the soldiers. For the recovery of the wounded. For the return of the captives. For the bereaved. For the evacuated. For all of Israel. For all of Am Yisrael.

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