Lone soldiers: young idealists and worried parents

David Max, 23, is deployed in a non-combat communications unit.

It’s tough enough being a Jewish parent. But what if your child serves in Israel’s military – when the country is at war?

Among local parents whose sons and daughters are members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there’s daily fretting – which is expected, given that soldiers are dying in Operation Protective Edge – but also a sense of resignation and pride.

These “lone soldiers” – the status, which denotes having no family in Israel, is considered a badge of honour in the country – are young, idealistic Zionists. And have acted on their beliefs, often to the worry of their parents back home in Canada.

According to the Lone Soldier Center, an Israeli non-profit, 5,700 such personnel currently serve in the IDF. About 45 per cent are new immigrants from Jewish communities all over the world. One estimate, from Nefesh B’Nefesh, which offers support and guidance to those immigrating to Israel, puts the number of Canadian lone soldiers at 145.

Among them is 23-year-old David Max, who’s deployed in a non-combat radio communications unit away from the current fighting in Gaza. Still, his mother, Vivian, quotes the mother of another Canadian serving in the IDF: “Nothing I’ve done in my life prepared me for this.”

If you’re Israeli-born, Vivian Max told The CJN, being a soldier “is a common thing. Everyone knows what’s expected. They know what the standards are. We don’t know any of that. We don’t know what we’re getting into. It’s such a learning curve for us.”

Vivian Max, who lives in Thornhill, confesses to having unusual feelings.

“Truthfully, I feel guilty because I don’t worry as much as the parents who have a kid running into Gaza. I’m in a different category. And I feel guilty about that.”

Audrey Shecter, a Toronto lawyer whose 19-year-old daughter, Orli Broer, serves in a West Bank unit that processes visas and other paperwork, says she and her husband “are reading the news a lot more than we used to.”

But Shecter is experienced. Her son, Rafi, served for 27 months in a combat engineering unit and was discharged in February. He now works at a bar in Tel Aviv.

Still, his mother worries because her daughter worries. Many of her male friends are likely now in combat in Gaza.

“A lot of them are in elite units, and [their friends] don’t know where they are,” Shecter told The CJN. “It’s become a lot more personal for her.”

Even though her daughter is assigned to a clerical job and is female, Shecter is anxious.

“She is wearing the uniform of the country, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes her a target. And she’s living on a base in the West Bank, so who knows what can happen?”

She and Orli speak or text every day. “She says it’s pretty sad in Israel.”

Perla Riesenbach, who founded Parents of Lone Soldiers, a support group for Toronto-area parents of children in the IDF two years ago, confesses that she has scant advice for current parents of IDF soldiers, because her own son, Ariel, has been safely home since October after serving as a paratrooper in Israel.

Still, she feels that “every soldier is like a son or daughter. Not just the Canadian ones, not just ours. Our heart aches and breaks for all of them.” Mainly, her group allows parents to get together, air their consternation and swap tips for coping.

Shecter says there’s a movement afoot to set up a Canadian group to support the Lone Soldier Center, which identifies several concerns these soldiers face: financial issues, lack of information about the IDF, and loneliness and homesickness.

Max relates that earlier this spring, when three teenage boys from the West Bank were kidnapped and later found dead, her son “was very busy, around the clock.”

But now, “he tells me ‘I’m bored.’ I said, ‘The whole army should be bored.’ Bored is a good sign.”

She said her son, like so many lone soldiers, faces “a major roller-coaster with many obstacles. It’s very hard for them. A few weeks ago, he was sick and someone could take care of him on base. If he went back to his kibbutz, where he has a room, he would be totally alone.”

As well, David has had a hard time connecting with native Israelis, she added.

“But he’s gotten so many freebies and special treatment because he’s a soldier and a lone soldier, like discounts,” Vivian enthuses. Recently, while David waited in line at a grocery store, a woman offered to pay for his items.

Thornhill’s Nadav Elituv, himself a veteran of the IDF, deals with the anxiety of knowing his son serves in a combat unit by going to visit him as often as possible.

Noam Elituv, though just 21, is a medic and sharpshooter, and has just finished a commander’s course. He serves in the Givati Brigade.

“It’s been very, very difficult over the last three weeks to concentrate on work, and I’m quite happy to be here,” Nadav told The CJN from Israel, where he was visiting his son, who’s between deployments.

Asked whether Noam has seen action in the Gaza campaign, his father said: “Thank God he hasn’t seen any action and hopefully, he won’t see any action.”

It’s “not easy” for Noam to be alone. “Although we have limited family in Israel, it’s not the same,” Elituv said.

Dr. Nina Josefowitz, a psychologist who has addressed the Toronto support group, said parents of children serving in the IDF can face an “incredibly difficult situation. Parents are generally extremely supportive of their children, very proud of them, and are tremendous supporters of Israel, [but also] very worried about them on an individual basis.”

She advises: “It’s important to keep on with their lives. It’s important not to stay glued to the television, [because] what tends to happen is you start catastrophizing. It really fuels your fears.”

It’s also important for parents not to expect to communicate with their kids every day.

“It’s often not possible to talk to your child. If you set up an expectation to talk every day and you don’t hear [from them] it fuels tremendous anxiety.”

Shecter says that when she speaks or texts with her daughter daily, she tries to buck her up by saying, “you’re doing a good thing. You’re where you want to be.”