IDF soldiers
IDF soldiers (Facebook/IDF)

‘Rather than regretting what could have been if you were going to college now, I am excited for all you can learn and grow and benefit from serving your people.’

Dear D.,

Last month, [undercover counter-terrorism] Duvdevan commandos — a commander and his signal operator — were shot multiple times while chasing Hamas terrorists. One bullet pierced one of the commander’s grenades. Thanks to an Israeli technological innovation, the grenade didn’t explode.

A medic ran to them, defying flying bullets, following the chest wound protocols, including intubating the commander, saving his life. Treating the soldier, the same medic violated the same protocols, perhaps remembering an update not to intubate if blood pressure plummets. That brave deviation saved the soldier’s life.

Gil Troy
Gil Troy

The brigade’s medical officer then changed the medivac’s rendezvous site. Her decision compressed the evacuation timetable — also saving their lives.

That’s the kind of army you joined yesterday — and those are the kinds of life-and-death, on-the-fly, split-second, crazy, creative, courageous, sometimes self-sacrificing, often risk-taking decisions you will start making tomorrow.

Of course, we, your parents, will never know about them. The one thing we know about your service is that we’re not supposed to know anything about your service.

But we know you. And we are already proud of you and all that you and your peers offer our country, our people and our cause — this worldwide fight for civilization, sanity and safety.

Like most of us today, you are among the biggest winners of the Great Historical Lottery. We’re weirdos in Jewish history — Jews born free and comfortable.

Entering senior year, you had worked hard — gaining maturity, creativity and improvisational abilities from leading 70 kids weekly with three other teenagers as a Bnei Akiva madrichah (counselor), while gaining book smarts and good values in high school. You had shown tremendous discipline in studying, violin-playing and balleting. But you had never needed to demonstrate much resilience.

Then corona hit.

I watched as you absorbed blow after blow, cancellation after cancellation, your senior year, with a smile on your face, making the best of it.

The best example of your buoyancy came when you were distributing food citywide to needy Jerusalemites during the lockdown. The police stopped you 12 times one day. One officer nabbed you as her shift began — then again when it ended. You showed your permits patiently, taking it all in good spirits — even when that skeptical first-and-last officer threatened to arrest you.

You brought that same flexibility and strength to your premilitary year. The living conditions were, ahem, not five-star. Corona made the studies on and off, while limiting your volunteer opportunities.

Nevertheless, when you were there, you were happy. When you were sent home, you were happy. And when you were in that never-never land called Zoom, you were happy, too. Little seemed to faze you. The payoff was in great teachers, great friends and a great grounding for the army — and for life.

Now, as you, my fourth child, join the Israeli army, I watch through competing historical lenses as an oleh dad. It’s easiest, and emotionally safest, to see this all in Jewish historical time, marveling at our ability to defend ourselves, and your opportunity to contribute to Israel, the greatest Jewish adventure in millennia.

Zooming in, it’s hardest to compare your timeline and my timeline, contrasting my perennial studenthood’s freedom, comforts and indulgences with your challenging, if hopefully fulfilling, road ahead. My head lists all the ways soldiering builds character, but my heart hurts that we still need soldiers at all — let alone how desperately we need smart, effective, idealistic soldiers like you. And I, probably more than you, keenly feel your sacrifice in temporarily suspending your autonomy to protect us all.

Ultimately, sidelining history, autobiography and ideology, I try looking at you from your perspective.

You have an advantage. Because enlistment feels so natural to you, you’re far more prepared for whatever will come than any of us middle-aged immigrants could be. With your great attitude, and your network of friends and siblings who have seen it all before, I am confident you will thrive.

So rather than regretting what could have been if you were going to college now, I am excited for all you can learn and grow and benefit from serving your people.

And unlike most friends abroad, I don’t ask “how long will you serve?” as if it’s a prison sentence; I join other Israelis in asking “where will you serve” — because it’s a privilege and an opportunity.

On Shabbat, when your siblings toasted you, they vowed: “We’ve got your back.” They wisely advised: “Remember the little things — be kind, help your comrades, the day-to-day is key.” Finally, they emphasized how important your service is, how the State of Israel needs you.

I was moved by their pitch-perfect balance between the personal and communal, the particular and the universal, the ephemeral and the eternal, the meaningful.

Before that, you celebrated your last week of civilian freedom by walking with two friends mi’yam l’yam, 80 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. As you went off, carrying a backpack the size of New Jersey on your back, with your usual smile on your lips, I harbored a dad’s fears about three young women wandering Israel’s backwoods. But I also had a parent’s pride in your self-confidence, skill, resilience and range — knowing you’d be as comfortable sleeping under the stars as you would be in a five-star hotel (or cushy university dorm).

And that’s what I’m feeling this week as you begin basic training: Whatever worries I have fade away as I trust the person you are — and consider your sacred mission ahead. We are so lucky to have heroes like you looking out for slackers like me.

Love,

Abba 

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was published by Public Affairs of Hachette. This essay was first published on the Jerusalem Post.

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