I wasn't sure I was in the right place. The Guest House in Bayit V'gan, Jerusalem, was the address for the Nefesh Israel Conference, but stepping out of the cab I thought I'd entered a military base—hundreds of soldiers gathered in the lobby, dining rooms, and the grounds outside. There for a few days of rest and recreation before continuing their service, they were a striking contrast to the participants of the conference for mental health professionals I had come to attend.
Preparing to enter the session on positive psychology, I got into conversation with Uri, Avi and their friends...always there was someone whose English was by far superior to my Hebrew. Lots of kidding, lots of in-jokes lost on me, lots of ribbing each other—all a cover up for their inner tension.
Just over two weeks since the war in Gaza officially began,
All hardly old enough to vote, they'd already experienced the pain of loss, of fear, of a future no longer secure.
they'd already experienced the pain of loss, of fear, of a future no longer secure. Avi was making arrangements to visit his cousin who was gravely wounded; Uri, his childhood friend killed, wouldn't go home because he so disliked his mother's new husband. Another spoke of his neighbor whom he'd heard was critically injured; that one feared for his uncle; another joked about joining a brother living in Japan. All, all, hardly old enough to vote; each of them was committed to ensuring the safety of their nation.
The lecture was over; the room emptying of psychologists and social workers, and soldiers come streaming in, sitting in the chairs just vacated by professionals, awaiting their own lecture by their own commander. A friend and I loitered, discussing the conference.
Some foreign impulse overtook me – a combination of sleep deprivation and jet lag helps to lower inhibitions – an overwhelming feeling of love for these boys who wear the uniform of the IDF, each of who wears the face of my son. The compulsion to hug each one. Impulsively, I ask the commander if I may address his class. Sixty or seventy young men – boys – sitting silently, and I speak to them words that are formed not in the rationale of the brain, but in the passion of the heart.
My voice is low, there is absolute silence in the room. I tell them how, having a son who'd served in the IDF several years ago, I see his face before me seventy times over. I speak to them of our prayers, all the mothers of Israel, of our prayers for their safety, and for their compromised childhood. I speak of my fears – they have none! – of hopes and dreams, of historical promises made to us...
Most of all I speak of my love for them. Today, I don't remember the words...I remember just the feeling in that room...I remember the eyes, the smiles, the silence—so respectful they were! I remember the overflow in my heart of maternal instinct to protect...the knot of fear in my gut.
Once, waiting for a delayed flight,
I speak to them of our prayers, all the mothers of Israel, for their safety, and for their compromised childhood.
I was kept company by a young Israeli businessman. He'd told me then of his uncle: at 19 Roni had lost his left leg in Lebanon, and for years became increasingly reclusive and depressed. On a family trip to New York, he'd gone to see the Rebbe, and upon hearing his story the Rebbe shook his hand, and said, "Thank you."
And here I was, rows and rows of soldiers before me, and I found myself in front of one, looking into his eyes, the words from my heart. "Thank you." And then next to him another pair of eyes. "Thank you." "Thank you." I move from one to the next. "Thank you." One soldier stands up as I approach him. "Thank you." He grins and says, loudly, "You're welcome."
And the next, "Thank you."
"For what?" he asks.
I hesitate for a moment... "For the uniform you wear," I say. "Thank you. Thank you."
I catch their commander watching me from the opposite wall, and suddenly I wonder what I'm doing here, taking all this time from their schedule... "Is it okay?" I ask him. "Please," he says, motioning with his hand... "Please...take your time."
Before me are three small kipot clustered... "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
The sweetest smile on his face... I say, "Thank you," and he says to me, "No, Madame, we thank you."
And for the next... How long was it? Ten minutes? fifteen? How long would it take to stop sixty to seventy times, to kiss with my eyes each pair of eyes and say thank you? And all that time there's not a sound in the room. I don't realize this until later—how astounding this is. Scores of young boys in a room and they are silent...
At last, I reach the end of the last row. "Thank you," I say to him... and turn to leave.
The commander is standing at the door. He invites me to stay, and join them for dinner. I feel I've intruded too much, and now feel self-conscious. And in a seeming single movement they are all standing and applauding as I walk out. "Thank you," I hear behind me.