A year and a half ago my son left the nest.
Religious Israeli boys choose from a number of different options after they finish high school. The extra smart ones can do “atuda” (academic military program). The army pays for them to go to university, where they study things like computers or robotics. Then they commit to extra-long army service in their field.
That was my dream for my son. He could learn at a place like Machon Lev, where the mornings are dedicated to learning Torah and the afternoons focus on high-level secular studies. He would get an excellent education, and then serve Klal Yisrael while doing his army service in his profession, at a “desk job.”
But as an eighteen year old, my son could not fathom making an eight-year commitment to the army. And doing what I thought was right for him was not at the top of his priority list. He looked around and decided to learn in the hesder yeshiva in Tsfat.
The hesder program allows religious boys to combine yeshiva learning with army service. They sit in the beit midrash for a year and a half or two before heading to a year and four months of army service. Then they return to yeshiva to learn for a second stint of a year and a half or two, depending how long they learned in yeshiva prior to getting into uniform.
I was proud of my son that he decided to dedicate time to Torah learning. Even as a religious boy, he could have opted to go straight to the army. I was also relieved that, with the schedule of his yeshiva in Tsfat, his army service was two years in the distance. I was frightened when I learned that all hesder boys serve in combat units. But, I reassured myself that one of the hesder boys I knew served in the rabbanut, giving shiurim and supervising kashrut. Never mind that he had a low physical profile which did not allow him to serve in a combat unit. I also knew that the army does not force anyone to go into a combat unit who is unwilling. And intelligence is the largest unit in the Israel army.
Hesder boys mostly draft in August, after two full years of learning, although some yeshivot structure their schedules to have the boys draft in March. Since I understood that the Tsfat boys drafted in August I slept pretty well at night.
Then, at the end of December my son told us he was considering drafting in March. My heart stopped.
Why, oh why, would he want to do that? It seemed that a few of his closest friends had already left Tsfat for other yeshivot. And his other closest friends decided to draft early. My son was just “thinking about it.”
I try not to be a “buttinsky mother.” Not this time. I called my son’s Ra’am (the rav of his shiur). I called the rosh yeshiva. I needed information. I needed to understand what my son would not explain to me.
They told me that they tried to pressure my son to stay until August, and go in with the large group, which would be about forty boys. They told him that if he goes in with that group the yeshiva has more leverage to advocate for them. They’re more in touch with them. They visit them more. They can be more supportive.
I understood that it was the boys who weren’t stellar learners who bailed early and wanted to get out of the beit midrash. But my son was a strong learner. He’d been having a great year. It would be such a shame for him to cut the learning short now.
And he was taking two college courses. Through hesder, students can elect to study at a local college and earn a teacher’s degree. They start taking courses their second year in yeshiva, and after their army service they complete the curriculum. My son didn’t want to bag the college courses too, did he?
He found out that he could, indeed, take a test to finish the semester, and pick up where he left off after his army service.
I did not push him, but I did tell him that I thought it would be better for him to continue his learning and go in with the bigger group. He said he would think about it.
In the end, he decided to draft early with his friends.
What’s a mother to do?
I tried to put Hashem into the picture. I thought that maybe His plan would keep my son safer than had he drafted in August. I found out that the seven boys from his yeshiva who drafted early would go into the artillery unit, whereas the August draft might put them into seemingly more dangerous units, like tanks or Golani (a prestigious unit serving in the North). I learned that the artillery soldiers are not on the front lines, they’re behind with the “big guns.” They shoot the cannons (new high tech versions, not like my picture of the Civil War type cannons). They’re involved with the Iron Dome.
Artillery was not a prestigious unit. Good. Those were far more dangerous. I have a good friend whose son served in Egoz, an elite unit. She did not do well when he was in Gaza during “Protective Edge.” I felt relieved my son would be in a seemingly safer unit.
“But Leah,” I said to a good friend. “He’ll be in uniform. He’ll still be a target.”
“Jolie,” she answered, “we’re all targets.”
Somehow I did not find that comforting.
I took my son to buy a G-shock watch, like all the boys wear in the army. We went for socks and green undershirts. I took him for last appointments at the dentist and dermatologist. I tried not to think too much.
The day before he went in I took him to the local mall. As we were driving a thought crossed my mind which shocked me. I wonder if I got into a little tiny accident, just by running into something but not really getting us too hurt, if that would delay my son’s drafting.
I shook my head, left and right. Luckily, my son was looking down at his phone and didn’t notice. Are you crazy?! What are you thinking?! I scolded myself. Well, I hadn’t planned to think that thought, and I would never plow into something to get into an accident. But I realized that I really did not want him to go. (Like I didn’t know that…)
The next day my son, husband, daughter, and I went off to the army station adjacent to Tel Hashomer Hospital. When the boys from his yeshiva were called, off he went. It was a Monday. The commander told me he’d be home for Shabbos, my birthday. He came home the next Shabbos too, erev Pesach, and the following Shabbos/yom tov too. Then he started coming home only every other week. I don’t know if all those Shabboses in a row were to make the transition easier for the boys or for their mothers.
Recently, Yekutiel had his swearing in ceremony. Finally we got to see his base, check out his room (very sparse) and attend the classic Israeli ceremony, where each soldier is presented with a Tanach and a gun.
I’m still scared, but I don’t sleep badly at night. And I feel a tremendous sense of pride. I listen more intently to the news these days, and I pray several times a day for the safety for both the American and Israeli soldiers, especially for my son (Yekutiel Kalman ben Bluma Tsirka Michal, if you’re asking).
After basic training soldiers move on to more nerve-wracking jobs. Different units are connected to different parts of the country, where they are assigned guard duty. Apparently Artillery is connected to the area around Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank.
“I’d like to be in Jenin,” my son said off-handedly.
I felt my heart start to race. “Why?” I asked. “Oh, I think it’s interesting.”
Interesting. That’s sort of how I’m thinking about this army thing. I try to stay interested (not scared), bolster my faith in Hashem, and hope and pray for the best.
Check back with me after basic training, or better yet, when my son, bezrat Hashem, is back in the beit midrash.