September 30, 2016

Not your regular graduation

On Wednesday evening, my older son officially became a Captain in the Israeli Army. He had just completed a rigorous, three-month course with 90 other soldiers becoming, in Israeli terms, a mefaked pluga

His previous rank was lieutenant. Now, he will supervise the officers, managing a company of up to 150 soldiers.

It has been a long four years of service for him and I clearly remember delivering him, at the tender age of 19, at the bakum in TelAviv for his draft, his giyus. It was an emotional time for every parent and grandparent who was there to see their children off.

At the bakum, we hand our precious kids over to the IDF for three years of military service. (Since 2013, when my son went in, the draft time has been reduced to 33 months for boys and may go down to 30 months soon.)

For three years, parents forfeit being the primary caregivers. The IDF looks after medical and dental needs and emotional wellbeing. The army feeds and clothes them. It tells them when they can go home and when they have to go back to base, when to sleep and when to wake up.

It is very emotional for the parents who tenderly cared for their kids since they were born and who must then say goodbye. Every mom secretly counts down the months until her child’s release from the army. But what happens when your son signs on for more time?

When my son did just this, I stopped counting and simply felt proud. How could I not? I have seen my son grow from a shy teenager to a leader who stands tall, knows how to listen to orders and now, knows how to give orders. The army has formed him into a real leader.

In the upcoming November draft, parents will again crowd into the bakum. There will be a sense of apprehension and nervousness.  Mothers will lock hands with their kids, not wanting to ever let go. The boys will be clean-shaven and have buzz cuts; the girls will have their hair tied back neatly.

They will be trading their jeans for khaki, sandals for boots, surfboards for weapons. Their free will is about to be forfeited for ultimate selflessness.  

Families will mill about nervously, waiting until their kids’ names ‘flash up on a board.’  Departure time, IDF style.

Come November, some of these kids will be handed over to the care of my son who will be their ‘mem peh’ for three months of basic training. He will do his best to ensure their safety and imbue in them a sense of solidarity, camaraderie and team spirit.  He will help build their confidence while teaching them respect and will help them to succeed. Who does not want this for their child?

His rank of mefaked pluga does not come without a price. This was earned after years of enduring strict discipline, of often feeling broken and overwhelmed; of sleeping outdoors, working and training in intense heat, rain, mud and cold; of long days with little sleep and of being hungry; and of times filled with severe stress, the unknown and pressure.

I have been to many army graduations over the years but this one was different. The ceremony was at a fancy theatre, not on a military base. We nibbled on party sandwiches when we entered the auditorium, then sat comfortably in plush chairs.

The big brass were there, sporting multiple ‘falafels’ on their shoulders. And there was no military marching like I had seen before in other military ceremonies.

The men walked up on stage and received their new status via a diploma and a handshake. They may look rested and their new uniforms may be freshly starched and spotless, but they have seen a lot: this distinction was earned with sweat.

Most of these soldiers are older and married, their wives holding squirming infants in their laps.  Many babies were crying and protesting, making this place feel more like a kindergarten than a serious ceremony.

Yet these wives are heroes as well. Their husbands are never home and the wives are alone to raise the children. They worry and are fearful, the children miss not having a father around.

This is the ultimate sacrifice for Israelis: parents, wives, children and the soldiers. And this is the most important work of all.

I am grateful to each soldier for making such a sacrifice for our security and safety, and offer thanks to all the new mem pehs. As they said at the ceremony, the training is complete and now the real work must be done.

Good luck and may we all learn from your dedication, inner strength and selflessness.

And may we all have a safe, secure new year.

Shana Tova

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