SHMULEY BOTEACH COLUMN
My warrior son left me in awe and so proud

OUR son Mendy was at New York University when he abruptly informed his parents that he was suspending his degree to join the Israel Defence Forces.

He was already an Israel fighter on campus and friends told him the battle against Israel-haters at western universities was equally - if not more - important.

But he would not be deterred. Israel was facing genocidal enemies and he refused to remain in the safety of Washington Square Park.

We had already had a child who served in the IDF and we were very proud of his decision to follow - but not as sure of his insistence on getting into an elite combat unit at the age of 22, practically ancient compared to the 18-year-old conscripts he would be competing against.

I still remember my wife screaming with delight on the phone more than a year ago when Mendy called to say that he had got in.

When you're the parents of a lone soldier serving in Israel your life changes substantially.

In the first year of training, you struggle just to stay in touch. The army takes away a soldier's phone for up to two weeks at a time.

Phone calls are limited to 10 minute intervals. And if you want to see your child for Jewish holidays, you're taking the whole family to Israel (no complaints, but it can be expensive). Just listening to your son describing the gruelling demands of training is itself mystifying.

As a parent you can feel pretty useless offering the platitudes across the miles: "Bear with it," "you're going to get through it", "there are only six months left". And the ever-constant: "We're so proud of you."

This morning, on a cold mountain in the Golan Heights amid an annoying drizzle, Mendy's unit celebrated the completion of their army training in a ceremony that can only be described as moving and memorable.

What made it bittersweet was the injury Mendy sustained two weeks ago that forced him to undergo surgery.

As I watched this young man push himself up the mountain with crutches, at the head of his unit, keeping a pace that I could never hope to, and watching him arrive at the mountain summit with sweat dripping down his cheeks, it struck me that three days before my 50th birthday I had raised a son who had already exceeded my sacrifice for the Jewish people.

When Mendy's name was skipped in the alphabetical order of the Warrior pin ceremony, given by his officers, I was puzzled until all the gathered parents and notables understood that his unit had prepared for him a special honour.

Mendy's name was kept last as his entire unit joined him in walking to his commander to have his Warrior pin affixed to his uniform literally surrounded by all his comrades-in-arms.

It was a special privilege rarely accorded to other soldiers, and I'm guessing that it was a token of his friends recognising the fact that he was the only lone soldier in his unit and that having sustained a serious leg injury he still completed the training in one of Israel's premier units.

And what did it feel like watching it as a parent?

Like I was watching someone I did not recognise.

My wife and I raised this boy. We taught him to love freedom and to be immensely proud of his Jewish identity, all of which might account for the values which led him to the IDF. But how to explain his reserves of perseverance and courage?

I could never have endured the rigours of the IDF training that was demanded of him.

Truth be told, I used to get exhausted just listening to what they put Mendy through: Sleeping in the mud and rain, marching tens of kilometres through the searing heat with heavy packs, going days with only tuna and crackers for sustenance, being left in scorching deserts to navigate their way out.

And worst of all, being briefed by their commanders that they were being readied to battle the monsters of Hamas and the battle-hardened murderers of Hezbollah.

How did he survive it? How did he complete it? How did he flourish? I honestly don't know.

But as I watched him rejoin the line formation of his unit with the decoration that officially labelled him an IDF warrior, I was rendered silent as I watched a familiar face who was no longer familiar.

As a parent we go through three stages of raising our children.

The first is to sculpt and mold them in our image.

The second is to begin to let go as we allow their natural personalities to unfold.

And the third is to simply stand back in awe and behold.


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