Between the wine tasting in Napa and the VIP tour of Google headquarters in Mountain View, it was a dream vacation.
Unfortunately for the visiting Israeli soldiers, before the dream came a nightmare.
Each of the 30 soldiers taking part in a two-week trip to California in mid-December shared one thing in common: they had a family member who died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
The trip was organized and funded by the Bay Area and Los Angeles chapters of the Friends of the IDF, the sponsors of a program called Legacy. Now in its second year in the Bay Area, Legacy provides soldiers with much-needed R&R in the form of subsidized trips — including tours of the Bay Area and Southern California.
“Everything is big in California,” said Naama Ella with a laugh. “The buildings, the cars … the women.”
Ella, 20, was one of the soldiers making her first trip to the United States, and her impressions came on day one, Dec. 13, upon checking into the Hilton Hotel near San Francisco’s bustling Union Square. She found a different, far calmer scene the next day at Napa’s Jewish-owned Hagafen Cellars winery.
“It was the best wine,” Ella enthused. “We toured the winery and met the people. We told them about our service in the army. They were very interested in the stories about our fallen ones.”
Ella lost her older brother in 1998, a casualty in a battle with Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Aside from the trauma the death caused her family, she does not remember grasping the full meaning of her brother’s death until she, too, began her IDF service at age 18.
“This last birthday [age 20] was hard,” she added. “I passed his age.”
Her companions on the trip had no trouble relating to those feelings. Tal Barashi, 21, lost her brother in Lebanon during a 1995 gun battle. She was barely 7 at the time, but remembers her brother as fun guy, always ready to wrestle with his little sister.
“I would tell my mother, ‘It’s OK. We need to continue,’ ” recalled Barashi of the family’s devastation after the death of her brother. “We learned to live with the loss.”
Knowing her own mandatory military service approached, Barashi made sure when the time came that she joined her late brother’s IDF unit.
The trip to California thrilled Barashi. In addition to a day of wine tasting, spa treatments and sightseeing in Napa, she and the group traveled to the East Bay for a private dinner held in their honor. They also visited San Francisco’s iconic tourist sites, from Lombard Street and Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Fun as it was, the pain of loss was never far away, especially when the soldiers talked among themselves about their loved ones. “It’s very good to see all the people here have the same story,” said Barashi, “and see how they deal with it.”
Tears welling in her eyes, she added, “The years go on and we try to imagine how they would be today. How would they look? Would they be married? Would they have children?”
Because the pain never goes away, Barashi and all IDF personnel like her come under the care of the army’s Bereavement and Injured Section, which provides emotional support to grieving Israeli military personnel.
Daniel Robinson’s older brother died during a 2002 gunfight in Jenin, at the height of the Second Intifada. Now 22, Robinson said the pain of the loss seared him. He knew even then that he would not become a combat soldier when the time came for him to serve.
He is now an officer in the intelligence corps. The son of U.S.-born olim, he was grateful for the California vacation and even more for the chance to spend time with people who understand his grief.
“It makes you strong to know someone else feels the same as you,” Robinson said. “A very big part of the delegation is to meet other soldiers.”
He said Napa Valley reminded him of his home kibbutz near Beit She’an in Israel. But even better than the scenery was the warmth he felt from his Friends of the IDF hosts and from the Californians he met.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “There’s always a person in the world who wants you to have only good.”
Akiva Tor, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest, is one of those people. He met with the soldiers one morning during their visit, telling them about the local Jewish community and the level of support for Israel.
But he got back as much as he gave.
“I was so impressed by the soldiers’ positivity despite the tragedies they and their families have gone through,” Tor said. “They were bright-faced and smart, and clearly idealistic about their army service, which means they haven’t let their loss get them down.”
Tor’s insight seemed to bear out. Despite a few tears while reminiscing, the traveling soldiers said they are getting on with their lives.
Said Ella of the California sojourn: “It’s a happy trip.”