In his mind’s eye, Gill Shapira cannot stop imagining the tunnels.
He pictures his American son down in Gaza’s dark underground warren, automatic assault rifle at the ready. He pictures Hamas gunmen who at any moment might take his son by surprise, with dire consequences.
Shapira does not have to work hard to conjure such horrifying scenes. His son, Ariel, 23, is a marksman in his IDF brigade, trained in close-quarter combat. He has been in and around Gaza clearing out some of the dozens of tunnels that Hamas militants have used to move weapons, infiltrate Israel, kill soldiers and terrorize the nation.
“For me as a parent, I imagine all the time what it must be like to enter a tunnel, to go through close-quarter combat situations,” said Shapira, a Sunnyvale father of two. “So all I do is pray and read and get people to donate money to support combat units.”
He couldn’t be more proud of his son. And he couldn’t be more worried.
“It’s more than worry,” Shapira said. “It’s horrific.”
Shapira is one of several Bay Area parents of lone soldiers, young diaspora Jews who enlist in the Israel Defense Forces but have no close family members in Israel. According to the Friends of the IDF, more than 100 young Bay Area Jews are currently serving as lone soldiers. Some completed their tours of duty before the battle with Hamas started. Others, like Ariel Shapira, are right in the thick of it.
Among the 56 IDF soldiers killed in combat as of July 30, two of the earliest were American lone soldiers — Max Steinberg from Los Angeles and Sean Carmeli from Texas. Their deaths added to Shapira’s anxiety, but did not diminish his pride.
“We have an enormous amount of pride in what he’s doing,” said Shapira, who was born in Israel and came to San Francisco as a child. “I would say there is a consensual belief in my family that the work of serving in the IDF is the greatest work a Jew can do in modern times.”
Shelley and Michael Egger of Oakland are breathing sighs of relief that their 21-year-old son, Yaakov, wrapped up his two years of IDF service and came home in January. But since the conflict erupted, the Eggers say, the deaths of so many Israeli soldiers have taken a toll on their son.
“It’s been difficult,” Michael Egger said. “When we got report of 13 Golani soldiers killed [July 20], he had served and trained with some of them,” including Carmeli. Egger said his son described the fallen 26-year-old as “the kind of guy you’d want to have your back.”
Added Shelley Egger, “He’s felt helpless. He can’t do anything. He has said that several times.”
Israel has always been important to the Eggers. The family belongs to Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation and donates to AIPAC. Their son attended Oakland Hebrew Day School, visiting Israel for the first time in 2006 when he was 14. That was when he first considered joining the IDF.
He moved to Israel in February 2011, spending a year sharpening his Hebrew before becoming a soldier. He joined the Golani Brigade, one of Israel’s best known combat units, eventually becoming an infantry commander.
“He is an extremely bright, very intense kid,” his mother said. “When he decides something, he puts himself into it 110 percent. There were times it became really tough for him; then he would just buckle down and push himself to the max, and as a result he says there’s nothing he can’t do now.”
The Eggers said having their child serve in the IDF did not change their support for Israel, which was already solid, but has made it more personal.
“What’s been hard for us is the media bias against Israel,” said Shelley Egger. “[Yaakov] is devastated because people he knew were killed, and we’re feeling the loneliness of the [media coverage]. We’re just trying to get through this horrendous, emotional time.”
Merle Malakoff hasn’t yet had a chance to embrace his son, Max, who completed his 18-month commitment to the IDF several weeks ago. Max remains on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, but he will be back home in San Francisco soon.
As the fighting continues and the IDF death toll rises, Malakoff has felt “enormous relief and guilt” and suspects his son has as well.
“Max felt bad about leaving his [IDF] brothers even before all hell broke loose,” Malakoff said. “He’s not too worried about his personal safety, but I’ve been anxious about the war spreading and him getting caught.”
Malakoff traveled to Israel twice in the past two years and saw the respect Israelis showed his son, with many approaching to thank him for his service as a lone soldier. “I’m so proud of Max and his courage to live his life,” he said.
Gill Shapira has yet to breathe that sigh of relief.
His son’s IDF service was the first step in a decision to make aliyah. It does not surprise Shapira, who said there have been many IDF war heroes in his family. One of them was his uncle, who served as a right-hand man to Moshe Dayan during the 1948 War of Independence and was a role model for a young Ariel.
Shapira cites the “three magic things” that explain his son’s Zionist zeal: family connections, attending Jewish day school (Gideon Hausner in Palo Alto) and frequent trips to Israel. By age 15, Ariel was already talking about serving in the IDF one day.
Shapira knows his son has been well trained and is in good hands. He has visited him four times in Israel, where he met his fellow soldiers and officers, and says he can never sufficiently praise their character.
But like any proud father, he reserves special admiration for his son.
“I asked my son to say a few words at a fundraiser,” Shapira remembered. “He talked about how what he does is not just protect Israel but the whole Jewish nation. [IDF soldiers] think that continuity is a bigger idea than any single one of us.”
Asked to describe his son when not in uniform, Shapira said, “He makes everybody smile. He’s a down-to-earth guy. There’s not a minute he’s not making people laugh. He loves his friends and they love him.”
Still, he cannot shake the fear that any parent would feel knowing his child is in harm’s way.
“If anything, a bigger worry I’ve had is that he’ll be the first to go out there and take a bullet to save somebody,” Shapira said, choking back tears. “As much as that is admirable, part of my heart wishes he would take a step back sometimes.”
on the cover
Bay Area lone soldiers (clockwise from right) Ariel Shapira, Yaakov Egger and Max Malakoff