A parent who gets a phone call after midnight usually expects bad news.
For Renee M.* of Saratoga, it was not bad news — just bittersweet — when her oldest son called in the middle of the night from Israel to say he wanted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I had really mixed feelings about it,” she said. “One half of you is really proud, and you think that it’s amazing your son feels so connected to Israel that he wants to give back at this level. On the other hand, I’m not going to lie — you’re scared to death.”
Her son Jacob joined the IDF in August 2004, just two months after graduating from Lynbrook High School in San Jose.
Since that late-night phone call five years ago, Renee and Howard M. have had all three of their sons — Jacob, Ari and Elliot — serve in Israel’s military.
Jacob completed his service in 2006, just one week before the second war in Lebanon started. Ari and Elliot are currently in the IDF, serving in a special forces unit. Both will complete three years of service in 2010.
“You walk this line between pride and anxiousness,” Howard said. “It’s a hard situation because we raised our children to be Zionists, so when they’re young adults and they want to act upon it, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Well, I was just talking, I wasn’t serious about it.’ ”
Still, they never expected any of their sons to serve in the military, Israeli or otherwise. The family has no Israeli relatives. The boys all went to Yavneh Hebrew Day School in Los Gatos, but only through fifth grade, and they didn’t speak fluent Hebrew before moving to Israel.
“They didn’t grow up wanting to join the military — they didn’t even grow up with toy guns,” Renee said. “They all went [to Israel] for their own individual reasons, but I do think Jacob paved the way for the other two.”
In Israel, soldiers’ family members are supporting characters in their military experience. Parents take their kids to the induction point, visit the training base and are visited at home by their child’s officer. Parents cook, shop and run errands for their children, and often do their laundry when they go home for Shabbat and holidays.
Not only is it harder on a soldier whose family lives an ocean away, but it is also harder on the parents.
“Weeks can go by, especially in the beginning, when you don’t know where they are and you can’t get ahold of them because they’re not allowed to have a cell phone on base for security reasons,” Renee said. “That is just really difficult.”
In 2005, when Jacob was deployed on a mission in Gaza, Renee didn’t hear from him for weeks because he didn’t have access to his cell phone. He called once using a commander’s phone and in 15 seconds told his parents he was fine and would call again when he could.
“There weren’t a lot of people to share [my anxieties] with, let’s be honest,” said Renee, an active and longtime member of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga. “Most of the Jewish community, which is a wonderful community, can’t quite relate to that, and it was a little isolating. We have a couple of Israeli friends who have children serving, and that is where I felt most supported.”
The parents’ level of angst has gone down considerably since Jacob’s service. They now know what to expect in terms of the frequency of phone calls and how the military operates, they said.
And with help from the Bay Area chapter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, they have been able to travel to Israel more frequently to see their sons.
They also have learned that Israeli families are willing and eager to adopt “lone soldiers,” those without families in Israel.
Because Jacob is a fiercely independent person and was the “guinea pig,” Renee said, he chose to live in an apartment with another soldier instead of spending his time off with an adopted Israeli family.
In contrast, Ari and Elliot have allowed themselves to be adopted by Israeli families.
“I’ve been to their homes, and these families been just wonderful,” Renee said. “And I know that in an emergency, or if I ever need anything, I can get in touch with them and they’ll help me get in touch with my sons.”
Renee and Howard will take their next trip to Israel to see their boys in December. It will be their third trip of the year.
While they said it’s been a challenge to have their three sons sign up for the IDF, ultimately they are proud of their children and happy for the way the army has brought the brothers together.
“This gives them a much stronger bond,” Howard said. “They know what each other has gone through. I think they all respect one another more since they’ve all done this.”
(Editor’s note: The family has asked that their last name not appear in this article.)