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Aug 2013 Journal

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Letter from Israel

In Israel it is a matter of routine for the majority of the population that when a child turns 18 they enlist in the IDF in order to give two or three years of service to the country. Now it is the turn of my grandchildren to serve.
So it was with mixed feelings that I attended the passing-out ceremony of my oldest grandson, Gil. As I look at his impressive six-foot frame, it is with a pang that I remember him as a toddler who always had a healthy appetite, grew at a rapid pace, played football and basketball with his friends, and wasn’t a great one for talking. In fact, in common with many of his generation, he seems to have developed a special way of talking and a unique vocabulary that makes it difficult to understand him even when he does speak.
Like many of his friends, on completing high school, Gil was eager to join a combat unit. Not for them the life of the backroom boys who sit before computer monitors or in offices. These boys are only too eager to launch themselves into military training of the most rigorous kind, testing their ability to endure hardship and prove their mettle.
The passing-out parade was held in a grassy area surrounded by woodland. At the centre was a memorial for soldiers from the force who had fallen in battle, fronted by a small parade ground. As is customary at such events, the parade was preceded by a meeting between the families and the soldiers, who had just completed one and a half years of training. Each family had come laden with food and drink for the young men, who fell eagerly upon the feast set out on tables among the trees. The mothers of the soldiers in Gil’s unit had organised themselves into a group which was in constant contact through the ‘WhatsApp’ application. This means that throughout the training period they shared information, even got together at one stage, and served as a support group for one another.
Another Israeli tradition on such occasions is to have special shirts printed denoting the family’s pride in their offspring. This too had been co-ordinated by the mothers of Gil’s unit and each mother had a pale mauve T-shirt with a cartoon of a soldier saluting a mother on the front and the slogan ‘OK, YOU’RE A FIGHTER BUT YOU’RE STILL MY SON!’ and her son’s name on the back. The mothers had also ordered special cakes iced in the force’s colours, decorated with army boots and insignia made out of sugar. An amazing sight!
Following a brief ceremony and speeches by officers, the families were treated to a film showing some of the training the soldiers had been undergoing in the preceding 18 months. It was then that I felt like passing out myself (in the other sense of the phrase). The training was extremely strenuous and demanding. Not everyone who began the course had the strength and stamina to complete it. By the end, it was clear that the participants had been toughened up and were no longer boys but men: they had also developed a special bond, becoming a band of brothers, each of whom would be prepared to lay down his life for the others.
After a brief respite, the real work of being a serving soldier begins for Gil and the others in his special unit. This means that for the next 18 months the family will tune into every news broadcast, keeping its eyes and ears open for information about the political and military situation, knowing that Gil and his companions are on the front line and that their lives may well be in danger at any given moment. Our emotions are a combination of pride and fear. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for a peaceful time.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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