Raising your Child for Something for which you’re Entirely Unprepared

This week my family and I have the privilege of celebrating two significant and interrelated milestones. We celebrate the 15th anniversary of our arrival in Israel, taking on citizenship and planting our roots firmly in our historic homeland. And we celebrate (yes, celebrate) the induction into the IDF of our oldest son.

When our youngest son was born in Jerusalem, we knew that he would serve in the army, an obligation and privilege as an Israeli Jew, pretty much as genetic as his actual DNA.  But when our oldest son was born in N.J., we didn’t know this would be his destiny.

But from the moment we stepped of the plane, we knew that he’d go into the army.  As his father, I find that I have raised my son for something for which I am entirely unprepared.  But not for the reason you think.

Several months after we arrived in Israel, the oldest brother of my son’s new friend was killed in a parachute accident.  This was part of our induction into becoming Israeli, more than the simple ID card that we received with a nine-digit number the week we arrived.  It shook us and our community and made a profound impact.

Our son was six and knew more or less what happened.  As if to comfort us, I’ll never forget the day he said, “Don’t worry Ima and Abba, when I’m in the army I won’t jump out of planes.”

Ironically, this week he becomes a paratrooper.

A decade later, after he received his initial induction notice, we had a profound conversation over Shabbat dinner.  Discussing his service, I said he should go into the famed intelligence unit 8200. I had the temerity to say that he’s analytical (like my father for whom he’s named), and it would be good for his future.  Almost in unison, his three older sisters put me in my place, declaring, “Abba we don’t go into the army to get something out of it, we go to serve. He’ll be a great combat soldier just like our friends.

My daughters represented what’s more or less standard in the community in which we live, and how we identify as modern orthodox Jews. There’s a much higher per capita rate of young men from our community serving in combat units, and similarly a higher per capita rate of our young men becoming officers.

Sadly, this comes with a corresponding higher rate of death and injury.  Of course, as his father, this gives me pause and will change my life.

This past Shabbat, before the army “owns him” my son sat next to me during synagogue services as he usually does. In Israel, birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24–26) is said in synagogues daily, during which it’s customary for a father to place his tallit over his own head and that of his children.

As we stood there, his head elevating my tallit somewhat higher than mine, I realized for a moment that I’ve brought him to a place in life for which I am completely unprepared. This is not only because this is my first kid going into the army, though we’ve adopted two lone soldiers.  As an immigrant well into my 30s at the time, I never served in the army (though I tried).

I’m unprepared because I really don’t know what he’ll be going through or how to help him best.  I’ve raised him to a position where I’ll be learning from him, not the opposite.

It’s a parenting moment which I don’t feel there’s lots of room for on the job training. But that’s the inevitable role in which I find myself. I hope I’ll learn well.

My son’s service in a combat unit is full of mixed emotion: nerves and pride as I suspect it is for most Israeli parents.  It’s all the more so for me because he’s not just our first child to serve, he’s the first in our family. My father was born in Israel but left as an adolescent, so he never served. My son is named for my father.  This is a powerful moment.

I’m also unprepared because as parents we raise our children and do everything possible to protect them, and do everything we can for them. Looking at him, figuratively under the protection of my tallit, I realized that his protection is now largely out of my control. We’re giving him over to the army and need to trust them, our political leaders, and God.

I pray that neither he nor anyone else will ever be called to use the things for which he is about to be trained. But I know that’s unlikely.  So, if “all I can do” now is pray for his protection, I pray you’ll join me. The prayer of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is a good place to start.

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.

May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.

May He lead our enemies under our soldiers’ sway, and may He grant them salvation, and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: “For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.”

Amen.