I want to tell you about my nephew Harel. He is twenty-one years old and born and raised in LA. He has a talking parakeet named Hedwig, loves to ride his bike, run, camp, play baseball, and plans to be an engineer. Harel is an orthodox Jew, an incredible pianist, Eagle Scout, and enjoys heavy metal. Obsessed with wolves since childhood – brings Hareli to wolf camp in Ely, Minnesota and volunteering on wolf reserves. Occasionally we howl at “The Lone Wolf” because it’s fun. He’s mysterious, tenacious, and fiercely independent.
After high school, he leaves for a Yeshiva in Beit Shemesh, Israel. His only complaint is that they don’t have a piano and can’t find one anywhere. One day, while helping an elderly woman carry her groceries home, he spots her piano and lights up. To thank him, she invites him to play. Afterwards, enthusiastically issues an open invitation.
Everyone loves Harel. He is just one of those people that make you smile, laugh, and want to be around. Good egg, good energy, good boy. In fact, we still call him Yeled Tov (good boy), even though he’s an extraordinary young man with facial hair.
He receives a scholarship to study engineering at Syracuse University and is pretty much the only orthodox Jew on campus. Freshman year is challenging enough without the additional peer pressure and isolation that comes from being identifiably different. It doesn’t faze Harel in the least. Not much penetrates that blissful bubble of his, squeezing lemons to guzzle down lemonade. He informs the family he wants to defer sophomore year in order to join the IDF – the Israeli army – and follow in his Saba’s footsteps. Some of us try talking him out of such a drastic move, pleading he finish more schooling first. But a passionate, stubborn, Scorpio, cannot be dissuaded. He’s been thinking about becoming an Israeli soldier for a long time and the time is now. The minimum stint coming from abroad to volunteer is eighteen months. Add to that a Hebrew Ulpan and reams of bureaucratic red tape, and he’ll be away two years!
A lot can happen in two years; it can happen, un-happen, and happen again, in Israel.
He starts a blog we eagerly follow of a life vastly different from our own. The journey begins on an orthodox kibbutz in Northern Israel where he manhandles chickens, bides his time, and improves his Hebrew while waiting three months for the army to let him fulfill his destiny.
In October, I witness his induction at The Kotel, or Western Wall, on a live feed called “The Kotel Cam.” It’s a huge deal for all of us so film the processional off of my computer screen. My sister and brother-in-law are somewhere in the crowd of thousands, kvelling. I don’t actually see Harel per se, in the sea of nervously smiling, two-inch high boys with brown buzzed hair in army fatigues. Filing past and saluting lickety-split. Maybe I do see him. Anyway, I am in awe and freaked-out to be privy to this incredible step he is taking. A step most of us wouldn’t.
We stay connected through his blog until a soldier in his barracks shows a commander some photos Harel posted posing with his weapon, a Micro-Tavor, he names “Sherry Baby.” Inadvertently and potentially exposing their base location on the Internet can bring jail time. He avoids jail and getting the boot, but finds a much bigger one constantly kicking his ass. Singling Hareli out makes him stronger, faster, and wiser, in the process. He is selected for the Golani Brigade, the most elite infantry division in the Israeli army, as a sharp shooter. Not bad for an orthodox vegetarian who once invented a flytrap to catch and release flies instead of killing them.
My husband and I visit Harel in Israel at the end of April. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem with a soldier is eye opening, but not in the way you’re thinking. Strangers exuding appreciative shout outs and knowing hand shakes with my nephew when seeing the Golani Brigade insignia attached to the epaulette on his shoulder. Israelis clearly know something we don’t, and it’s just beginning.
Shabbat limits our time together as he must catch a bus back, before it begins. We hug, release, hug again, then take pictures; anything to prolong the inevitable a few more minutes. I watch him cross the street slowly, studying him as if he is my own child. His gait, the way “Sherry Baby,” swings at his side. He became a man. I continue waving, tears falling behind my sunglasses, and Harel keeps waving back, as he gets farther and farther away. Every few feet, he turns back around and we wave again. It fills my heart and breaks it, not knowing when I will see him next. Our fingers crossed we can meet the following week before flying home.
No such luck. “War Week” is planned for Harel’s unit and it’s exactly how it sounds; hellish. He calls as soon as he returns to the base. It’s our final day in Israel and he feels terrible. Not due to the fifty-kilometer trek in the heat of day, wearing a gas mask, on two hours of sleep he just returned from. No, he’s just terribly sorry the timing didn’t work out for us and I miss him already. “War Week” can’t possibly prepare someone for the emotional toll of war. He calls to say goodbye when we are at the airport because he’s a Yeled Tov.
Harel, the only American in his unit, passes basic training with flying colors. Thanks to Youtube, we see his graduation and induction into the prestigious Golani Brigade, something I shall never forget. The video, taken in June by his friend, is short but tells a great story. Not the whole story mind you of the new recruits arriving from a seventy-kilometer trek, loaded down with gear. Harel has the privilege of hauling his commanding officer up and down the steep desert hills on a stretcher for the last ten-kilometers. They train in this way to care for each other as needed. In Israel, the commander goes in first and the troops follow. The clip shows him receiving the brown beret after doing everything right to earn it. Like watching a dream in very slow motion, but it’s his dream come true: joining the IDF to protect the land of Israel from her enemies. Yeled Tov.
His commander places both hands on Harel’s face endearingly. You see the affection and it’s impossible not to feel something too. He places the brown beret squarely on my nephew’s head and yanks it down before tilting it off to one side; just so. He hugs Hareli, patting him on the head, and making it official: from Lone Wolf to Lone Soldier. After this grueling journey, he doesn’t look exhausted at all, just utterly transformed by the experience. He glows with contentment after achieving something well beyond my imagination.
I often wonder how this experience will change him forever. How having a soldier in the family might change our lives forever? Although I am as proud as I can possibly be of the person he is, the effects of witnessing death and destruction and possibly a contributing factor to it, are irreversible. That’s the piece I struggle with but keep my mouth shut. I really don’t know how my sister copes. It’s hard to fathom being that brave, selfless, and naïvely idealistic to be a soldier or the parent of one. I do however, envy and admire those abilities in others. To live for honor, protect and serve, inspiring others to be more courageous, while having our backs and best interest in mind. Amen.
Thank God there are people like this in this world. Individuals willing to fight the fight so that the rest of us who crave peace and security, may continue to have a safe haven for Jews from all over the world.
When we leave Israel, I pray nothing bad should happen; as in – no spike in violence, no terrorism, no rockets, no nothing. In essence, I pray for the ‘quiet’ that currently exists to remain status quo. But status quo isn’t good either. Not for Israel and the Palestinians. So I count the days before he will finish his call of duty and come home safe and sound. Let this be an incredible life experience – along the lines of Jewish summer camp mixed with the most intense boot camp that kicks his ass and attitude into the best shape of his life. Be changed, but only in a good way Hareli. Who’s being naïve now?
My sister phones in tears. Our brand new soldier is going to Gaza. Silence. He says, “Mom, this is exactly what I’ve trained for and why I’m here: to protect Israel. It’s what what I came to do. I won’t be able to talk to you for a while…but don’t worry.”
Don’t worry? Every night we go to bed relieved he hasn’t gone into Gaza, and every morning we board this nauseous ride again, knowing it’s only a matter of time. I downloaded Red Alert onto my IPhone at the onset, so I would know what it might feel like to be in Israel. Each time a rocket is launched, an alarm sounds loudly on my phone, compelling me to check where it has landed. Sounding off day and night, the alarming and incessant tingtingtinging pierces through my consciousness, leaving me unnerved and depressed on so many levels. But I refuse to turn it off and disconnect from reality.
Today is the day and there’s no turning back. Yeled Tov m’ode, may every marvelous fiber of your beautiful being help to protect and guide you, and your fellow comrades, away from harms way. May Adonai light the way so that you, and your comrades, will see the enemy long before the enemy sees you. May you share your passion for life, and stories of this critical moment in our history, with your children and grandchildren, and let us say, Amen.
Suzanne Fenton is an artist, writer, Meshirts By Suz / clothing designer, who likes sharing her stories and message with others. Originally from So. California and thinks living in MPLS. is way cooler than living in LA. Happily married with three awesome and menschy sons.