For Dalia Khakshoor, pride in her soldier daughter and the figure she cuts in a crisp, desert sand-colored military uniform, collides uneasily with helplessness, and even fear.
During her daughter’s first year of service as a so-called “lone soldier,” one who has no family in Israel, “I barely slept due to worry and being far away and not knowing how she was doing,” she said. Khakshoor, who lives in Great Neck, L.I., finds it “very, very difficult. I can’t be there for her in Israel when she needs me.”
Last week, Khakshoor got to kvell but also commiserate with those who understand the seesawing emotions as she joined a delegation of 29 mothers of IDF lone soldiers. It was the first-ever mothers-of-lone soldiers delegation organized by Momentum Journey (formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project) in partnership with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Like thousands of other men and women hosted by Momentum on what is sometimes called an adult Birthright experience, the mothers’ visit to Israel was part of the organization’s Year Long Journey to “empower women to connect to Jewish values, engage with Israel, take action, and foster unity, without uniformity,” according to Momentum’s mission statement.
Group participants tour Israel, attend workshops and have an immersive Shabbat experience. Once the participants return home, they attend social events and educational and leadership programs that help them create positive change within their families, professional lives and communities.
Although many of the mothers — from the U.S., Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom — had visited Israel before, “for many, this was the first time they experienced army culture,” said Lori Palatnik, who founded Momentum in 2009.
Palatnik said the young men and women who choose to move to Israel in order to serve in the military are in many ways “modern-day heroes of the Jewish people,” and that their parents deserve respect as well.
They “are joining them in this call of duty and this special visit gives us the chance to salute the role of the mothers in their children’s experience,” she said.
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah, also heaped praised on the soldiers’ mothers, whom he called “incredibly dedicated.”
The goal of the visit was two-fold, Palatnik said: to gain a greater appreciation for Israel and Judaism and to help the mothers better understand why their children chose to move to Israel and serve in the IDF.
The mothers met with high-ranking IDF officials who provided insights into how the military works and what Israeli soldiers experience during their service.
While serving in the IDF is a challenge for any young soldier, the officials said, being thousands of miles away from their families, without the emotional and logistical support system (from making sure there is food in the fridge to doing the laundry) most Israeli soldiers count on, requires extra strength and determination on the part of lone soldiers.
Israel-based parents may experience the same level of anxiety the diaspora parents face, but those in Israel get to see their soldier sons and daughters every week or so, while parents overseas may see their child once a year if they’re lucky.
In a sign of deep respect for the mothers, President Reuven Rivlin welcomed them to the President’s Residence, where he assured them that their children “are not really lone soldiers because they are with us. My home is always open to them, and every holiday Nechama and I always hosted lone solders at our table,” Rivlin said, referring to his wife, who died in June.
Although the mothers had been promised a visit with their children during their time in Israel, they had not been told when that visit would take place.
Their reunion occurred several hours before Shabbat, and appeared to catch the mothers off guard. Following a lecture at the Begin Heritage Center, the mothers were invited onto the stage of the auditorium in front of the rest of the mission participants.
Suddenly, their lone soldier children, still in their uniforms, appeared, and presented their mothers with red roses.
They hugged and wept.
Palatnik said planning the emotional reunion presented the organizers with “logistical challenges.”
“We had to locate all the soldiers, who are based all over the country, and every commander had to sign off to allow them to spend Shabbat with their mothers. We had to hide them in the Begin Center, so when we called the mothers onto the stage they would be surprised.”
The mothers and their children spent the rest of Friday and all of Shabbat together.
“One of the most special things was having their children meet each other. The kids all hung out together and bonded immediately,” Palatnik said.
Immediately after the reunion, Eileen Harbater gazed at her soldier daughter Ayelet and sighed.
“We’re proud of her. Being a soldier, and especially a lone soldier, is not an easy task. A child grows up very quickly in the IDF. I still remember how, when she was small, I would cut her apple into little pieces.”
Harbater, whose family is planning to make aliyah, said it is “hard” to be far away from Ayelet.
“Being far away, I feel helpless when she’s having a hard time,” the mother said.
Laurie Garber-Amram from Northbrook, Ill., has had more experience than most when it comes to parenting lone soldiers.
Flanked by her son Ben, who is serving in the IDF, and her son Jonathan, who completed his service as a lone soldier, Garber-Amram said it has been easier the second time around.
By the time her second son enlisted, “I had come to terms with having a child in the IDF and saw what serving does for young men.”
Ben said joining the IDF has forced him to learn to look after himself.
“This is one of the hardest things I’ll do in my life. If I can do this, I know I can do anything,” he said.
In addition to having the opportunity to see her sons, Garber-Amram said the Momentum program reminded her of what she loves about being a Jewish woman.
“The program has allowed me to open myself up more” to Jewish practice. “When the kids were at home we felt it was important to talk about Jewish life, but once they were gone I became a little more lax. Now I’m thinking more about lighting Shabbat candles and going back to synagogue on Shabbat. I want to do more,” she said.