For Julie August, coping with her son Josh’s decision to move halfway around the world and join the Israeli Defense Forces last year was not easy.
“It would be hard enough to have him serving while I was there,” said August, who lived in Israel for a time before moving to the Baltimore area. “But to have him so far away makes it more difficult.”
According to Friends of the IDF, there are approximately 2,800 immigrant lone soldiers in the Israeli military. These are soldiers without any close family residing in Israel who chose to move there to join the IDF. For these soldiers, money and time constraints make it extremely difficult to travel home to celebrate holidays such as Chanukah and Thanksgiving with their friends or family.
Luckily for the August family, Josh was able to come home for Rosh Hashanah in September. Normally, she said, his absence at Chanukah would not be a major concern, but with this year’s Chanukah-Thanksgiving overlap, his absence will be more poignant.
“For Chanukah it doesn’t really bother me so much, but just seeing the family together, even on a Friday night — because we all get together for Friday night dinner — it’s a little bit difficult,” she said. “It’s not easy.”
When he joined the IDF, Josh also joined Garin Tzabar, an organization that provides support for lone soldiers. The knowledge that her son has a support system and even an adoptive family in Israel, August said, has made the past few months easier, in addition to August’s ability to visit Israel every couple months and stay with family members still living there.
“I bring things for him that remind him of home,” said August, adding that Old Bay, loose tea and coffee are some of his biggest requests.
The Simone family has found a way to fix the hole that the absence of their son, Alex, a lone soldier in the IDF since 2011, has left at the holiday table; they’re taking Thanksgiving to him. Or, at least, they’re trying to.
“We don’t know that we’ll be able to see Alex,” said his father, Vito, who is traveling to Israel at the end of this month to celebrate the holidays with Alex’s adopted kibbutz family. “We’re hoping that we can. We don’t know that he’ll be able to get time away.”
For the Simone family, having a support system of other local families going through the same thing has been crucial.
“We’ve gotten to know other parents of soldiers my son knows. We’ve gotten to know parents of soldiers my son doesn’t know, and we’ve introduced him to the soldiers,” said Simone. “There is an evolution that occurs, and camaraderie between parents.”
In just two generations, the Chattler family has gone from protesting the Vietnam War to serving in two different militaries. Their youngest son, Jordan, is in the Marine Reserves and their middle child, Daniel, is an IDF soldier.
“I’m really proud of them,” said father Zac Chattler. “But there’s always that element of worry.”
With Daniel in the Israeli Air Force, the Chattlers don’t always know where he is or what he is doing, so most of their contact depends on him calling them once a week. There is no guarantee that they will be able to speak with him on Thanksgiving or during Chanukah.
“There’s one less person at the table,” said Zac Chattler.
Even the high taxes placed on goods shipped from the U.S. to Israel are an obstacle for the Chattlers.
“To send Chanukah gifts or something — you really can’t,” said Chattler. “Just to send some homemade cookies or something — just if he needs a new pair of socks or underwear — you can’t send that either.”
Adam Edelman, who went through the trial of having a child in the IDF when his son, Aharon, joined two years ago, said the service was a learning experience for the whole family.
“When I ask him what he learned from the army, he says ‘patience,’” said Edelman. “And what did we, as parents, learn? Parents of a lone soldier have to learn to recognize that you’re not in control of your child anymore. You have to put a little bit more faith in God.”
Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org