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      A Soldier’s Mother
      One mother’s journey through the Israeli army with her sons

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      Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.

      Links to the Author's blogs:

      Cheshvan 10, 5770, 10/28/2009

      Hearts and Rockets

      The phone beeped, signaling an incoming message as I got into my car tonight. No time to stop and read it. My oldest daughter was waiting for me to pick her up; my youngest daughter wanted to see me before she goes to sleep. I like hearing news. I'm a news-aholic, but it isn't polite and I haven't seen my daughter in a few days so I left the radio off and we talked.

      When I dropped her and her husband off near their apartment, I turned on the radio as I drove the short distance home. I can't remember the words I heard, but the message was clear. They were examining the location of an incoming rocket that had been launched against Israel from Lebanon. They debated who shot the rocket and agreed that nothing could be fired without Hezbollah's approval.

      Why now? Clinton is on her way here; things with Iran may be getting more involved. Maybe they are jealous, thinking Gaza is getting all the attention. I don't know the reason why someone in Lebanon thought he had a right to fire a rocket at our civilians.

      What we know - the rocket hit northern Israel causing a factory, but luckily, no injuries. A short time ago, a second explosion was sounded. It could be nerves; it could be real. Nothing has been confirmed yet.

      What I know - is that Elie is in the north, far from where the rocket hit, but still there. When he was in the center of the country and Hamas fired more than 120 rockets at Israel in November of 2008, I knew that if it continued, we would go to war. I spoke to Elie and understood that based on where he was located, if war came, he would go. And he did.

      He was home this weekend and once again I found myself asking him the same questions. It's a need to understand, to prepare for the worst.

      "If there's another war in Gaza, will they call you?" I asked him.

      "No," he said. Another unit would go. Elie's been told that he will be a commander for a short pre-commander's course in a few weeks. He will be involved in training the commanders who train the commanders (got that?). Once these officers are ready, Elie will go back up north to rejoin his unit and those soldiers will welcome a new group and begin training them.

      "If there's war in Lebanon, would they call you?" I asked him.

      "Yes," he said. As soon as the Syrian front was secure, he and his unit would likely be moved to handle Hezbollah and Lebanon. There is no comfort there, so I ask my next question.

      "But you don't think anything is going to happen, right?" When did I become the one seeking comfort and my son the one to offer it? When did he become the one with the knowledge and I the one seeking it?

      "No," Elie answered. "Hezbollah isn't going to fight in the winter. They don't stand a chance."

      These are the words of youth. It's been quiet for over an hour. I've gotten two messages from a friend - nothing to do with Elie or the north. Both times, I went quickly to my phone. In my head, I have no doubt that Elie is correct. Hezbollah is not looking for a war - not yet, not now.

      It is clear to Hamas and Hezbollah that the world will allow them to shoot a certain number of rockets at Israel, provided they don't kill too many people. This rocket caused a fire, scared tens of thousands of people in the north, and caused a blip on my roller coaster scale. It's a small up and down, nothing too earthshattering. All acceptable according to the world's tolerance scale...when it happens to Israel. France wouldn't allow someone to shoot a rocket within its territory, neither would Russia or the US. Only Israel will allow it; only Israel will accept it.

      My heart is settling back in place. People in the north are shutting down, sleeping in their beds tonight because they know in their heads that sleeping in a bomb shelter is not necessary, not really, and they don't want to over-react. It was just one missile - and it missed, as it most often does.

      Just one rocket shot at hundreds of thousands of people - and it missed. Elie is hopefully asleep or going to sleep soon. I'll give him a call to see how he's doing. Maybe I'll mention the rocket, maybe I won't.

      I won't tell him that once again the thought of his being in war filled my mind with dread and made me remember what it was like less than a year ago.

      Maybe I'll tell him about the kind note I received on Twitter from @FreeMountaineer who wrote, "You stay safe over there & give your boy my best. Here's one Christian who wishes he could join the IDF."

      But most of all, I won't tell him that there is a world out there that doesn't care that one missile hit Israel tonight, that much of the media won't even bother covering it because with the help of God, no one was hurt. I won't tell him that after the rocket slammed into our country, my heart slammed into throat and I felt sad and depressed and worried.

      I will tell him that I love him. I will tell him that I'm fine. My heart is back in place, my smile firmly planted. My stomach has settled, my nerves quieted.

      For a moment, the briefest of seconds, I forgot the simple truth of Israel. It was only a second - less than a second on the scale of things so I will share with you our greatest truth and our least kept secret: the beauty of this country lies in its sons, its people - its resiliency.

      Tomorrow, our sons will guard our borders, our people will rise and go to work and school, as they did today and as they will the day after tomorrow too. That is our message to Hezbollah. Your rockets may stop us for a moment. We are, after all, only human. But that moment has passed. You accomplished nothing, even less than nothing. You missed - as you usually do - and we returned fire immediately. Our soldiers, Elie's friends in artillery responded to your rocket without hesitation.

      Tonight, Israel is defiant. Resilient - proud of who we are and where we stand.

      Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel lives and in that is our victory over rockets.

      Tishrei 24, 5770, 10/12/2009

      A Day of Twittering

      Twitter is an interesting program. It can pull the life out of you, wasting hours and hours of a day...but it can also be a way to reach thousands of people...in short, quick bursts. The idea is that you have 140 characters to explain, to communicate, to rail against, to praise.

      On some days, all I want to say...I say in a measuring of 140 characters. Today was a day like that. So, here's my twitter posts for the day - sort of wraps up the day in small bites:
      • God...how STUPID is this? / 3 Palestinians arrested Sun evening after throwing a dummy explosive at Israeli troops at Huwara checkpoint
      • Relative calm? I think not: 95 terror attacks carried out in Sept, up from 53 in Aug. Gaza terrorists fired 17 rockets, up from 2 in Aug.
      • An Israeli army unit discovered an improvised explosive device among the belongings of another Arab boy. // safely detonated, boy detained
      • An Israeli army unit discovered a 9 cm (3.5") knife among belongings of Arab youth Sunday at the Huwara checkpoint, S of Shechem.
      • Arabs also threw rocks at Israeli vehicles between Jiba and Tzurif, southwest of Jerusalem
      • Arabs also threw rocks at Israeli vehicles on the Zaatra bypass of the new Jerusalem-Tekoa highway
      • Arabs also threw rocks at Israeli vehicles next to the Little Yakir Junction between Tel Aviv and Shechem
      • An Israeli vehicle was damaged Sunday evening by rocks thrown by Arabs next to Deir Astia, southeast of Kalkilye.
      • Boaz Shabo's wife & 3 kids were murdered by Arab terrorists in 2002 - most shot in the back #cowards. In 2004, he went 2 visit David Hatuel.
      • David Hatual's wife Tali & all 4 of his children were murdered in cold blood, point blank range, by Arab terrorists; Boaz Shabo went to him.
      • How am I supposed to get up in the morning?" David Hatuel asked Boaz.
      • Boaz Shabo answered David Hatuel: "You get up to nothing... But your obligation is to recover and get stronger..."
      • In 2007, Boaz Shabo, whose wife and three of his children were murdered, went to Sderot to volunteer, to comfort families w/i missile range
      • Today, Boaz Shabo became a father again - to three baby boys. If there is a model of hope - it is Boaz Shabo...not Barack Obama!

      Tishrei 16, 5770, 10/4/2009

      Weighing Truths for Gilad

      When you are young, there is often one great truth to all things. It doesn't matter what the situation is, it's just a way you have of looking at something and deciding what is right or wrong in that simple moment. It is a singular truth that seems obvious and clear. As you get older and your life gets more complicated, shades of other truths blur the picture. There is no longer one side, one truth. Every action has a reaction; every cause not just one result but often many.

      There's a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where someone says something to the main character, Tevye. Tevye confirms that the man is correct. Another man comes forward and voices an opposing position. "You are right," Tevye tells him.

      Another steps forward and says, "but they can't both be right."

      To which, Tevye responds, "and you are right too."

      I felt that way in the last few days listening to the debate about the release of 20 security prisoners in exchange for a two minute video of Gilad Shalit this past Friday. There are so many sides, so many truths that perhaps the greatest relief comes from not being in a position to have to choose that path.

      His mother has suffered so long, his father traveled so many miles begging people to listen and help free their son. Don't they deserve, don't they need this reassurance that their son is alive. This is truth.

      Although 14 of these security prisoners were wanted for attempted murder, all would have been released in the coming months...certainly within the next year or so. Israel is a land that follows the rule of law. Unlike Hamas, we do not hold prisoners without trial and with trial comes a just sentence. The sentence is served and remorseful or not, the prisoner is released, often to return. This is the strength and the weakness of a democracy and so these prisoners, once freed, may well choose to attempt to murder another Israeli. This is truth as well.

      The cost of this exchange boggles the mind. The value, as set by Hamas is staggering. A video of an Israeli is equal to 20 prisoners; the value of his life set at a minimum of 450 Palestinian prisoners - murderers, terrorists, killers. Twenty prisoners for one video. As one blogger wrote, "guppies cost more." This too is truth.

      After so many months of silence, Israel needed a sign that we were negotiating for a live human being. We've given hundreds of prisoners for coffins; this time, it was right to get proof before any agreement and dealing with Hamas is not the same as dealing with human beings who respect life. This organization and the people who belong to it feel nothing about endangering their own people. They fight from within their own schools, mosques and hospitals.

      How could we expect them to do what is legal, what is just, what is moral, what is human? They relish the suffering of others; they crave it. This is a culture that worships death and cares nothing for the suffering of an Israeli mother or her family. If this is what holds Gilad and we want proof that he is alive, this is the cost. And here too, there is truth.

      "We aren't like them," said a friend. "We couldn't stand by and not do something to alleviate the terrible pain of the family." More truth.

      Trade for Gilad? Accept a video in exchange for 20 prisoners - 14 wannabe killers? "What do you think of this?" I asked Elie.

      "They've endangered us all," he said without hesitation. What joy I felt at hearing that we'd received the videotape and it showed a healthy, if thin, Gilad, evaporated with those words. This is a truth every Israeli mother knows and doesn't want to hear. Yes, when you reward terrorism, you get more terrorism. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all truths.

      "Already Hamas has said they are going to try to kidnap more soldiers," Elie continued. More truth, more shades to consider.

      He's right on so many levels and wrong on others. Or, perhaps wrong is not correct. He has yet to marry and have a child, yet to understand the awe, the love, the responsibility that comes with that.

      Gilad Shalit is alive. This Hamas has proven. This young man has spent the last three years of his life a prisoner of our enemies, separated from his family, denied all contact. Night after night his mother goes to sleep not knowing where he is, if she will ever see him again. It is enough to weaken any mother's heart.

      But Elie doesn't have a mother's heart. He has a soldier's heart. He loves his country, he loves his family. He's right - this endangers them all. In Elie's world, right is right; weakness damages our position. He has rules that he lives by, just and legal. There is a sense of morality, but more, there are rules of engagement. Hamas continues to violate international law, refuses to even allow Gilad to be seen by international representatives.

      If he were my son...but I can't begin that thought because the pain is too great, the fear, the worry. Is there anything I wouldn't give for my children? Anything I wouldn't do? This is why it isn't correct for Gilad's parents to determine policy in this case, why mothers shouldn't be asked. We love our sons, desperately want Gilad home. This is their truth, our truth, a mother's truth.

      But there is a greater truth that Hamas lives by and that truth is cheering now because they know that for a video we will release 20 prisoners, for Gilad we will release killers...who will kill again.

      How many people have been murdered by the same terrorists we released in exchange for past captives? Did their families love them any less than Gilad's family loves him? This is the dilemma. Gilad on one side, a healthy, prisoner, begging us to do what we can to finally bring him home...and untold numbers of others on the other side, including Elie, telling us that what deal we make, if the price is high, will only encourage them to try to kidnap more soldiers. This is truth.

      What the government has done endangers them all, while what we don't do, endangers Gilad. Sometimes, everyone is right and no one wins. The weight of that truth keeps me awake at night as I watch the video of Gilad over and over again and pray that in this bargain we made with the devil, at least his mother will find some comfort.

      Tishrei 9, 5770, 9/27/2009

      Yom Kippur - Reflections for Us...and Iran

      Yom Kippur is an amazing day in Israel. It is the one day that no one goes anywhere. In almost all cities in Israel, cars don't move, taxis, buses - nothing. Everyone stays home or goes to the synagogue. It is the time we take out the past year, look it over, and do our best to make good on what we did bad; make better what we can; and beg...really beg...for the year to come.

      Jews do not bow. We do not kneel on our knees in prayer; we do not lower ourselves to the floor...except on Yom Kippur. It is the one day we are brought to the ground before God, asking Him to help us, save us, forgive us.

      During this time, we don't eat; we don't drink. We talk of solemn and serious things. We pray and spend most of the day in the synagogue. In 1973, on Yom Kippur, our enemies took advantage of our having pulled into ourselves and attacked our country.

      To our great shame, we were not prepared for this treachery. We were naive in believing that no one would violate this holy day. We learned and we learned fast, though the cost was incredible. Our army consists of two main groups. There is the standing army - typically young men and women between the ages of 18 and 22 doing their national service...boys for three years, girls for two. Some choose to go in later, as Elie did, and so he'll finish the army a few months before his 23rd birthday, as his brother, already 19, will enter.

      The second large group is the reservists. These are typically men up to the age of around 40, who can serve as much as a month a year. Up until the last war, these were the most experienced fighters; the ones who went to war. The standing army maintained; the reservists fought the battles. In the Second Lebanon War, things began to shift and in this past war in Gaza, the reservists were used less than the standing army.

      When holidays come, the army does its best not to take the reservists from their families. And so, on that fateful day in 1973, most reservists were sent home...and it was left to the young soldiers to try to deflect the sudden and unexpected attack.

      Israel learned - our holiness is not theirs; what is precious and honored here means nothing to our enemies. The war in Gaza began on Shabbat, our holy day. Why? I asked Elie - why did our army have to begin it on Shabbat and his answer was that it was because our enemies didn't expect it. We turned their desecration to our advantage.

      This Yom Kippur, as the people of Israel begin our fast day, our holiest on the Jewish calendar, we are no longer naive, no longer fooled by the depths of evil our enemies can show to us. Two things will happen in the hours to come. Iran will begin war games and fire missiles that are strong enough to hit our country. They send us a message, they taunt, they dare.

      The second thing that will happen is that our soldiers will go on alert. The majority will fast, where they are...and guard our borders while doing this. Elie is luckier than many. After so long in the army, he is one of the senior soldiers in his unit and so his position will place him inside an air conditioned control room for much of the time that he is on duty. Iran can threaten, but there is no fear here. Their threat is nothing compared to the determination we have, the commitment to our land, our faith, our nation.

      And one more thought. There is a tradition, even perhaps a law, that a man puts on phylacteris (tephillin), each day (except Shabbat and holidays). These are small boxes, bound to the upper arm and the forehead during the morning prayers.

      The small box on the head contains four parchments; the one on the arm contains only one. I once heard a beautiful explanation of this. The head has four - to encourage us to think freely in all directions. The one on the arm shows us that there is only one proper way to behave.

      The arm of Israel, the strength, is a combination of so much of what we are. It is our faith, our beliefs. It is the army, our sons and daughters.

      Tomorrow night, we will enter the synagogues with our heads clear and focused. We will search inside ourselves, in all directions, through the months of this past year to find ways to be better, stronger, kinder. That is our job, this year and every year on Yom Kippur. And while we do that, the arm of Israel will act as it must. Iran will flex its muscles in the next few days, but that is nothing to what Israel will do in the next day or so.

      Our sons and daughters guard our borders, protected by a God who has promised us this land again and again. A God who has seen us brought home after more than 2,000 years to a land that was always ours, and always will be. The greatness of that covenant makes a mockery of Ahmadinejad and Iran. They are nothing, their missiles a joke compared to the Might of Israel.

      May God grant the people of Israel a good year. May we be inscribed in the Book of Life and may we be granted peace. May our enemies know of our great love of our land and our God...and of God's great love for his people Israel.

      Tishrei 5, 5770, 9/23/2009

      Return and Remember, Fear and Triumph

      Last year around this time, Elie's division decided to send their soldiers to Jerusalem. I've written about what happened then (It Could Have Been Elie) , and this year when Elie joined his unit (We’re Brothers). Elie came home a few days ago for the Rosh Hashana (Jewish new year) holiday and we talked about several things. It had been a while since we talked, so it was nice to have this time as we did a quick shopping and drove home.

      He told me about meeting his brother, and laughing at the soldier who didn’t know they were brothers. “You don’t look alike,” I said.

      Elie dismissed that – as if the whole world should know. I loved the story of their meeting at the Kotel (the Western Wall, which is actually the retaining wall of the Holy Temple…and all that remains of it). I wanted to hear it from Elie’s side.

      “How many went to the Kotel?” I asked.

      “A lot of us. The g’dud Rav (the Rabbi of the unit) wanted to do something special since last year but nothing happened, so he decided this time a lot of us would go.”

      “Did some of the same people from last year go?” I asked him.

      He wasn’t sure about the ones who were injured, “but there was one girl who was there last year. She was really scared to go this time.”

      They took them to the top of the Mount of Olives. From there, the view of the Old City of Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. It is, according to Jewish custom, from the Mount of Olives that the Messiah will come. The soldiers walked down the mountain, across the valley of Kidron, and up to the Old City walls.

      I think that’s a triumph – to have these soldiers, from the same unit that was hit last year, walk to the Western Wall. There is a road that enables someone to drive right up to the very gates beside the Western Wall. There was no need to have these soldiers walk down the valley and back up…and yet there was every need.

      As they walked, the commanders moved to the sides of the group. They kept with them light sticks and as they came to the roads, the commanders took up positions in the middle of the street, waving the light sticks to alert oncoming traffic. The soldiers passed in safety. I can’t imagine that the incident last year wasn’t in their minds.

      Even now, a year later, as I pass bulldozers traveling slowly in the streets of Jerusalem, I think of the four times Arabs have used these bulldozers to ram into buses, cars, and pedestrians. It is an automatic thought that comes to my mind; how could the soldiers not have thought of what happened just last year, to their own unit?

      And so they returned, remembered. They conquered whatever fears they might have brought with them to walk the beautiful streets of Jerusalem. There are major triumphs in life, and there are small ones that go unnoticed by most of the world.

      A young girl, in uniform, walking amidst a large group of soldiers may not appear to have been triumphant. Had I witnessed her walking with the other soldiers, I never would have known, had Elie not explained. She was one of those who was in the attack last year; one who saw her friends hit by a speeding black BMW that wanted to kill them.

      She saw the car, the bodies flying through the air. She saw the soldiers take aim and fire, stopping the terrorist from reversing and hitting the injured soldiers around her.

      This year, she came with fear, remembering having been attacked last year while simply walking to the Western Wall. But she came anyway, and it is that silent bravery that touches my heart…that, and the commanders, my son…who guarded their soldiers with extra care this year so that their return to Jerusalem would be a triumph.

      No newspaper did a story about their return; no radio announced it. No parents witnessed it; no one spoke of it. The soldiers of Israel came to the Western Wall of our Holy Temple, to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. They came, they saw, they returned in triumph.

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