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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:

      Tevet 27, 5772, 1/22/2012

      Thoughts of a War...3 years later

      Following is a post I made three years ago called Thoughts of the War. Elie was home; the bar mitzvah of my youngest son just over. I was concerned, almost consumed, with the thought that deep inside Elie there would be remnants of the war - there still are today; and perhaps psychological scars  - there really are none.

      There are memories but there was and there is an acceptance. This is what he had to do, as he did it. Those that died there were the inevitable result of Hamas' firing rockets and a war that had to be fought. There is peace in his heart as he prepares to take a wife and begin building his family. Above all things beyond health and safety one could wish for one's son - there is peace.

      Thoughts of the War - January 26, 2009

      After long talks with Elie, here are my thoughts (and his) on what came out of this war:

      What came out of this war: A sense of unity, of a well trained army working together.

      The army worked as a unit - each part doing their share and protecting its flank. Artillery was there, every step of the way, and their role was critical. For fear of writing too much, I will write too little. But I will tell you that the war was run as correctly as possible, each part doing what it was supposed to do. The credit for this brilliant campaign may be taken by the politicians, but they are not the ones who coordinated - they are only the ones who will take credit. 

      What was accomplished was done so by the planning of generals who finally focused on their goal, one that had to be done. Politically, it is not easy to bomb a mosque. Militarily, they had every right to do so - it was not a mosque, but an arsenal with a minaret. In this war, the generals won and thus Israel won. We bombed the mosques with rockets, the schools with missiles and for once we held Hamas accountable. If you do not care about your own people, Israel told Hamas, it is left to us to do our best to protect them. So we dropped leaflets warning the civilians to move away from the terrorists, to leave certain areas. I know this to be true - I have such a leaflet with me now because so many thousands were dropped over Gaza that with the wind, many blew the short distance into Israel and Elie caught one. 

      "Save it, Ima," Elie told me. Perhaps he too feels the need to remember that we fought a just war, a fair war. We did not target civilians. I'll save it because my son felt the need to hold on to it in the middle of a war; to bring it home. He knows. He knows that civilians died in Gaza, possibly by his own hands - certainly by his orders to fire. But every shot that he and his unit fired had a specific target. Not once did they simply release such devastating weaponry without thought as to where it would go. 

      Sometimes, they did it to destroy their weapons, their strongholds, their "army." And sometimes, they did it to protect our own. To help our boys get in or out under the cover of our artillery. In all cases, their targets were true, their aim proper. Civilians were warned - I have the proof and I will save it for my son. 

      What came out of this war: A sense of spiritual faith, strengthened and grateful.

      Elie told me that during the war, hundreds of pairs of tzitzit - a four-cornered garment with strings that men are commanded to wear - were distributed. The army simply could not keep up with demand. Elie told me that five pairs of tefillin (phylacteries - a religious article that is tied to the arm and to the head during the prayers - typically in the morning, that contains parchment with words from the Torah), were donated to his unit and it was in constant use throughout the day. One boy who is not religious at all - put on tefillin every day of the war. These are the shields of Israel, a vital part of who we are and as our sons faced this war, they understood this.

      From the most religious to the most secular - even perhaps those who say they don't believe - still prayed for the safety of our soldiers and our southern residents. 

      What came out of this war: A sense of pride in being a nation that cares about others...even if this is not recognized

      Throughout this war, we shipped in humanitarian aide to our enemies - name me a single other country in history that has done this. When other nations besiege, intentionally attempt to weaken the enemy by surrounding and cutting off their food and water supplies, Israel - even under fire, shipped in thousands of tons of humanitarian aide - food, water, medicines. We took our enemies into our hospitals and gave them better care than they would ever get in Gaza...because we invest tremendous resources in our medical equipment, personnel, technologies. Israel is at the forefront of research and development - because we care enough about ourselves and others. 

      What came out of this war: Men who were boys; men who had learned war. 

      I can't write about this because Elie doesn't really talk about it. It is too deep to explain to one's mother; too serious to talk about with someone who can't understand. I've never shot a bullet, let alone a cannon. I've heard the explosion - but only in training or over the phone. Elie heard these explosions thousands of times. More, Elie helped create these explosions. He knows exactly how many times his unit shot. He's brushed off, nicely but firmly, my attempts to get him to talk too much about this aspect. He'll tell me what he did - because there is no shame, none whatsoever. He knows what he shot at, and the results of this shooting. But he won't talk about himself or what he feels. 

      "Does the army have you talk to people?" I asked him, hoping he would open more about it.
      "If someone wants to," he answered. 

      And again, my son was not in the war in the sense that he was not on the ground in Gaza. He can see the results of what they did - he knows of the destroyed buildings, the devastated neighborhoods and the need to rebuild. But he is at peace with all that he did, all that he was called upon to do because he knows that from these buildings his unit destroyed - his nation was attacked. From these devastated neighborhoods, Hamas choose to fire at Israel. When a vicious enemy hides among his people...how much of an obligation do you have to do all you can to avoid hitting the people? The answer is all that Israel did. 

      Some people left comments that my son was a murderer. Not even close. My son has never murdered anyone, though in this new reality that Hamas thrust upon us, there is a good possibility that my son killed. He knows this. He lives with it. Not with joy, but with determination. He came back from this war whole in body and in spirit. 

      There is a world of difference between killing and murdering. The commandment in the Bible says we are forbidden to murder. My son and the army of Israel did not violate this commandment. The Bible commands times that you must kill - the army of Israel killed. We killed those who would have killed us, murdered our innocents. And yes, it is likely that in hiding behind their wives and children and mothers, the Palestinians caused their deaths. If Israel killed Palestinian civilians, it is Hamas that murdered them. 

      And so, what came out of this war: with incredible gratitude to God, was my son and the boys from our neighborhood - and most of the sons of Israel. We lost sons there and many were injured and are still fighting for their lives. My youngest son explained to his little sister that this was a "milchemet mitzvah" - an obligatory war and that even a groom is commanded to leave his wedding ceremony to fight such a war. 

      This is what happened in this war. Aharon Karov is a soldier of Israel, a beloved son. On the Thursday night before Israel's ground forces entered Gaza, Aharon got married. A boy in Elie's unit asked to leave the unit to attend the wedding of his friend, but was denied. They needed him there, in Elie's unit, ready to fire, and so he missed his friend's wedding. Elie's soldier knew, Aharon knew, his new wife and his family knew that Aharon was likely to be called to fight in this war. 

      And that's what happened. Within hours after the ceremony, Aharon, a commander in the paratroopers, was called for a briefing. He was allowed to return to his new wife for the Sabbath and the celebrations for his wedding. But, in the early morning on Saturday, Aharon was called away from his new wife and went to war. 

      He entered Gaza with his men, as he had been trained and as he had trained them. As is the case in the Israeli army, he said, "Follow me," and the men followed. He fought with his men, led them on mission after mission. And then, three days after entering Gaza, Aharon led his men into a booby-trapped house in Gaza. Aharon (his full name for those who wish to pray for him is: Aharon Yehoshua ben [son of] Chaya Shoshana) was critically wounded. 

      He was evacuated by helicopter to Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tivkah, where he underwent six operations during the course of 12 hours: on his head, his eyes, ear-nose-throat, mouth and jaw, chest, and an orthopedic operation. 

      It is a story that has touched many in the world. Some with great pride - that such a young man would give of himself and join his men in war. Some in anger - how could you take a man from his new bride and send him to war? But Aharon's father answered that very question before his son was hurt - under the wedding canopy, surrounded by friends and family, knowing that soon his son would go to off to war. 

      Aharon's father, Rabbi Zev Karov said, “In the main wedding blessing, we say, ‘G-d sanctifies His nation Israel via the wedding canopy and betrothal.’ Why don’t we say that He sanctifies the bride and groom? We see that the personal building is a part of the national edifice. This is the main point, this is what we are brought up on, and now is the test when we show that it is not just talk, but it is how we really act.” 

      This, perhaps is the main lesson of the entire war for all of Israel and for the world. The Arabs have tested us time and again - they tested us again now. And each time we answer. It is how we act - the bravery to go to war, to fight a war, and to fight it as humanely as possible against an enemy that will hide behind its own children. 

      What came out of this war is an Israel that is much stronger than the one that went into Gaza a month ago. We are not stronger because our enemies are much weaker (though they are). We are stronger because we conducted ourselves according to "what we are brought up on."

      With bravery, with courage, with fortitude, with compassion, with grace, with strength - Israel went to war. Hamas has claimed that they killed 1,583 of our soldiers. Hamas has claimed victory. Then again, Hamas claims we are the ones who are inhumane, the ones who aim at civilians. Hamas claims...and the world laughs at its lies. 

      The victory - if there can be victory in war, goes to Israel because, even in war, we continue to fight for peace. When the Arabs can claim the same - there will be peace here in the Middle East.

      Tevet 11, 5772, 1/6/2012

      A Sabbath in the Making

      A Sabbath in the Making

      Life has a way of happening. Three years ago, I dreaded the Sabbath coming. It meant radio-silence and 25 hours of not knowing what was happening to Elie, to the south, in Gaza. It was agony disconnecting from the phone, from the computer knowing that the Arabs would continue to fire rockets, that the battle would continue, perhaps even intensify.

      Since that time, since the war ended, closing down means that much more to me. When I can gather my children near me, I am most happy. Even when they aren't here, the peace comes to my home with the lighting of the candles. It is truly that simple and that instant and long after the candles burn out, the peace remains.

      It's 8:05 a.m. here in Israel. I had an exhausting but fruitful week with work - new clients, new appointments, new projects, a new class starting on Sunday with a really wonderful new group of students. A new challenge - a remote class starting as well, and more students there. I'm planning a wedding and a bat mitzvah and a national conference all in the space of a two month period. I got home last night and crashed. My body needs the sleep it was denied all week and, conversely, is unable to sleep for very long periods of time. I was up by 5:30 a.m. So here I sit, the challah is rising in one corner of the kitchen, near the burners where the soup is cooking.

      I still have more to make, but it's quiet; it's peaceful. I have so much to do on so many fronts but the one inevitable and wonderful fact on a Friday is that the clock ticks down to a time when I'll put it all aside. The house is filling with the smells of Shabbat. My oldest daughter is bringing in the Shabbat in the home she has built with her husband and now her baby. Tonight, my middle son will be eating with his wife in the home they are building, and will come share lunch with us tomorrow. My older son and his future wife are spending Shabbat together in Jerusalem with friends. In some ways, it is a prelude to the home and the Shabbatot (Sabbaths) they will make after their wedding.

      I honestly don't know how others live without this day in their lives. I once had a secular friend tell me that I was so lucky I had Shabbat. I was astounded. She could have it too, I thought. But the truth is that only that which you save, do you have. Only that which you guard, remains yours. In Hebrew we say, "l'shmor" on the Sabbath - to guard it. If someone is observant, they are called "shomer shabbat" - one who guards the Sabbath. In guarding it, in keeping it, you keep it holy and you keep it yours.

      It is a double prize, a two-edge sword. If you think it restrictive, and at times it is, you have to understand that this very element is, in part, what makes it so incredible. Those who feel they can choose to follow or not, as the whim comes, end up letting it go too often. Life, they will tell you, forces their hand and they lose something precious. By believing fully that the choice to keep Shabbat isn't a choice at all, you know that it is always there, always coming.

      I grew up not religious. I once arrogantly asked my brother-in-law if he could open a light on Shabbat. When he answered that he could not, I responded that I could, but chose not to - as if that was in some way superior. He smiled a bit as he thought about it and then asked, "but can you really?" He was right - after years of choosing to keep the Sabbath, it had become as ingrained in me as if I had been born to it. I know longer think I can turn a light on; I no longer believe it is my choice.

      And, amazingly enough, I am happier for that decision. Shabbat will come today, in a few hours, and I'll close the computer, shut the phone. I won't go driving, won't even think about work. I'll sleep, I'll eat with friends and family. I'll walk in this beautiful city, in this beautiful land.

      There are those who believe that peace will never come to this land. In some ways, I am among this group. I do not believe the Palestinians will settle for anything short of the full destruction of my country and since that is something they will never get, there will always be a battle. Aren't you tired of fighting? People ask me.

      As if I had a choice...as if I chose to fight.

      But what they fail to understand is that we do live in peace - more peace than you can imagine. Every Friday, there is bread rising in my kitchen. I could buy a machine to knead the dough - I prefer to do it with my own hands. It rises and is baked, and the smell announces that the Sabbath is coming. One of my children fills the candelabra with oil - beautiful colors - purple, turquoise, gentle orange, several shades of blue. More signs that the Sabbath is coming. We will soon greet each other with "Shabbat shalom" - the peace of the Sabbath.

      The white table cloth on the table - that much of the week has a computer on it - is another sign. The fragrant smells of soup and chicken and more. It's only hours away...

      Peace is coming to my land. It is inevitable; there is no choice. Shabbat shalom.

      Tevet 2, 5772, 12/28/2011

      Theodore Herzl's The Menorah

      Following is part of an essay written by Theodore Herzl in 1897 about how the menorah effected him and the role he believes it provides to the Jewish people. I came across it years ago, and each year promise myself I will take the time to type the article into the computer. It is actually several pages long, but so far, I was only able to find this short excerpt online to post here...

      The Menorah - By Theodore Herzl

      There was a man who felt deep down in his soul that he needed to be a Jew. His outward circumstances were not unsatisfactory. He had a sufficient income, and a pleasant profession in which he could create whatever his heart desired. He was an artist. His Jewish origin, and the faith of his fathers, he had long ignored. Then the old hate arose again, disguised with a fashionable title.

      ... Out of mystifying ideas he came to a clear thought which he uttered aloud. The thought was that there was only one way out of Jewish misery and that was the return to Jewry....

      Briefly he traced the intellectual consequences of this decision, the desire to separate the assimilative habits current in his home life from the primal Jewish ideas. His children could be made to see a new viewpoint. These at least should be educated as Jews. The thought of the Maccabaean festival presented an opportunity. He purchased a Menorah, but when he held this nine-branched candelabra he became depressed. In his father's house, in his distant childhood, these little lights too, had flamed and there was something sad and sorrowful about them. It was tradition bound. He examined the Menorah. Its shape suggested that its design had followed the lines of a tree with extended branches.

      Our man was an artist, and he thought to himself, is it possible to revive this dried Menorah, to nurture its roots like a tree?... Then he considered the form and decided to design a Menorah that shall be a cluster of burgeoning buds. So passed the week.

      Came the eighth day when the whole row of lights were flaming, also the loyal ninth, the servant that serves merely to light the other eight. A great brilliance spread from the Menorah. The children's eyes glistened. To our man the illumination appeared as the flaming up of the nation.

      First one lit candle. It is still dark, and that one light looks sad. Then a fellow traveller joins it, one more and more. The darkness must yield.

      First the young and poor are enkindled, then gradually others, who love right, truth, freedom, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles burn one is astonished and happy over the completed task. And no task affords more happiness than to be the servant of light.

      Kislev 30, 5772, 12/26/2011

      Shades of Justice

      By now you have probably realized that I firmly believe that Israel and the army have enough detractors around the world to make me decide not to be one. For the most part, we've been very blessed in our "relationship" with the army (and if you are hearing a "but" in there, you are correct). Elie went in and from the beginning, they recognized in him the many facets I knew were buried inside. They found his love of order, his need and ability to command. They encouraged him to think - in the box, over the box, out of the box. They watched his ability to analyze situations and encouraged him; they found his love of fixing things and knowing how they work, and fed that too. All that he was ready and able to give, they took...and gave back so much more

      And then came Shmulik - who is so different. He's more social than Elie; he needs that connection. He's quieter and yet more outgoing as well. So similar and yet so different than his older brother. And in this difference, the army too found peace. Shmulik wanted to be in combat. He pushed himself to succeed. What came so easy for Elie, was harder for Shmulik. In some ways, he is physically stronger than Elie, but the discipline was harder, the routine, the "do it because I said so" was tougher for him. It wasn't his desire to lead and when he realized that training for combat was causing him migraines that were more than he could stand, they gave him what he loved doing most. He asked to drive some commander - and they gave him the very commander of the base he was on - still with his friends, and even better...the commander lives in our city so he was home more. Shmulik gained incredible role model as an officer and a person. S. is a man who was severely injured by terrorists - and doctors wondered if he would walk again - today he runs - faster than Shmulik, farther, stronger. Shmulik learned that where the mind wills something, the body listens. They spent hours together driving around and seeing Israel and S. helped Shmulik discovered corners of himself and of the land he had never seen.

      There were a few times over the past almost five years that I've been writing that the army faltered. There was the time they wanted to assign Elie to a unit to command female soldiers; and still they handled it well. There was the lone soldier from California who came here to give his all, was injured, and ultimately, the army did not handle it well.

      That and other failures prove the Israeli army is, like all institutions of man, subject to the whims and weaknesses of human beings. 

      Today, I guess, is another failure to an extent. Shmulik serves in a program called Hesder. It is meant to combine learning Torah and Jewish studies with serving in the army. Before and after the active service, he is still considered within the army and, as such, the army calls these boys for a day or more a few times a year. As religious soldiers, they are often called upon to be in the army for Jewish holidays. In Shmulik's case, he was called for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the calendar, and a fast day.

      He and two friends really wanted to be home; they with their parents, Shmulik with his wife. One of the boys, named Chaim (not our Chaim), had a friend who was an officer in the office that handles these boys and assigns them to bases.  The officer told his friend when to come, what to do. The idea was that if Shmulik, this Chaim, and another friend waited while others went in, the army would run out of places to send the boys - they regularly get more than they need; and the boys would get the credit for having shown up and been willing to serve, while still spending the holiday at home.

      And this is what happened. At around 3:00 p.m. - after hours of waiting, the officer sent Chaim an SMS text message on his phone telling him he could go - all the places were full. That was more than 2 months ago. Suddenly, about 2 weeks later, Shmulik and his other friend (not Chaim), got a message from the army that they were in trouble for not coming when they were called.

      They thought it was all a mistake. They went down to explain - the officer denied everything and they were called to a judgement (mishpat). What Shmulik should have done at that point was call his commanding officer, for whom he drove for so many months. But he thought it was not serious, he was truly innocent, after all. So he went back for the judgement, only to find that the "judge" was the officer who was Chaim's friend. Only he was home sick, so Shmulik and his other friend decided it was better to wait and speak to him the following Tuesday and remind him, rather than go with someone new.

      On Tuesday, he went...and the officer denied everything and sentenced Shmulik and his friend to 21 days on base. This is a harsh sentence for a soldier who didn't come for one day of service - so said Shmulik, Elie, and every officer who was told. Shmulik's commanding officer asked him why he waited but still tried to help. 

      Shmulik immediately appealed on the grounds that he was not offered an opportunity to tell his side, was not given an opportunity to call witnesses, etc. The officer (a different one), called up the sentencing officer - and he lied again - saying that he had offered Shmulik every opportunity to speak - had even checked off these options in his report.

      In short - a set up.

      Shmulik reported to base yesterday - wondering if he would not be home with his wife for three weeks. He was sent to a base near Hebron where he found a wonderful commanding officer. His sentence was immediately reduced to 14 days and he was allowed home last night. He went back today, and was told they would try to send him home each day, if possible. He will come home again tonight.

      As to the officer that lied, there are still shades of this story. There were three boys in that car - only two were accused, tried and sentenced to any sort of punishment. Perhaps the boys will yet be able to retrieve the SMS message that was sent to Chaim. Even if this happens, if Shmulik decides to pursue this rather than just accept the 14 days and move on, justice will come too late to undo the harsh sentence.

      This is where I explain that I believe with complete faith in justice. There is always justice, always a reckoning. Sometimes, it is immediate. I have seen this many times. Sometimes, it is later and one wonders if the years in between are part of the punishment. And sometimes, justice comes in the world I believe lives on beyond this one.

      So, for the next two weeks or so, Shmulik is back in uniform and I am again the mother of a soldier on duty. I don't even know yet what he is doing - I guess I'll find out tonight. But it is a sign of maturity in Shmulik that he accepts this punishment - if not as justice, than as something he must do. 

      He knows now that he made mistakes - in not calling S. as soon as he got the accusation, in not going in to register as he was supposed to, in not taking a witness with him to the Mishpat, as is his right. These are lessons he learns and really, at 21 years of age, it is a good time to learn them.

      Justice has many shades and comes in many forms...but it does come. Perhaps somewhere, there is an officer who will read this and investigate an officer that lied. Perhaps somewhere, there is a young man who will be wiser for having read this. As for Shmulik - it is a very small mountain over which he must climb and with all things, he will be stronger for the climb.

      Kislev 29, 5772, 12/25/2011

      Remembering a War; Still Fighting the Battle

      Every year around this time, I look back at the posts I made just before and during the Gaza War. It is like scratching a scab. You know you shouldn't; you know you'll make it bleed again if you do; but the itch is there and you scratch.

      The candles are burning in the window - we lit the fifth candle. Elie isn't home. He is visiting the United States for the first time since he was a little boy attending his uncle's wedding. He wasn't home the Hanuka before the Gaza War. It is strange reading back, knowing how wrong I was. In this post dated December 25, 2008 called "Life is Never Boring" - I was sure that Elie was heading up north. Sixty rockets had been fired at Israel in a single day and we were sure war was coming. We were right. I was sure Elie would not be involved. I was wrong.

      For those of you who have been me through the long haul, I apologize for reposting. It's just interesting to me to see how life has a way of surprising you. We were days away from the war...days away...

      I remember it started in late December with uncertainty and waiting. First the air force went in with greater force to stop the rocket fire. On a single day sixty rockets were fired at Israel, daily in the days before and after, dozens were fired. Schools were hit, houses, a mall. People were killed, injured, terrified. All of Israel knew that the violence coming from Gaza was at a level that even we could not sustain.

      I knew or feared war was coming on two fronts - as an Israeli and as a mother. As an Israeli, I knew we were headed to war - where else can a nation go when rockets are being fired daily at cities and you know it won't stop until we go in? Hamas was asking for it...begging for it. Normal people would tell you that the leadership of a country would not want its people to come under fire - but normal governments don't hide themselves in bunkers and taunt other nations to kill their people. We would, I was sure, enter any day, First by air, then by ground. Where artillery would come into it, I did not yet know.

      As a mother, at the beginning I was so sure that Elie would not be involved. With the perfect hindsight only living through something can give you, I can almost laugh at myself...almost. Elie was very close to the end of his shift in the center of the country at a check point. They were going to be moving his unit north for training and patrolling. Once north, he would face whatever came at us from Lebanon. From Lebanon, not Gaza. I knew...I knew...I knew nothing, not even that I didn't know.

      On December 25th, 2008, Elie was still in the center - the war had started for the air force, but ground forces and artillery were not yet in position. A few days later, On Defense Minister Ehud Barak was unusually eloquent as he spoke for all Israelis:

      "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting. The operation will expand as necessary. I don't want to mislead anyone. This won't be easy and it won't be short, but we must be determined. The time has come to act. We do not go to this clash gladly, but neither are we afraid of it. We will not let terrorists hurt our citizens or soldiers. We will do what is necessary. For weeks Hamas and its affiliates lobbed Qassams and Grads and mortar shells on the towns and communities of the South. We have no intention of allowing this situation to continue."

      Sadly, three years later...and we are back where we were then with a government that too often allows terrorists to hurt our citizens and soldiers. We have not done what is necessary. Hamas and its affiliates continue to lob Qassams and Grads and mortar shells at the towns and communities of the South.

      Do we have the intention of allowing this situation to continue? Three years later - that is the question.

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