Being 5,900 miles from war offers no reprieve for parents whose children are serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Pittsburgh’s lone soldier parents are organizing, fundraising, praying and leaning on each other to weather a difficult period.
Chana Luba Ertel has a son serving in the IDF and a daughter volunteering in Israel. Since the start of the Hamas-Israel war, she has focused on creating a website that serves as a “unity hub,” she said.
The site’s aim, Ertel continued, is “that the whole Jewish community can take action in a positive and meaningful way.”
Pittsburghsupportsisrael.com includes boilerplate letters for distribution to politicians, a prayer for IDF soldiers and links to “positive social media posts.”
Each tab reinforces a collective goal, Ertel said: Inspire Jews and allies in “a way that moves them.”
Ertel is not a web developer or programmer. Still, she’s creating content and working with volunteers to build a viable digital den that coalesces a community and counters online vitriol, the Pittsburgh Jewish mother said.
“It’s just so frustrating to me that there’s so many people out there that have been swayed by the propaganda that Hamas has cleverly woven into our American society,” she said. “When we’re together as a community and when we’re educated, then we can be empowered; and when we’re empowered we can make big changes.”
Solidarity has been a recurrent theme in recent weeks. Squirrel Hill resident Dan Marcus, whose son is serving in the IDF, hopes to spread that message.
“What he’s told me is that he’d like to see the community stand strong and together, in unwavering support, as advocates and supporters of Israel in the war against Hamas and the other bad actors who are now joining this fight,” Marcus said.
He also hopes people “learn more and engage more in Jewish activities,” Marcus continued.
“When I have had brief conversations with him, these are things that are important to him.”
The Marcuses have numerous friends in Squirrel Hill and the East End. Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, many have reached out to the family.
The words and gestures are appreciated, Marcus said: “I hope people will continue to be kind and supportive but also understand we don’t have answers either. We don’t know any more specific information — either from the news or briefings or authentic sources — than other people do.”
While he appreciates people inquiring about assistance, “please be patient,” Marcus said. “We will ask for help when we need it.”
As Pittsburgh parents rely on peers and family, the community is signaling its support. At synagogues and public gatherings, people have recited Psalms. Jewish day school students have sent supportive messages to soldiers. WhatsApp groups previously dedicated to determining who was bringing herring to shul for a Saturday morning snack have become platforms for fundraising drives.
Marcus hopes the communal concern continues.
“Engage more. Do more. Be kind,” he said.
Thoughtful messages from friends, neighbors and even people she hasn’t spoken to in decades, have inundated Stacie Stufflebeam’s phone.
“It’s wonderful and a little overwhelming, specifically for me because of my job,” she said. Stufflebeam, who recently moved from Pittsburgh, is the executive director of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation.
The organization assists IDF soldiers who have no family in Israel, “before, during and after their army service.” More than 6,300 lone soldiers receive food, laundry, equipment, Shabbat meals and emotional support through the organization.
Four of Stufflebeam’s sons were lone soldiers. Three recently returned to the IDF as reservists; one is in Israel volunteering.
“When I talk to people about my kids serving, I always emphasize that they serve in Israel’s Defense Forces; they are defending Israel. They didn’t start a war. They’re defending Israel. And with the antisemitism we obviously know all too well in Pittsburgh, more than ever we need Israel to exist,” she said.
Stufflebeam said her children, like thousands of other lone soldiers, are deeply committed to defending the Jewish state.
“They’re incredible human beings,” she said.
War is not their calling, she continued: “My kids, specifically, are kind and well-meaning. This is not what they want to do, but it’s what they ended up having to do.”
Sending a child to battle is challenging enough; lack of contact can be consuming. Stufflebeam, like parents of other lone soldiers, said she sometimes goes days or weeks without hearing from her children. When the phone rings, however, she must be ready.
“I need to be 100% there for them. I need to listen to what they need to tell me; and it’s not always easy to hear,” she said.
When the call ends, support is critical, Stufflebeam continued.
“There’s a saying, ‘Put on your oxygen mask before you help others,’” Stufflebeam said. “It’s true. I do a lot of crying, but none of it in front of my kids. I need that support so that I can be supportive of them.”
The current intensity cannot negate the need for continued care, Stufflebeam explained.
“We all remind each other to try and sleep, to try and eat, because that’s not coming as easily as it should,” she should. “We need to pace ourselves. This is going to last a while, and we need that support now and later.”
Calls, texts, fundraisers, prayers and kindness must endure, Stufflebeam and other lone soldier parents told the Chronicle.
“We don’t expect people to solve things for us,” Marcus said. “We don’t expect people to be our therapists. Just be our friends.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.