I am a proud mother of five amazing sons. Four of those sons have served or are serving in the IDF as “lone soldiers,” a term used to signify an IDF soldier whose parents do not live in Israel. Three have finished their active duty and serve as reservists, while our youngest son is currently training to become an IDF commander. This connects me to Israel in a special way, a proud way and a scary way.
The IDF differs in many ways from the U.S. Armed Services. In Israel, army bases are not places where soldiers live during their service. Instead, the soldiers move from base to base depending on whether they are in training, on a course or deployed. And even then, they go home regularly for Shabbat. But now, just as we are “sheltering in place,” they are too, confined to base for far longer than usual, fighting a different kind of war.
Though the soldiers are trained to fight, this is a uniquely Jewish army, one with an incredible amount of compassion and for some now a very different kind of mission. I feel pride as I watch videos of soldiers standing at attention in front of the homes of Holocaust survivors, honoring them. My pride expands as I see them deployed to deliver food to the elderly and to Muslims observing Ramadan. This personifies the Israel I love and the reason to celebrate its existence.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, follows so closely on the heels of Yom HaShoah and then Yom HaZikaron. In fact, I don’t believe that we can really fully celebrate the formation of an independent Jewish state without first acknowledging the great sacrifices that were made in order for it to exist. First, by the 6 million Jews whose lives were extinguished in the Holocaust, and then by the brave young men and women who fought to keep our homeland safe.
Here in the U.S., Independence Day and Memorial Day are rarely celebrated or commemorated in a way that attaches the true meaning of these holidays. The same cannot be said for Israel.
So, as we celebrate Israel’s 72nd birthday we continue to ask, as we did on Pesach: “How is this year different from all other years?”
Every Yom HaZikaron, IDF soldiers are assigned to visit the graves of fallen comrades no matter how long ago they fell. This is because Israel does not want any fallen warrior unattended or unacknowledged, even if there is no family to visit. The soldiers assigned to visit their fallen comrades do so with such pride and respect, but with travel restrictions in place this year, this special and unique duty has been taken away from them.
As a lone soldier parent, I’m connected to a worldwide community of other lone soldier parents. We serve as a support system for each other and I’m grateful to have them to turn to. Through this community I have met some of the most incredibly strong people, parents whose sons have fallen protecting Israel. These parents always travel to Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, finding comfort in the support of their children’s comrades and the people of Israel and then in the celebration of the continuation of the Jewish homeland their precious children fought to protect. Though these things could not happen this year I know that the connection — soldier to soldier to parent to Israel — will not disappear.
As Yom HaZikaron ebbs away and Yom Ha’atzmaut begins, the connection and dichotomy of these events side by side is striking but purposeful: One cannot be fully celebrated until the other is fully honored and commemorated. But this year Yom Ha’atzmaut could not be celebrated with barbecues and bonfires, parties or concerts. This year, the entire world is locked down and all of our celebrations have become private. The question is, can we truly celebrate on our own? The answer is a resounding yes.
This year, freedom and independence took on a new, more significant meaning to all of us. And while I celebrate not only the creation but the endurance of the State of Israel, I continue to pine for a time when we can all once again travel to Israel to celebrate together, and I can once again be reunited with my sons, my defenders of Israel. PJC
Stacie Stufflebeam is the executive director of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation. She lives in Pittsburgh.