Reflections by a Hamilton mother of two lone IDF soldiers

April 2024
Rebecca Shapiro

How am I feeling? The word “OK” has become a relative term for all of us since Oct. 7. 

When my two sons decided to join the Israeli army, I was slightly hesitant but optimistically thought that it would be a great experience for them. They would learn discipline, make great friends and protect our homeland. Attending my oldest son’s beret ceremony at the completion of his military training, I marveled at the many different religions and cultures represented in this group of soldiers. There were Druze, Christians, Muslims and Jews, all standing together for the noble cause of protecting the land that has given them each a beautiful life full of hope and peaceful coexistence. 

My son told us about some Arab communities who showed gratitude to the soldiers, bringing them warm coffee on cold mornings. I saw glimpses in these stories of a future of lasting peace for our homeland, and I was proud of the role my sons were playing in the unfolding narrative. I never dreamed that an event like Oct. 7 could take place, or that my sons and two of my nephews would become a part of the fortified lines responsible for the continued existence of our homeland. 

The first week of the war I had very little contact with my boys. They were on training bases getting ready for their respective assignments. My mind raced, bombarded by pervasive thoughts of what they would soon be facing. My older son was called up right away as a reservist near the northern border of Syria and Lebanon. 

During the first month of the war, when the border was still relatively quiet, we were able to speak somewhat regularly. However, as things started to heat up at the Lebanese border, he had little access to his phone. My second son had not officially finished training yet so I was hopeful that he would be tucked away safely at a fortified base somewhere. He wasn’t. A week after training, my phone rang. My heart dropped as I answered the phone from an unknown Israeli number. When my son’s voice crackled on the other end of the line, I called my husband into the room. The conversation that followed was the most difficult parenting moment in my 22 years of motherhood. My son told us that he “graduated” early, and that in the next 12 hours he would be going into Gaza. 

Nobody prepares you for how to respond when your son says, “I wanted to call and say a last goodbye ... just in case.” I reminded myself to give my son whatever strength and courage I could, so I waited for the conversation to end to melt down into inconsolable tears. I did not hear from him (or sleep, for that matter) again for nearly two long agonizing months. 

The unknown is a very unsettling state of being. Trying to function, work and parent the children I have under my roof was a huge task, one I could not have done without the shoulders of fellow army families, our supportive community and many acts of kindness by amazing friends. Every single text that said I’m thinking of you helped me feel less isolated and alone. The incredible kindness shown by friends and family in Israel was also a huge lifeline. 

As the weeks passed, my need to be with my boys grew unbearable. Timing aligned perfectly with the launch of Operation Hug by Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), an initiative to help parents of lone soldiers get to Israel to hug their kids. Unfortunately, those with kids fighting in Gaza had no idea when to book their flights. There was no scheduled leave for the active military, and NBN had no jurisdiction to organize visitations. We took a leap of faith and booked tickets for the entire family, in the hope that we could celebrate my soon to be 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah in Israel as a complete family. 

The second we landed, I got a message from an Israeli army mom whose son is serving with mine, telling me that their unit had an unexpected training day, and if we hurried south from the airport, we could probably see them for an hour or two at the base before they had to go back. It was a miracle. We actually got to hug our son!  An hour later we left him to go back into hell and then had no idea if we would see or hear from him again this trip. We got to hug our oldest son a few days later and held on for an entire Shabbat. 

When our trip was almost over, our second son miraculously got special permission to leave Gaza for his brother’s bar mitzvah and our oldest son quickly worked to coordinate another weekend off. We threw together a last-minute celebration more meaningful and beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Having all my sons together, with the old city walls fading into the horizon, we celebrated my son putting on t’fillin for the first time. 

Leaving Israel was excruciating, but we had children who needed to get back to school and routine. I willed myself into some semblance of normalcy, relying on my body’s natural mechanisms to protect me from too much pain. I began to keep busier than usual and sleep more. I live and appreciate life more and definitely cry more. Sensitivity levels increased alongside resilience. Being a mom of soldiers has taught me that we are all capable of more than we ever dreamed possible—even (or especially) during challenges we don’t get to choose. May God watch over and protect all of our precious sons and daughters fighting for our homeland.