Lone Soldier Families from Our Community: Commitment, Pride, Reward
By Laura Rolnick
Having a child serve in the Israel Defense Forces is a source of both pride and concern for Israeli parents. And while such sentiments parallel for the numerous families of soldiers in our
Gaby Shames (L) with IDF Soldier
Westchester/Connecticut community, the volunteer nature of the service and the distance from home add an additional texture to this life changing experience.
The IDF’s definition of a Lone Soldier is someone who is serving in the Israeli military without the benefit of any local family support (most Israeli soldiers still live in their parents’ homes when they are not on base). FIDF provides adoptive families, flights home, social networks and moral support to aid in their adjustment.
Four moms of devoted young women from our community relayed their families’ and daughters’ experiences serving as recent and current Lone Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. While each of them shared different and interesting details regarding their service, all of them have been overwhelmed by the positive, strengthening challenges and rewards faced and reaped as Americans serving in the Israeli Army.
Sophie Tulkoff, 19, from New Rochelle, returned from her one year service in July 2013, and Gaby Shames, 19, of White Plains, Ilana Zur, 22, of Stamford, and Adina Israel, 20, of Stamford are currently serving as Lone Soldiers in the IDF. Their moms, Lynette Tulkoff, Jodi Shames, Pam Ehrenkrantz and Shara Israel passionately described their journeys.
While 80% of the graduating class at SAR high school in Riverdale spends their year after graduation learning at seminaries throughout Israel, Sophie chose instead to contribute her time and focus to Israeli security prior to continuing her studies at Johns Hopkins University. Adina, also a graduate of SAR, decided that despite her acceptance to Barnard College she preferred to make Aliyah, and that army service would be the best route for integrating herself into Israeli society. Their parents were not surprised by their decisions, and their moms attribute significant family time spent in Israel as the root of their daughters' desire to serve.
When Gaby Shames told her family that she had decided to serve in the IDF following graduation, however, her mom Jodi replied: “No way!” Gaby’s grandmother and brother cried, and Gaby's friends told her that she was “crazy." But Gaby was determined to "give back while she could.” She was “very determined,” and “ has this direction and purpose much larger than herself, “ Jodi came to realize.
Ilana Zur came home for dinner from Barnard College one evening during the last semester of her senior year and announced to her parents that it has been her “lifelong dream to move to Israel.” Pam, surprised, racked her brains "to remember when it was her lifelong dream . . ,” and says jokingly, “I just wish she had told me this before I paid for her Ivy League education . . . “ But both families well understood the deep feelings of Zionism, and ultimately supported their daughters’ decisions.
The flight to Israel was a powerful experience for each of these girls and their families, who either experienced it with them, or watched via satellite. Lone Soldiers arrive in Israel to an extremely moving ceremony and are granted a “hero's welcome.” All four families were overwhelmed by the honors bestowed upon their daughters by the Israeli government and FIDF, upon arrival in Israel. There is “such a feeling of appreciation for those kids who don’t have to be there,” says Jodi.
But serving as an IDF soldier is grueling both mentally and physically, and as a non-Israeli, without immediate family in Israel, it is even harder. Each of these young women faced unique and major challenges, yet none of them, nor their families, turned back. They persevered through frustrating Israeli bureaucracy glitches, periods of extreme homesickness, the uncertainty of not knowing when they might next be reunited with their families, criticism for not speaking perfect Hebrew, and relegation to inferior army status due to a minor medical ailment. Furthermore, for their families, there is a feeling of extreme helplessness when a child is sick, carrying out secret army service, or in one case frightened after having boarded the wrong bus one evening in Israel. “There’s just not much you can do from so many miles away,” concedes Jodi.
Noteworthy is that none of these moms nor their daughters have been particularly fearful of physical harm. Shara attributes this to the fact that Adina serves in an elite special unit and not in front line combat. Similarly, Sophie (whose mom grew up with civil unrest as the norm in South Africa) worked in the Maki branch of Kishrei Chutz as a foreign affairs liaison between the Israeli and Jordanian armed forces, and Gaby as a fitness instructor for Israeli soldiers.
Sophie Tulkoff (R) with IDF Soldiers
Regarding the benefits of adjusting to the conditions and the discipline, Jodi says “I know this is the hardest thing she’ll ever do; everything else will be easy for her after this.” Pam relayed that “a year ago my daughter would not have stepped foot into the place [her living quarters on her base] for a minute- it is tiny, bare, there are outlets hanging from the walls,” but she is so happy that none of this phases her. “Ilana had a great four years at Barnard, but these past four months of experiential learning is unparalleled.” Lynette notes how quickly these young people grow up from the independence required during their service. “When Sophie returned, we noticed how other parents spent days setting their kids up for college, helping them with their bedding, etc.” But after army service “for Sophie, it all seemed so easy.”
Lynette speaks to the “incredible pride” from this “beyond positive experience” for her daughter. A poignant moment for her was when the national siren sounded and the entire country stopped for 2-3 minutes of silence for the befallen soldiers, and “knowing your kid is in the army. . . they just get it.”
The culture of hospitality in Israel is a major draw and reason for these young women to feel comfortable so far from their families. Ilana’s commanding officer did her laundry for her (“in what other military,” remarks Pam gratefully”), and Pam notes the “stark contrast” to American culture, and the “numerous acts of kindness” that "have befallen my daughter” in the IDF. She adds, “I am not saying that the army or government is perfect, but I have never seen my daughter happier, and if I thought I was proud of the IDF a year ago, I did not truly understand how proud we should all be of the IDF."