Stacie Stufflebeam and her husband Todd have five sons. Four of them moved from Pittsburgh to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces.
“I have pride and worry in equal measure,” said Stufflebeam, who returned last week from a tour of the Jewish state with 28 other mothers of “lone soldiers,” or those who do not have immediate family in Israel.
The tour was the first of its kind sponsored by Momentum (previously, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project), in partnership with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and Nefesh B’Nefesh, which established a Lone Soldiers Program with the support of the IDF.
“We have tremendous admiration, not only for the courageous Lone Soldiers serving in the IDF, but for their incredibly dedicated parents as well,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh in a statement. “These young men and women are protecting our country round the clock, while their parents send support and encouragement from afar. Through this mission, we now have the opportunity to bring them together in person and show our appreciation.”
Stufflebeam, who was a group leader for the tour, is frequently asked how she happened to raise four children who have all made aliyah and enlisted in Israel’s armed forces. Three of her sons have completed their service, while one is currently in training in a commando unit.
“When I was in Israel, especially the Israelis said, ‘What are you feeding them?’” said Stufflebeam, who moved to Pittsburgh from Indianapolis, Indiana in 2011.
There may be no secret sauce, but she attributes her sons’ deep attachment to Israel to being raised with strong Zionist values, and to having grown up in Indianapolis among a relatively small number of Jews.
“I think when you live in a small Jewish community that you feel a stronger tie to the Jewish community because you have to,” Stufflebeam explained. “It takes work to belong, and I think that is part of it.”
Moreover, she believes her sons were inspired by the Israeli shlichim that spent time at their Jewish day school in Indianapolis.
“I think it is a combination of being Zionists and wanting to be a part of something larger than themselves,” Stufflebeam added. “And once they made a decision that they were making aliyah, they absolutely wanted to also not just be a part of Israel, but be protectors of Israel.”
The mothers on the Momentum trip traveled to Israel from the United States, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. They were joined by a delegation of Israeli mothers from Poreshet, a community for IDF women retirees whose children have also served in the Israeli army, to help the lone soldier mothers better understand the Israeli culture their children are now a part of.
It’s hard to be separated from her sons by such a great distance, and a seven-hour time difference, but Stufflebeam is supportive of their decision.
“People say to us, ‘Oh, you’re so amazing,’” she said. “Well, I’m not really amazing, my kids are amazing. It’s an incredible thing that they have taken on because it’s not just the army, it’s a different language, it’s a different culture. The kids in Israel are raised knowing they are going into the army. Our kids sort of missed that whole part of it, and go in learning everything all at once.”
There are many challenges particular to lone soldiers, including language. Although Stufflebeam’s sons had studied Hebrew in school, they found they were lacking in knowledge of slang as well as “army Hebrew,” which includes a lot of acronyms.
“The other big challenge for lone soldiers is obviously not having family there,” Stufflebeam said. While Israeli-born soldiers can head home for Shabbat and find a refrigerator full of homemade food awaiting them, lone soldiers are often scrambling to find places for Shabbat meals or to get to the grocery before it closes and prepare their own food.
“And they don’t have their parents there advocating for them as well, for instance if they get injured or if they’re sick,” Stufflebeam said. “On a day-to-day basis, they are responsible for everything from grocery shopping to making sure they are getting paid correctly to getting their laundry done, to figuring out how to get home from base and back in time, which can be very challenging. And not having the ready emotional support, that gets in the way as well.”
Momentum has been running trips to Israel for about 10 years, and has so far sent more than 18,000 women to tour the Jewish state. Typically, a group of women from a particular city travels together, then continues to meet for a year to study and engage in other Jewish activities. There is generally a partner organization in each city where there is a Momentum group. In Pittsburgh, the partner organization is Chabad.
This pilot trip to Israel for mothers of lone soldiers was organized a bit differently, with groups comprised of women from all over the world, but who shared the common bond of having children who were serving in the IDF.
Although Stufflebeam and the group of seven moms she was heading had video chatted a few times, they first met in person at the airport in Tel Aviv.
“Nobody knew anybody else, but we had this thing that bonded us, that our kids are all serving in the IDF,” she said. “And that’s something you can talk to other people about, but they can’t fully understand. It didn’t matter that we were strangers, we had this bond and immediately everybody was a group. It didn’t matter where you came from or where your kid was serving, or if you had a daughter or a son. Everybody had a common language, and this very, very significant thing that bonded us.”
The lone solider mothers were part of a three-bus trip that included women from Momentum groups from various cities. While the lone solider mothers shared the general itinerary of the larger group and visited important sites throughout the country, they also had special programming, including with IDF representatives and a visit to the residence of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin.
One particularly moving moment was a recognition of all the lone soldier mothers on the trip. While they were seated on a stage, the soldier daughter of one mother unexpectedly came up and handed her mom a rose.
“We were all crying, and then all of a sudden, all of the soldiers came streaming down the aisles,” Stufflebeam said. “It was so beautiful. Everyone was crying. And the other mothers on this trip got to get a little piece of our joy.”
The lone soldiers were then able to spend Shabbat with their mothers.
The trip was a success, Stufflebeam said, and Momentum is planning on sponsoring another one.
“Of course, now all the moms are advocating for a dads’ trip, too,” she said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at