What is a ‘homeland?’
Guest columnistAs a mother of four lone soldiers, Israel has many meanings

What is a ‘homeland?’

As an American family, we are often asked how it came to be that four of our sons are serving in the IDF. My pride for the path they've chosen is as overwhelming as my worries.

The errands day for lone soldiers is organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces so that Israeli soldiers from abroad can take care of many bureaucratic chores in a single day. (Photo by Larry Luxner)
The errands day for lone soldiers is organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces so that Israeli soldiers from abroad can take care of many bureaucratic chores in a single day. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Since we celebrated the milestone of Israel’s 70th Independence Day/Yom Ha’atzmaut recently, I’ve been reflecting on the concept of a homeland.

Israel is not just a place to live, it’s a safe haven for the totality of the Jewish people. As we all know, Israel isn’t situated in the greatest neighborhood. Keeping the country safe is an important and all-consuming job. Three of my sons have already taken on a piece of this responsibility; two have completed their service and one is on active duty. After Yom Ha’atzmaut, a fourth son began his service in the Israel Defense Forces.

This is not so unusual for an Israeli family. But you see, we’re not an Israeli family. We’re American.

Growing up in the United States, I think it’s easy to take freedom and security for granted. In Israel, patriotism is an emotion and security is tangible. We are often asked how it came to be that we have four of our five sons living in Israel and serving in the IDF. We are a Zionistic family and have lived most of our lives in very small Jewish communities. We’ve been fortunate to give our sons a Jewish education.

We have Israeli friends, and our sons took trips there and went on Israel experience programs. Perhaps that helped foster and solidify our connection to Israel, but was that all it took for our sons to decide to make aliyah and serve in the IDF?

I believe the answer actually lies in the idea of a homeland. Israel is the homeland of all Jews, a hard-fought and hard-won homeland. I believe my sons felt that protecting Israel was protecting something more than an idea — their service really matters, their role isn’t insignificant, they make a difference.

People ask how I feel about having sons living so far away and serving in the army. That answer is easy, but not simple. My pride for the path they’ve chosen is as overwhelming as my worries. Unlike Israelis, our sons are lone soldiers. They don’t have family to go home to when they’re sick or for Shabbat, when they’ve completed a grueling war week or when they’re injured. No one is waiting to do their laundry or to welcome them with a stocked refrigerator and a freshly made bed.

I’m not there to give them those things, and being far away, there are other things that we simply don’t know about or can’t help them with. My heart breaks when I talk to them and they’re sick, hurt or exhausted, and all I want to do is give them a hug.

I’m frequently asked how I sleep at night. I honestly don’t know. Frankly, a bit of healthy denial is a part of it. I know my sons are doing what they feel they must do, and because of them and other strong young men and women — including approximately 5,000 lone soldiers — Israel is safe. Yes, I miss them, and sometimes my heart aches with it, but they’ve chosen to live their lives this way and I’ll be there to support them from afar — and I hope, one day, by their side.

Our first lone soldier son served during the 2014 summer war, Operation Protective Edge, between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It was the longest summer of my life. Now, at the beginning of each summer, or when it seems things might be heating up on the security front, I hold my breath because I know that being “worried sick” is not just a saying.

Just after our fourth lone soldier son begins serving, one of our veteran sons will begin reserve duty. Whether they’re in reserve or active duty, I’ve learned that my sons protect me by not telling me everything. I often say that there’s no mother-approved place for our soldiers to serve. I’ve learned a lot since those blissfully naïve days early in our first son’s service, and we have somehow survived till now with amazement, pride, and worry in equal measure.

I believe that I’m far from alone in this journey, as I find camaraderie and support among my fellow lone soldier parents, a support that has become essential. So as we continue to celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday year, my heart bursts with pride not just for the amazing sons we have raised, but for their fellow soldiers as they continue to protect our homeland of Israel. PJC

Four of Stacie Stufflebeam’s five sons made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA, and are currently serving or have served in the Nefesh B’Befesh-Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Lone Soldiers Program. She lives in Pittsburgh.

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