AT HOME, AWAY FROM HOME: A Chicago mom reflects on what it’s like to have a son serving in the Israel Defense Forces

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The Israeli “Lone Soldier” at times may feel as far away as home as, say, just-deployed Illinois National Guard personnel going to Afghanistan.

But the Israeli trooper has two huge advantages. First and foremost, he or she specifically volunteered for this job, in this locale. And unlike the guardsmen venturing into the sometimes hostile territory of a supposed U.S. ally, the Lone Soldiers get regular days off from base, enjoying the company of close-by host families and friends fully supported by the Israeli government.

Now 29 Lone Soldiers out of the 7,000 – the majority from the U.S. and Canada – are enjoying even more of a hint of home. Their mothers are re-uniting with them as part of the decade-old Momentum program, which aims to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform themselves, their families and their communities. The visit by the mothers is the first-ever to meet soldier-children in the organization’s history.

One of the fortunate 29 soldiers is Northbrook’s Ben Amram, on active duty with the tradition-rich Golani Brigade. Mom Laurie Garber Amram, who already had an older son, Jonathan, serve as a Lone Soldier, is making her first organized Israel trip through Momentum.

Jonathan Amram and his parents Laurie and Ofer in Israel.

Laurie, married to an Israeli native 29 years after first meeting as El Al employees at O’Hare Airport, has made dozens of do-it-yourself trips to Israel to visit family. But now she’s able to further boost the morale of Ben, who along with his brother, was motivated to take a different path than the usual journey to college straight out of alma mater Glenbrook North High School.

The Chicago-area connection in the mothers’ visit goes even further. Momentum co-founder Lori Palatnik is married to Yakov Palatnik, a Skokie native and Niles North alum who, as a 1960s grade-schooler, put up seats and cleaned fans’ refuse at Wrigley Field  in exchange for a free ticket to the next day’s game. To keep the Chicago-to-Israel connection strong, Yakov Palatnik joined a tour group of guys who displayed the Cubs’ famed “W” flag at the Western Wall and Masada during and after the 2016 World Series.

Laurie Garber Amram, a Sullivan High School alum, is not in any way a nervous mother with two of her three sons traveling 6,000 miles of their own volition to possibly engage in combat operations. In fact, Jonathan Amram served in combat as a paratrooper on the Gaza border in Operation Protective Edge. He tended to a buddy who was wounded while Israeli fatalities were suffered when a mine blew up by a building the unit was inspecting.

Dealing with the psychology of life as a licensed clinical social worker, Laurie Amram did not have to plumb the depths of her sons’ minds to dissect their motivations to put their bodies and souls at risk when that was not required as native Americans. Service, be it military or not, was taught in their household.

“In our family, that was stressed,” Amram said in a phone interview from Israel. “In our family, you do something to do the greater good. As human beings, we’re here to do service. We’ve come to Israel every year.  My experience is that as soon as I get to Israel, something in the air is different than being in the U.S. It’s feeling of being in your own country.

Jonathan Amram on patrol in the West Bank.

“Both Jonathan and Ben are both physical types. They both work out a lot. They’re serious.  They want to be doing something action-oriented, and contribute in a meaningful way.  It was the logical next step.”

Taking a page from her psych training, Laurie figures it’s hazardous just stepping out of your house each morning, if you want to think too much about it.

“Worry?” she asked, repeating a question. “That’s a space I don’t want to go into. It’s like flying in an airplane. You’re six miles high, flying in that little tube. If you let your mind go to that space, a whole world of fear opens up. It’s the same with my sons serving in the IDF.  When they’re home, if they take a train to downtown Chicago at night, is that completely safe?

“I would love to have my boys home for Shabbat meals, love to do their laundry. But that’s more my needs.  In their life’s journey, it was important for them to fulfill what they wanted to do.

“Our family has really have been so involved in Israel, where military service is an absolute necessity.  To have (her husband’s) family there, where everyone serves, I’m going to keep my boys with me? I couldn’t morally say it’s all right for my nephew to serve but not my sons. Many young Americans go to college, but do they really want to study?”

Ben Amram had been scheduled for a phone interview with Chicago Jewish News on his Lone Soldier perspective and his mother’s visit. But just before the time the interview was scheduled for, he was assigned to duty in a combat zone and thus was not available..

However, Jonathan Amram was an able fill-in for his sibling. Although he never had his mother visiting with a Momentum delegation, he benefited from government and citizen support of Lone Soldiers during his three years’ service from 2013 to 2016. He is now studying at the IDC (Inter-disciplinary Center) in Herzliya and volunteers for the Gideon Project, which battles anti-Semitism worldwide.

“Why serve? I grew up exposed to Israel,” he said. “Jewish values and tradition were ingrained in my upbringing. My father (Ofer Amram) did not speak Hebrew at home, and we did not speak Hebrew. I never expected I would go to Israel and serve in the army. 

“When I was a junior at Glenbrook North, I started to grow more as a person, step out of the social construct of what is thought to be the norm. The normal flow of American high schoolers is to college and then work. But I needed to do something different. I enjoyed doing physical things.  I thought of joining the American military.

“Then, through someone in our synagogue (B’nai Tikvah in Deerfield), I found out about the Lone Soldier volunteer program. I knew right away that it’s so much more meaningful.  The impact of an extra soldier in Israel is much more than in the U.S.

“The bonus at my age is, wow, I get to move to the other side of the world, have an adventure, experience a whole new culture.”

The Lone Soldier program simply formalized a seven-decade tradition, dating back to the 1948 War of Independence, of foreign volunteers joining the Israeli military. That history even includes Jewish American military veterans of World War II flying, of all things, rickety leftover German Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters for the first makeshift Israeli Air Force.

Over the decades, the appreciation of the volunteers supplementing the otherwise all-draftee (of both genders) military became formalized with government support. Soldiers with parents living overseas are entitled to a fully funded flight home during their service through a program run by the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) and are given a special 30-day leave every year to visit family. When parents visit Israel, the Lone Soldiers are given eight days’ leave.

Brothers Jonathan and Ben in Israel.

Complementing that are the welcoming arms of host families and other relationships from both civilian and military friends. Israeli soldiers are at most only a few hours’ drive from home when they do have their days off.  In a number of ways, being in Israel – and defending the Jewish state – staves off a lot of the hardships of military service.

“I’m impressed with how integrated Israeli soldiers are with civilian life,” said Jonathan Amram. “It’s not like being deployed to Iraq for six months. 

“In terms of PTSD, that is significantly less in Israel. That stems from the integration into civilian life. Also, whenever we go to war, it’s always on the basis on defending your people.”

Laurie Amram is thankful for the support system. “From what I see, there’s an incredible network of support in Israel,” she said. “Lone soldiers are usually placed on kibbutzim for (off-duty) housing. They have adoptive families who take an interest in the kids.  And that doesn’t stop with them. When we visit, we’re also invited — they want to meet Jonathan’s or Ben’s parents. It’s such great love and support from the general public.”

Jonathan Amram wanted as tough of a military assignment as he could get. He tried out for the Shayetet, Israel’s version of the Navy Seals. He was one of 300 originally in the first three-day tryout. Amram survived a year’s training until the final cut of 30. Not making it, he was still rewarded with a spot in Orev, a commando unit in the paratroops.

While steeling himself against expected horrible sights, Amram also learned a military code of ethics. The whole world is watching IDF operations.

“I was one of the first responders to find wounded and dead,” he said of the mined building. “One (of the wounded) was a friend.  But I never wanted to go out and seek revenge. Sure, there is anger against the enemy, but it’s more the idea of defending your people and keeping yourself safe.  Thus there’s a higher risk for the Israeli soldier.”

Going into action, Amram barely had enough time to notify his mother he’d be out of touch for a while.

“The call I got from him was, ‘Mom I am serving in Gaza. I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you again,’” she said. “As a mother, I don’t know how to describe the feeling.  Near the end of the war, I got to see Jonathan, and I took him to return combat equipment (as he mustered out).”

Momentum co-founder Palatnik, a Canadian native, has her own war stories through former Lone Soldier son Zev, who served as a sharpshooter. But the heavy tikkun olam quotient present in Israel is what she expects many to take back to their countries. Some 17,000 mothers – and some fathers – have benefited from her group’s Israel tours and year-long immersions in education.

“We have four goals,” Palatnik said. “First is to connect with Jewish values. Then engage with Israel. Take action, get involved in the community. And finally have unity without uniformity.”

The first organized parental visit to Lone Soldiers is meant to enable parents to come to grips in the same manner Laurie Amram already has. In addition to Americans and Canadians, Palatnik is guiding Britons, Australians and South Africans on the Lone Soldiers moms’ bus.

The mothers of Lone Soldiers will be joined by a delegation of Israeli mothers from Poreshet, a community for IDF women retirees whose children have also served in the military. By experiencing Momentum alongside Jewish women from around the world, Israeli mothers can help them better understand Israeli culture and the society in which their children are now immersed. 

“Your child is across the world,” Palatnik said. “To be a mother of a Lone Soldier, you’re praying. Most parents of Lone Soldiers are not connected to Israel, and do not have the opportunity to come.  If parents are feeling positive, that will help soldiers serve in a positive way.”

Laurie Amram looked forward to expanding her sisterhood: “You become a part of a network of moms. I’ve come to Israel more than 30 times, but never done an organized tour and am excited to meet other mothers.”

And they’ll meet people like Jonathan Amram, who says that in the “grand scheme of things, I’ll stay on in Israel. My soul feels a lot more settled in Israel.”

And being in Israel allows him to meet up his little bro’ when he gets off duty, and tell him to play it smart and play it safe, within reason.  The veteran always has the right to give advice to the active-duty soldier:

“A lot of what I tell him is that there are always going to be difficult things, physically and mentally. But our human limits are so much further than we think they are.  Limits are more in our mind than our body.

“I tell him to always be looking out for your teammates. There are always some who are weaker mentally. Pulling them along is very important to keep together as a team. Keep in the back of your mind to always be in the moment, that there are times that may seem difficult, but you’re in uniform to protect your nation.”

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