I was in Toronto recently and I always find the myriad of reactions that my Toronto friends and acquaintances have regarding my children and the army rather fascinating. For those of you who are not familiar with Israeli culture and way of life, religious girls can choose to be exempt from army service and can opt to do national service instead. National service - or 'sherut leumi' is an amazing program geared for girls who feel that military service is not for them, and for boys as well, who for legitimate reasons, are exempt from army service. Basically, these young men and women give 1-2 years (post high school) to their country, voluntarily serving in the many organizations that desperately need extra help. They range from working in hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, special needs programs for the physically and/or mentally challenged, tour guides in Israel's national parks and historical ruins, and youth leaders. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
The most-asked question I got was: "why are you letting her do the army when she can do national service?"
So... First and foremost, there is something fundamentally wrong with this question. For one thing, there is no "letting" when it comes to an Israeli 18 year old girl/boy. From the time these kids turn 16 1/2 years old, their lives are filled with army interviews, auditions and tests. As soon as they get their 'tzav rishon' - which is like their official 'registration' for the army, this next phase of their lives becomes part of their daily conversation over the next few years. Those who've chosen the army will already start exercising a little bit more, getting into better shape, some even put on weight (especially for the girls) so they don't come in 'underweight' and lose a point in their profile. The profile number they get is based on physical, mental and psychological tests and is something they carry with pride - the higher their profile number, the better opportunities they have in the military. Those who've chosen national service discuss the many options they have and the various parts of the country they'd like to do their national service. When you sit around a Shabbat table and the kids are all talking about their interviews and the units that they are interested in, they don't talk about their upcoming service with dread, but rather with anticipation and excitement. At this point, it's not a matter of our "letting" them. It's a very personal choice that they all must make for themselves.
As to the second part of the question regarding the choice she made between national service vs. the army, this is the response she gave when she was once asked that very same question at our Shabbat table. Her answer was succinct and extremely mature, not to mention patriotic - she said that since she lives off this land and benefits from all that it has to offer, she has to give back to her country, and she has to give back in the best way she can - in essence, she's asked to serve her country in a way where the country can best use her strengths. She said that she strongly considered doing national service, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew the best way SHE can serve is through the military. I was struck speechless and incredibly proud of the depth of thought that she put into her decision. She has many friends who do national service and make our country proud, but ultimately it wasn't the right choice for her. How my Toronto friends can think that I have any right to make that decision for her is beyond me. This decision she made was not made lightly; rather it was made with a lot of introspection and consideration. It was a decision she agonized over because she knew it would set a course for the rest of her life. And ultimately this is HER life.
But if one reason wasn't enough, she had yet another. A little while ago, a friend of mine gave my daughter a lift home from the Modiin junction and she shared with me snippets of the conversation they'd had in the car. My daughter said that thinking about her great grandparents who had survived the Holocaust had weighed a lot in her decision to choose the army over national service. She said that her Bubbie and Zaida Good lived in a country that was not their own - a country that persecuted them, tore them from their home, separated them from their family, sent them to concentration camps and tortured them for the simple reason that they were Jewish. And scarily, for the longest time, no one stood up for them and fought for their rights and their religious freedom. Now that she lives in a Jewish country, and she has both the opportunity and the honor to protect her people's rights and defend their religious freedom, how could she NOT step up and join the military?
The second question I got was: "but won't she be pushing off university by so many years? She'll be so old when she graduates!"
Since most of the 18-19 year old men and women of this country serve for a minimum of 1, more likely 2 and up to 4 or even 5 years, most universities do not have students aged 18 or 19 like American or Canadian universities/colleges. My daughter will not be entering university as a 22 year old among a sea of 18 years old kids. She will not be an anomaly. She'll be of average age, like everyone else in her university classes. Truth is, when you have university classes filled with first year students aged 22, you have a very mature body of students, an impressive group of men and women who have already learned things that cannot be taught in a classroom, and more importantly, they have discovered things about themselves during their service - be it either military or national - that they might not have discovered elsewhere. They've discovered both their strengths and weaknesses and it's likely helped steer them into a career they might not have considered otherwise. As such, they come into university with a clarity and a deeper understanding about what they want to do professionally. And furthermore, unlike other countries where your university education is imperative to your future success and ability to get a lucrative job, there are many Israeli men and women who - while perhaps not fairing well academically - thrive in the military, thus choosing to make it a lifelong career that is not just highly respected but brings financial security as well.
The third question I was asked was: "aren't you worried about her being a religious girl in a military (and thus more secular) environment?"
That argument doesn't hold water anymore like it might have at one time. The army options for religious girls have expanded and now there are many more religious girls serving in the military than ever before. In fact, last year, a religious girl who had already done national service and then decided to do the army as well, graduated from the Israeli Air Force, which is one of the most difficult military units to get into. The Israeli army has always been respectful to those who choose to be religious by offering prayer services on Shabbat, a rabbi on every base and Shabbat meals every weekend for those who don't get to go home for the weekend. My daughter has tons of friends who have chosen to serve in the army and they are all religious girls.
At my nephew's bar mitzvah, someone I've known for over 20 years asked me what my kids were up to. When I told her of my daughter's upcoming army service, she shook her head in exasperation and said, "I don't understand you. Why you let her do this." I told her very simply that this was her decision and that I am not alone - that every mother in this country has children in the army, so why should I be exempt? When she responded, "but who's the mother here, you or her?" I didn't really bother answering because I knew that no matter what I said, she would never understand. But now that I've had a little time and space to think about it and our conversation, I think I've found the right answer. I would have told her this: Yes, while I am the mother and she is my daughter, I often have to remind myself that I did not birth her so she can live the life I might want her to live. I gave birth to her so she can become the person she was meant to be. And that starts with her making her own decisions. Do I fear for her? Do I sometimes wish she chose to do national service and work with kids instead of guns? Certainly. But my pride overrides my fear and in the end, I pray that G-d will keep a close eye on her and all her friends in the IDF and help them protect our country and bring each and every one of them home safely.
In the end, what it boils down to is that my daughter DID have a choice. She had the option to do one year of national service instead of a minimum of two years military service which is unarguably the safer choice, the easier choice. It would have been a choice that would have had me sleeping better at night and would have delayed the onset of gray in my hair. But she made the more difficult choice, the one that will demand much more of her, physically, mentally and definitely more emotionally. It brings Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken" to mind. It was my favorite poem while growing up and has remained my favorite until today and while it's applied to so many moments in my life, it now applies to the decision my daughter made.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I wish my daughter and all her friends who are currently serving their country - be it national service or military - much 'hatzlacha' (luck and success) and I pray that G-d keep you safe and return all of you home safely to your families. We are so proud of you.