By SIDNEY CONN (Birmingham Alabama)
“…..and exactly what were you doing there at 5:30 in the morning? Don’t you know that a person walking up to a guard house in the dark could be in a seriously dangerous situation?”
This angry rebuke came from one of the three madrichot on our IDF base, after I asked why there was no one in the guard house at the Western gate at 5:30 in the morning.
I assured her that I was in my full Sar-El-issued uniform with the identifying blue ribbons on the epaulettes and that I was very careful to make a lot of noise as I approached.
Startling a soldier who is holding an M-16 is a very bad idea, at any time!
So, exactly what was I doing at a guard house on an IDF base in the dark and freezing temperatures at 5:30 in the morning?
Please allow me to digress for a moment to explain what Sar-El is and why my wife and I were a part of it. The short version…..the standing Israeli Army is quite small.
However, its Reserve Army is huge. Soldiers leaving the army are required to come back, periodically, to supplement the ranks of those who are serving. At the end of the period, the reservists return their equipment and go back to their civilian lives. This makes for an enormous amount of equipment which must be inspected, cleaned, repaired, recertified and repacked. A certain number of IDF bases are designated as centers which do this work.
Rather than taking regular personnel away from their important duties, the Base Commanders can request a number of volunteers to do the work. Volunteers, mostly but not all Jewish, come from all around the world and live on these bases with the soldiers.
Their living conditions are exactly the same….if the soldiers don’t have hot showers, neither do the volunteers. Don’t like cucumbers, tomatoes and yogurt three times each day? The soldiers are eating it and so do you. Ugly green uniforms? You guessed it.
For some reason, which I alternately attributed to jet-lag, extremely cold and dry air, narrow and uncomfortable steel bunk bed or the fact that my wife was in the womens’ quarters and not beside me, I was never able to sleep past 5:00 AM. I developed a routine of getting out of bed, dashing the 50 meters to the bathroom for a shower while there was still hot water, getting dressed and then walking around all of the non-restricted areas of the base. I trudged around until my wife emerged from her quarters and we could go to the Mess Hall together for, you guessed it, cucumbers, tomatoes and yogurt. After flag raising, the work day began.
On the second morning of our tour, I discovered a small guard post at a gate in a remote spot in the fence. The post was dark but I approached and found a young soldier sitting there, watching the gate. But for the very large and intimidating rifle that she was holding, the sight would have been comical. She was very young, tiny and had a mouth full of braces! She also had on a big fuzzy hat with bunny ears and pom poms…definitely not IDF issued headwear but warm. She invited me in and the two of us started a conversation, small clouds of condensation coming from our mouths as we spoke. This turned out to be one of those tiny moments in lifetime that is so meaningful it will never be forgotten. The little Ketzel told me about her home and family, siblings and boyfriend and I described my life in America and my motivation for being in Israel. We both enjoyed the conversation, with my learning something very fundamental about life in Israel and she, having the monotony of a four- hour shift sitting in the frigid darkness, broken. We did try to discuss the Tolstoy book she was attempting to read in the near darkness but it was in Hebrew and neither of us spoke the other’s language well enough.
Every morning after that, I stopped at the little Shul on the base and brewed a kettle of hot tea. I brought the kettle to the guard house and sat and talked with the assigned soldier for a time. Each one of them was a sweet and bright “child” - with huge adult responsibilities. They told me of their families and their hopes and dreams after leaving the army and I listened and offered the same advice that I give my own grandchildren. For a few treasured moments each morning, I was the Grampa ad they, the child.....twostrangers who were “family” of the closest and best kind. At the end of our Sar El term, we hated to leave them.
At almost the same moment as we were leaving Israel on our way home, a horrible and senseless tragedy struck heroic IDF Border Policewoman Hadar Cohen and her family. In my mind, I could only see her as one of my “family” of young soldiers and her loss and the grief of her family haunts me. I just can’t have her and them forgotten and I have a small tribute planned for her. This Pesach, in addition to the cup of wine for Eliyahu and cup of water we place for Miriam on the Seder table, we are going to have an empty place setting dedicated to Hadar. It is dedicated to Hadar but will represent all of those we have lost to terrorism. I have asked all of our friends and acquaintances to set their tables as we will ours (and if they cannot accommodate an empty setting, to place a flower or candle there in her memory). My hope is that many more of us will follow suit. My real hope is that her family will be comforted in the knowledge that they do not grieve alone.
May G-d Bless you all and may G-d continue to Bless The State of Israel.
(Sidney Conn’s wife, Elenor, is the former Elenor Nozick, originally from Winnipeg)