Every Friday night, Rebbetzin Eva Chapper prepares to make the traditional blessing over her sons. “May God bless you and watch over you,” she recites.
She must have said these words so many times, but in recent weeks they have taken on a new poignancy, as she delivers them over WhatsApp video for her two sons serving in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), amid the country’s ongoing battle against Hamas terrorists.
Aharon, 22 and Yisroel, 20, are just two of the 7,000 lone soldiers in the IDF, a label given to foreign nationals who voluntarily sign up to the Israeli forces and have no immediate family in Israel to support them. An estimated 10 percent are from Europe, including from the UK.
For Eva and her husband, Rabbi Alex Chapper, the atrocities of 7 October and the launching of Israel’s military campaign in the weeks since, have left them “going through waves” of differing emotions as they express both anxiety and pride for their sons.
Growing up, neither son had especially planned to join the IDF. “It kind of just happened that life went this way for them,” explains Eva. “Aharon fell in love with Israel after a short stint in yeshiva and signed up to Machal, the voluntary IDF organisation for non-Israelis. During that time, he made aliyah, finished the army, and now works in security.
“Yisroel went on his gap year to Mechinat Keshet Yehuda, a pre-army programme for Israelis that allows 15 non-Israelis to join. After that, it was natural for him to join the IDF and he is in the process of making aliyah.”
For 19-year-old Zara*, who has been serving in a non-combat role in the IDF since last December, thoughts of joining the army came at a much younger age, during a school trip to Israel when she was 13. Her mother, Donna*, initially dismissed the idea as a pipe dream, but came to understand just how serious were her daughter’s intentions.
“She had researched a lone soldier programme, Garin Tzabar, and worked hard to get the forms in on time. There was one point where we thought she might miss the deadline and even though we reassured her she could apply again, she was so disappointed. That was the moment I saw this is truly what she wanted to do. If you ask her why, it’s because she feels this deep obligation to protect and care for Israel.”
Having a child with a strong desire to defend Israel is something Yael Simon relates to with her son, Levi, 28. He first served as a lone soldier in 2015, has since made aliyah and has now been called up as a reservist in the elite special forces.
“When Levi thinks about Israel, he has this feeling of a unified God, land and people – and it’s immutable. You can’t take it out of him,” explains Yael, who is married to Rabbi Hillel Simon.
“I cannot tell you how many times I replay this moment when Levi asked me if he should go into the army,” she tells me. With her practical hat on, she advised her son to take an opportunity that would “allow him to grow on his terms, not our terms as parents” and was supportive of his choice.
But there was further reason for Yael to back her son’s decision. Her Baghdad-born father, Reading Dallal, served as a reservist paratrooper in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His eldest brother served in the Palmach and fought in the War of Independence in 1948, with her grandfather hiding armaments under the floorboards of the family home and training the troops.
Fighting for the land of Israel is “in their DNA”, says Yael. “Literally 50 years ago to the day my father was called up as a reservist, my son is going to war.” Prior to the events of 7 October, I ask the mothers what their greatest fear was for their children serving in the IDF.
“My biggest worry was Zara being kidnapped, because there have been cases,” says Donna. “I was reassured that she didn’t want to get into a combat role, but it still made me feel anxious that the minute she puts on the uniform, she is a target for anyone. Even then, no one could have imagined the past few weeks.”
Yael, however, says she “literally had zero worries” for her son, because of the training he had received in the IDF.
“For Levi, the army was transformative. It wasn’t about identity, and it certainly wasn’t about the physical strength. The IDF is only about mental strength and being mentally indestructible.
“The army has brought out all of the leadership qualities we saw when he was a child but perhaps the typical school system didn’t pick up on. The army really gave him that chance and, in my heart, I still feel this was an amazing opportunity for him.”
Eva recalls receiving a knock at the door just after 7am on 7 October She was informed that both Aharon and Yisroel had been called up, a moment she recalls with fear in her voice.
For Donna, her greatest comfort was knowing that Zara was spending the weekend visiting relatives when the attacks happened.
“I’m very grateful, very relieved that she was with family at the time. She could have been on her own and I think she would have felt anxious and scared. The people running her programme are 100 percent looking out for the lone soldiers, but it’s not the same as having your close family around you.
“In our house, we all have nicknames, terms of endearment that work within our family, but when she finally phoned, she said she needed to speak to “Mummy and Daddy”. That is not her.
“We can send her WhatsApp messages and ask if she is OK, but I can’t just turn around and give her a reassuring hug. That I think is something really tough for these lone soldiers.”
In the absence of being there physically for their children, the mothers have instead relied on speaking or messaging with the lone soldiers whenever they can. But, for
some, there can be an agonising wait of hours, if not days, between communications.
Eva says: “At the moment, Aharon has his phone. He sends us, when he is not having to deal with dark and dangerous events, videos of him singing and dancing with his fellow soldiers and it’s heart-warming.
“Our other son does not have access to his phone and we don’t know when we will next hear from him. Sometimes we have gaps of a week to 10 days.”
Zara does have her phone and Donna sends her daily messages, understanding that it might not always be possible for her daughter to reply straightaway.
“I’ve told her: ‘All I need to see is two blue ticks on WhatsApp, because then I know that you are safe and well enough to have looked at it.’ Seeing those blue ticks gives me a sense of relief.
“But we’ve told her that if she hears from either of her grandmothers, who live in the UK, she has to reply that day because they don’t have the same access to social media.”
With the military operation now fully under way, Yael hears from Levi intermittently and remains positive for him, although admits that some moments are harder than others.
“As a parent, you want to go in and fix everything, you want your child to be OK. But here he is, busy protecting nine million people in Israel. It gets you thinking, who is protecting whom?
“The other night, I was up with worry and messaged him. ‘Levi, tonight I go to sleep with fear on my mind and my heart. I worry for you. You are my precious son. May Hashem keep you as safe and strong as ever, as lions. I love you.’
“He wrote back: ‘Stay strong for me, Mum, everything will be OK.’ In all his messages, that’s what he always tells us.”
It’s a sentiment that chimes strongly with Eva. She tells me she “keeps the fears away, because it doesn’t help me or them or the rest of my family to not be able to face the day and all that life brings. They are constantly on my mind and in my prayers.”
She adds: “One tells me not to worry, that his middle name is Chaim, meaning ‘life’, and the other is named after Israel. They are the ones who reassure me.”
As events continue to unfold and Israeli troops deepen their operations in Gaza, I ask the mothers how they feel for what might lie ahead for their children.
Eva says: “I know how my boys have been trained and taught to uphold the morals of the IDF. And my faith keeps me strong too. Knowing there are things we don’t understand, the Jewish people have been through unbearable struggles before and we will get through this too. Not without loss, grief and fear, but we will come through.”
Donna says she is anxious for Zara and fearful about the things she might witness or the potential grief she might feel for lost comrades, but admits to being equally anxious – perhaps more so – for her other daughter, who is facing antisemitism at a university outside of London.
“I’m worried about what is going on in Israel, but it is a unified society in what it is trying to do. In the UK, it feels like everyone is not united, not supported and not cared for. In some respects, I just want both my girls back, I want to give them a hug. My husband has said this won’t be forever, and I know it won’t be – but at what cost?
“Every person I know right now in the army is a young adults The potential physical and emotional cost for them is great, but I know it’s even bigger to do nothing.”
Yael is firmly focused on remaining positive for Levi and for the rest of the IDF.
“There’s no greater Jewish pride for parents than to have a child who’s ready to give up their life for his faith, our country, our people. Levi told me his message for everyone is: ‘Don’t give up on us, we will make it worth it.’ We have to believe that.”
*The names of these individuals have been changed
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