“How’s Sophie?” I am asked this question multiple times a day from so many of you, friends and acquaintances. In some instances, I have no idea who you are. And it is in those moments I realize that Sophie belongs to Klal Yisrael. You have all adopted her as a lone soldier.
Let’s go back, shall we? Since Sophie was in eighth grade, she declared, “When I get older, I’m going to make aliyah and join the Israeli army.” My response each time: “Sophie, you’re so cute!” When she began 12th grade, I approached her and said: “We have to think about your plans for next year.” And she stared at me incredulously. “I’ve been telling you! I am making aliyah and joining the army!” Shaken, I responded, “That was for real?”
November of her gap year, I flew to Israel to support Sophie as she began the aliyah and enlisting process. After saying goodbye, I texted my friend, “Where the heck is the bar in Ben Gurian airport?” That tells you how I am.
How’s Sophie? Sophie drafted into a training unit up north. In addition to ramping up her Hebrew and learning army vocabulary, Sophie recognized quickly that adaptability was the only way to survive. The window by her bed was cracked and it was quite cold because it was the heart of winter. Sophie was given a piece of cardboard to place by the window. She laughed and made it work. That became the first of many lessons. How am I? Relieved that Sophie has a good sense of humor.
How’s Sophie? She put her full self into the experience, always volunteering, no matter the job. She sometimes volunteered to pick up cigarette butts left behind by the French soldiers. She found it “relaxing.” When Sophie interviewed for her permanent assignment in the army, she was given the “manilla envelope,” which had available placements. Unsatisfied with her choices, Sophie placed a post-it on top of the manilla envelope, indicating she wanted to be a combat instructor. Who does this? It was her confidence, adaptability, leadership skills and all-in attitude that resulted in her receiving a Soldier of Excellence award. How am I? Incredibly proud and kvelling.
How’s Sophie? Sophie was assigned to be an explosive instructor in a combat unit. Four months of intense training. The soldiers were told: “We are going to break you, then rebuild you.” And they did.
The stressors were many. Learning about explosives, in itself, was challenging. Trust me, it’s not something she picked up in the STEM program at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls. Let alone that she had to learn it in Hebrew. Sophie and the other lone soldiers were not particularly embraced by the other girls in the unit. On top of this, Sophie was one of the few girls in this training unit of 23 who was religious. This was very isolating. She would struggle on our calls and remind me that just because she was stressed out and upset, she was still committed to the mission of protecting Eretz Yisrael and her people.
How am I? I’m having a hard time. These middle-of-the-night phone calls are so upsetting. And then I remember a workshop my husband and I attended, where we were told, “Your soldier is going to call you up crying. Every soldier does this, male/female, Israeli/lone soldier. You are a receptacle for their stress. When they get off the phone, they are fine and relieved, having had a place to vent.” This was so true. Inevitably, 15 minutes later, Sophie would send me a selfie of her smiling, holding a healing chocolate bar.
How’s Sophie? Sophie completed her training and was given her tafkid, her job. She embraced her work as an explosive instructor full force. Sophie reported that often, she felt the enormity of responsibility to properly train her soldiers, knowing that they may face combat, and wanted them to be safe. She developed a training program for new olim. It was important to her that all soldiers had the complete, uncompromised training that was necessary for combat. Sophie was thriving. I heard the spark in her voice. The same voice that rattled off Hebrew army lingo that I don’t understand. The same voice that told me she was awarded Soldier of Excellence, a second time, this one in a combat unit.
How am I? I am in awe of her. I am amazed by her courage and her commitment. I am frustrated that there are times I don’t know how to help her. She called one day when she had to do shmira, guard duty, and told me she had her gun and magazine, but couldn’t find bullets. My first thought was that I was surprised they would allow her to read magazines on guard duty. I can’t tell her where to get bullets.
I’m in a private group for mothers of lone soldiers. One mom wrote, “I’m bored at work. Let’s play a game. Share one anecdote that your chayal/chayelet told you that made you want to drink?” The winning response for me was, “… and that’s when I realized I wasn’t drinking enough.”
How’s Sophie? She has almost completed her service. She is ready to move on but will miss the soldiers tremendously. These boys, these brave soldiers, have adopted her as one of their own, knowing that she was there for them every step of their training. Sophie, like most soldiers, is not sure of her next steps. Since she was 14, she knew she was going to make aliyah and join the army. She never considered what comes next. I see that this is typical for soldiers transitioning from the army. There is an abyss. Privately I worry that Sophie will be swallowed up by this dark hole … until I speak with her and remind myself that she often chooses the hard, unfamiliar road, and has risen and thrived. Bravo, Sophie, and thank you for your service.
I am thankful to the families who have adopted Sophie: the Gottleibs, who housed and embraced her during for the first few months; the Singers, who took her into their home and treated her as a fourth daughter throughout her service; and the Snukals, who were Sophie’s safety net. A special shout-out to the families of Hashmonaim. Thank you, Lone Soldier Center, Friends of the IDF, Lindenbaum Midrashit Chu”l, and all of you who support these organizations. Thank you, Rabbi Adler and Rinat Yisrael for your support of the lone soldiers and encouraging us to keep our soldiers in our tefilot. And thanks to all of you who have stopped me to ask how Sophie is doing. It has been comforting and uplifting knowing that you have championed her throughout.
By Shera Dubitsky