In Israel, each soldier is allocated a certain number of vacation days per year. Combat soldiers, Elie tells me, rarely are able to take all that are owed to them so it is traditional to give them about a month off at the end of their service. Elie was supposed to have gotten a week off in December, but the war happened and so he was down near Gaza and missed that vacation.
After the war, they gave the boys a week at home, a wonderful week. They went north several weeks ago, and this week the army is giving them back the vacation they had planned as sort of a "Nofesh G'dud" - or battalion vacation. This means the army takes them somewhere and lets them play at being the boys they would be, if they weren't in the army becoming men. Sometimes it is the beautiful southern city of Eilat, where the boys can swim in the Red Sea. Other times, it is in the north, where they can go hiking and even skiing.
There are whole resorts that the army takes out for the soldiers - good fro the army, good for the local community. The units mix together - men, women, many ages - discipline relaxed. They don't even have to wear uniforms. Amazingly enough, after a month near Gaza, the army decided to send Elie's unit to a vacation location in Ashkelon. The night before they arrived, rockets hit the city - so much for a cease fire.
I was wondering about the incredible irony of giving these boys a break, by taking them back within rocket range. But then again, over 1 million Israelis in the south are within range and another million or more in the north as well. These vacation weeks are sometimes problematic for religious boys and they often ask to be released and spend the time at home.
Before I explain further, I'll also add that our house is relatively alcohol-free. We just don't like the stuff and never serve it unless guests bring it - and even then we forget half the time. The strongest alcohol in our house is a bottle of wine, at that. The strongly-enforced prohibition against alcohol is eased during these vacation weeks.
So, Elie called me last night. We'd discussed whether he was going to join his g'dud for the vacation or opt out. He wanted to try to be a part of it. He was excited that for most of the week, they would not be wearing uniforms. He even took the car Saturday night to buy another pair of regular pants that he could wear. The last time they had this g'dud vacation, the g'dud commander went out of his way to make sure all activities were "religious-friendly" - he was determined that his unit would spend the time together.
Elie wasn't sure what would happen, if the same care had gone into planning this week or not. All he knew was that they were to meet in Ashkelon Sunday morning. I was surprised, therefore, to see that I'd missed his call last night and so I quickly called him back.
"It's a kfar nofesh," Elie explained.
"OK," I answered.
"Do you know what that means?" Elie asked. Yes - a vacation resort. An all-enclosed party village for a lot of young people to have a good time. There's probably a bar and dancing. Great for many boys looking to have fun; not really something that Elie's crowd would enjoy.
"We called the rabbi today," Elie told me. "He's arranged for us to go to Jerusalem tomorrow and then maybe I can go to the mechina for a few days. They're dedicating the new Beit Midrash on Wednesday."
Allow me to translate - mechina is a pre-military academy that often combines religious learning with preparation for the army, including learning Jewish law that applies to being a soldier. Elie spent about 18 months there before the army and he loved the place, the boys there, the teachers. They became a part of who he is and when he has a chance, he returns to visit. They are like brothers, always checking up on the other. They knew, during the war, who went in, who was nearby. Thankfully, none were hurt; all came home.
A Beit Midrash is a house of study, the place where hundreds of boys sit and learn with each other and with their rabbis. They pour over ancient texts and learn how relevant they are to the life we live today. Before their eyes, these text come alive and challenge them. The rabbis there are dedicated to these boys, their students and follow them through the army and in the years to come. Many boys bring their wives and children back for the rabbis to meet and they celebrate life's joys and sorrows together.
What Elie is saying is that he doesn't feel comfortable in the "vacation resort" - that it isn't appropriate for a religious boy. And so he and some others decided it was more appropriate to find another option. They called the unit's rabbi, who agreed.
He arranged to have special lessons for these boys in the beautiful Old City of Jerusalem, overlooking the Kotel, the Western Wall. This is another place that Elie loves and knows well. He spent months volunteering for the ambulance squad in the Old City, running the alleyways to help treat people.
Hopefully, Elie will get permission to go back to his yeshiva where he attended the mechina (pre-military academy) and take part in the celebration of the new Beit Midrash, the study hall. There will be singing and dancing...but the kind that is appropriate for Elie.
That Elie chose this path is yet another sign that he is true to how he was raised. It is humbling for a parent when this happens, when you send your child out to the free world, where all doors are open, and they choose the right door, the right path. Elie has done this before, several times already. He continues on this path and makes me so proud of him and most of all, I'm happy that deep down, he knew this was something I'd want to know and so he called to tell me.
I told him once - I can handle almost everything, if I know where you are and that you are OK. This week, Elie called to tell me that he wouldn't be where I thought he'd be - he'd be in an even better place and he is doing fine. Have a wonderful week, Elie.