‘Mah at rotza lishtot?” Jesse Davidson asks this reporter what she would like to drink in nearly perfect Hebrew as we meet at a hotel breakfast room in Jerusalem.
Adopting Hebrew, though, is just one basic example of how the oleh (immigrant) has decided to become as Israeli as can be.
The most obvious example, however, is his decision to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier.
“It’s been hard – both the language and figuring out the culture. The goal was to become more Israeli and I figured the army is the best way to do that. But for every difficult thing, there are 1,000 good ones to make it all worth it,” Davidson, who made aliya in June 2017 from Tampa, Florida, says.
Sitting beside him is his mom, Lea Merrill Davidson-Bern, who is reeling from an emotional high after spending the last five days in IDF uniform.
Davidson-Bern was one of the participants in the recent Nefesh B’Nefesh Horim Al Madim (parents in uniform) program, coordinated in partnership with Israel’s Defense Ministry and the IDF, which brought parents of lone soldiers to Israel to take part in a boot camp of their own, where they got a small dose of what it’s like to be a soldier in the IDF.
“This week has been so enlightening to understand more on a day-to-day basis what he goes through. I have no background in this, so I have nothing to compare it to,” she says.
“A lot of times, I’ll speak to him on the phone and he’ll say, ‘I have to go.’ I’m not used to being cut off, but now I understand.
He has only so much time to do so many things, and I can be much more understanding now of how busy he is,” she acknowledges.
“Texts are going to be a lot easier. If I need to hear his voice, I’m going to get 10 words and that’s okay now, it wasn’t before – I wanted more. Everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m so tired.’ But I understand a different kind of tired now. I get it,” she adds.
During their five-day stint as “soldiers,” the parents were taught the history of the IDF, enrolled in Gadna, a military training program, and found themselves sleeping in tents, taking orders from army commanders and hiking in the heat of the Negev desert as part of an army march.
This is the first time Nefesh B’Nefesh has initiated such a program, and the impact it had on both the parents and children exceeded all expectations.
“It was a pilot program, so we didn’t really know what to expect,” Noya Govrin, director of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldier Program, says. “This was an emotional experience not just for us, but for all of the participants.”
“We wanted to close the gap of understanding,” Govrin explains. Launching a program like this, in other words, was an attempt to enable parents to understand what day-to-day life as a soldier is like, something that most parents of lone soldiers who live abroad can’t relate to.
But the sleepless nights and physical training were just a glimpse of what their children have experienced as soldiers who came to Israel and decided to put their lives on the line for the Jewish state.
“I think this program was an amazing experience for us,” says Moy Volcovich, who participated in the program with his wife, Mary.
“To be able to taste a little bit of what he’s seen and done is really meaningful. At first we thought it was a joke, but we really got a sense of what he’s been going through,” he says, speaking about his son, Avi, who is a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade.
“I thought it was really funny, because this is a fraction of what we do. At least they got a taste of it,” Avi adds.
It wasn’t much of a shock for the Volcoviches when Avi decided to leave Toronto and come to Israel. Growing up in a Zionist household, taking the aliya plunge seemed inevitable.
So much so, that after Avi made aliya, the rest of the family followed suit.
“I wouldn’t say this is a big change for me, because my whole life I’ve been brought up to value Israel. My dad wanted to make aliya when he was my age, but that got delayed. But here we are now,” he says.
Despite anticipating his desire to make aliya, as parents though, witnessing any rite of passage a child goes through is an moving experience. However, the Volcoviches and the other parents who joined Horim Al Madim were unprepared for the onslaught of emotions they’d feel when seeing their child in uniform before their eyes.
The emotions came to a head on the last day, where parents had a graduation ceremony of sorts where, like all IDF soldiers, they receive a beret from their commander upon completion of a course.
Davidson-Bern remembers standing upright, listening to the commander speak. Suddenly, her son Jesse walked into the room in full IDF regalia.
“When he came in, I was focusing on the commander, I didn’t even notice him approaching me and he’s smiling and it took a minute until I realized it was him. I saw him and said, ‘I’ve never seen you in uniform,’ and he said, ‘I’ve never seen you in uniform,’” she recalls, smiling.
Instead of the commander, Jesse wordlessly handed the beret to his mother. The sheer amount of pride she felt for her son during that moment is difficult for Davidson-Bern to put into words.
“It’s one of the top 10 highlights of my life, really,” she sighs. “After he gave me my beret, standing next to him, overlooking the Negev and singing ‘Hatikva’ beside the soldier next to me, who was mine – at the end of my days, out of the 10 memories that I remember, that will be one of them,” she said.
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh.