By Shmuel Katz
Our son Mordechai was drafted into the Golani Brigade in December. We have several nephews from my side who have served, but Mordechai is our first child to be drafted. As he is our first chayal and the first IDF soldier on Goldie’s side of the family, everything related to the process is new to us. From draft day in December to his swearing-in ceremony last Thursday, we have not known what to expect at any given time.
Basic training has been … interesting. He comes home exhausted from a full week of training. Although other brigades may cancel some of their field work due to the weather, his training takes them into the field, rain or shine, where they learn the skills needed for basic warfare. Shooting, advancing, scouting, digging trenches, assaulting a hill — it’s all a part of their weekly field training.
In the middle of basic training they are issued guns to take home with them. As part of the process, they have a swearing-in ceremony on the Golani training base. In advance of the swearing-in ceremony, they do a “layla lavan,” which is basically an all-nighter. Sometimes a layla lavan is maneuvers in the field. Other times it is an educational tour. They often conclude with some kind of ceremony.
This layla lavan was a hike through Jerusalem that was to culminate in a private swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel in the wee hours of the morning, right before the Vatikin davening. If you paid attention to the news from Israel from a week ago, you probably already know what is coming.
A bit of description about Mordechai’s Golani division. He serves in the Unit 12 of Golani (there are three divisions plus a Sayaret — read SEAL team — in Golani). Within Unit 12, he is in pluga “Bet” (I guess like a platoon), which is further subdivided into four “kitot,” or subdivisions, of 30–40 soldiers each. Each subdivision has a commanding officer, as does each platoon and each unit and the entire brigade, etc.
We excitedly planned our participation in the formal public swearing-in ceremony scheduled for Thursday evening. His base is a 1.5–2 hour drive and we planned to be there for base opening at 2:30 p.m. to get a tour and grab some good seats. (We learned our lesson later—good seats don’t matter since there aren’t enough and people just stand in front of you.) And we printed up special T-shirts for our family and his friends (our kids told us to).
We were told by my sister Bluma, whose son was also Golani, to bring a picnic lunch as well as nosh and treats to spoil his buddies. The plan was to leave around 1 p.m. and enjoy a lunch plus a leisurely afternoon with Mordechai, as it was, after all, his day.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, Chaya, who has been living with us since her son was born (oh yeah, mazal tov to us on the birth of a grandson, which I hope to tell more about next week) came to wake me up.
“Abba, Eema is freaking out. There was a terror attack on Golani soldiers in Yerushalayim last night and she is scared something happened to Mordechai. No one knows it is Golani yet, but Zissa saw them in the hospital and it is Mordechai’s unit. She told me she is checking to see that he is OK.”
Mordechai’s girlfriend, Zissa, is a Magen David Adom volunteer who was doing an overnight shift that night and saw the soldiers from his unit in the hospital. She had already confirmed that Mordechai was not on the injured list, but somehow we did not connect on that part of the message (though I did within one minute of being woken up).
After looking up reports online and seeing that the attack happened at around 2 a.m., I told Goldie not to worry. There is no way that the army would not have notified us if Mordechai had been injured. I used to keep my phone on airplane mode when I went to sleep each night. Ever since Mordechai was drafted, I’ve turned off data at night while leaving the cell active — just so that we can be reached in an emergency. The army is aggressive about notifying people and keeping them informed.
With all its faults, the army is focused on the well-being of the soldiers. As an example, every single soldier’s family gets a home visit from one of his/her officers when a soldier is drafted. They want to see what environment they come home to. Do they have enough food at home? Is there a place for them to properly rest? Is it a healthy environment? Will he have somewhere to secure his gun when he comes home?
Mordechai’s assistant platoon commander is from Bet Shemesh and made the visit to our home one Friday morning about a month ago. He had specific questions he needed to get answered and input to a formal questionnaire recorded by the army. How many bedrooms do you have in the house? How many people live here? He had to take a look around and see the living conditions and make a report back to the army.
Lest you think that this is a formality, we know of a local Bet Shemesh family that has four boys in the same bedroom. The week after his home visit, his commander pulled him aside to ask if he wanted the army to arrange for him to have an alternate place to stay. Having grown up with his brothers in that bedroom, he was quite happy to go home to his family every week. But the army needed to make sure.
So we knew he was OK. At about 9:30 in the morning, we got a text message from the army telling us that there was an incident, all the injured soldiers were treated or in treatment, all the families were quickly notified, and that the swearing-in ceremony would take place as scheduled that evening. The other soldiers had continued to the Kotel for the private army-only ceremony and were on their way back to base. Don’t worry — they will call home as soon as they get to base.
Mordechai let us know that he was OK, but 11 out of the 12 soldiers who were injured were friends of his, including Aviad Vacksman, who was Mordechai’s high school classmate. What he didn’t tell us was that as a squad leader (4-soldier squad) it is his job to accompany the medic from his squad and provide assistance as needed. In addition to witnessing the entire attack, he was right on site as they treated the injured and saw his high school buddy (among others) covered in blood, as well as all the other injuries.
We got to base early Thursday afternoon and after a bit of waiting, Zissa and I wandered around to find Mordechai. We found the Pluga Bet building, which is U-shaped, around a central courtyard. One of the soldiers in the unit who knew Mordechai from Shaalvim recognized me and ran to get Mordechai. He came out to get us, and after getting my hug, I asked him which soldiers were involved in the attack.
He said, “Abba I was right there. A minute before we were in that same spot. We saw the car coming and we saw it hit the guys. They are all from Subdivision X (I am omitting the number on purpose) — these guys standing over here. Oh my G-d, Abba, I saw everything. I saw (I am omitting specific details of injuries on purpose). I was right there. It was crazy. Vacksman went home, but he is coming back for the hashba’a (swearing-in ceremony)!”
And make it he did. You might have seen pictures of him in the news. He’s the soldier who was dressed in civilian clothing. But he was sworn in just the same. The speakers all had similar messages, “They tried to stop us—but nothing will stop Golani!”
Mordechai was overwhelmed when they found each other after the ceremony. Having seen him covered in blood, and dazed from the attack, Mordechai had thought the worst. Mordechai has had a year. He’s attended the funerals of four friends in a six-month period — two in the same day (auto accident). Another friend was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago with cancer. It was quite a relief for him to see Vacksman doing just fine, after minor repairs.
It’s not an easy thing. These are 18- to 20-year-old boys, for the most part. They all come from families who worry about them. All have friends who love them. They have grown to love and care for each other. They are bonded in a way many of us will never know. Yes, they are full of bravado and sometimes a seemingly reckless courage in being in the military. But it is a labor of love for them.
We are and will always be so proud of them. They ran to the scene. They jumped in to save their friends and help treat them until the ambulances showed up. Mordechai terrifies us with this willingness to jump in. But we also know that it makes him a better soldier. With basic training followed by advanced training, he’ll be as prepared as he can be to face whatever comes.
He’s a soldier who protects us. Our family. Our neighbors. Even those who vilify the army and wage their own wars against our government are protected by him and the IDF. Your sons and daughters who come to learn are protected. When you come to visit, you are protected. It’s one of the foundations of Israeli society. We are all in it together.
Hashem yishmor kol ha’chayalim — May Hashem watch over all the soldiers and keep them safe.
Shmuel Katz, his wife, Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July 2006. Before making aliyah, Shmuel was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at email@example.com.