NORRISTOWN — As the conflict between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas continues with air attacks, death and destruction, being the parent of one of Israel’s “lone soldiers” can be fraught with periods of loneliness and feeling powerless.
“It’s hard to describe not only how I feel, but all of the parents and friends who also have kids over there in the army. I’m very, very proud of her. For a kid who should be walking at the King of Prussia mall on the weekends shopping, she decided right out of high school to go into the army in Israel and defend the state of Israel, which is very important to its existence,” said Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Bradford Richman, referring to his 20-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who is a lone soldier for the Israel Defense Forces.
“Fortunately, we live in a world where we can communicate. We have email. We have texting. We have Skype and FaceTime and all that so I do get to communicate with her several times a week. I get to see her on video,” Richman said poignantly. “That makes it a lot easier, to see her, and look at her, and see that she’s well.”
Richman’s daughter is not in a combat unit but is trained as a soldier.
“Turns out she’s very good with an M-16,” Richman said nervously, adding his daughter does perform guard duties protecting the perimeter of her base on the West Bank. “But her primary responsibility is not as a combat soldier, although she has many friends that are.”
Pangs of loneliness and concern come when Richman hears or reads news accounts about the rocket bombardments during the four week conflict and about the rising death toll of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, strife that makes him wonder how Rebecca is doing in a land where she has no family.
“Powerless is the word and it’s not only for Rebecca; I feel powerless wanting to help Israel. Every night in the last three weeks, if I could have left that night I would have booked a flight and left and gone there to do something. There must be something that I could do,” said Richman, explaining when Israel mobilizes reservists there are civilian jobs that need to be filled. “But unfortunately for me, that’s not a possibility, at least not now.”
“I would like to be there for Rebecca just to be able to see her, to hug her and give her the moral support but I know that she’s in a very nurturing place. These kids all take care of each other and Israeli citizens have a wonderful view of life despite the tremendous danger they live in. As much as possible, life goes on there and it’s a very inspiring place,” Richman added.
Richman took comfort in knowing that his eldest daughter, Sarah, a teacher, recently visited with her sister.
“Having them together, it was comforting to know that,” Richman said.
During a lunch break last week, Richman stood outside the courthouse scanning his smartphone, looking for the latest email message from Rebecca, searching for words that she is safe. His phone has been a source of confusion and tension when he receives alerts over mobile apps that indicate sirens are blaring in Israel, notifying citizens that they should take cover in a shelter because missiles have been detected headed for Israel.
“It gives us some taste here, to have dinner interrupted, meetings interrupted, classes interrupted and sleep interrupted when this alert keeps going off,” said Richman, whose face bore a concerned look when his phone pinged with an alert during an interview. “When that alarm goes off I realize that right at that moment there are Israeli children and elderly, Israeli citizens of every description, who are running for shelters while I’m still holding the phone in my hand. I remind myself this is really going on right now.”
Then there are periods where the phone alarms are quiet for an hour, two hours, and Richman hopes, “maybe it’s stopped.”
“Then it goes off again and there’s an emotional reaction to it, ‘Like, darn it’s started again,’” Richman said.
“The first night when it started going off during the night, three or four times in a row, and I remember thinking ‘You ought to turn that off, I’ll be up all night,’” Richman recalled. “Then I realized, ‘Think how easy that would be in Israel to be able to say I’d like to turn this off tonight so I can get a good night sleep.’ But they can’t do that.”
Richman takes comfort in knowing his daughter, affectionately called “Becca” by her friends, is “happy and passionate about what she’s doing.”
“She knows that it’s a difficult time for Israel and she needs to be there to help Israel get through it,” Richman said. “I admire that Rebecca has stepped up and done something in a big way.”
Rebecca graduated two years ago from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, after which she and two female classmates immigrated to Israel to become permanent citizens there. Within a few months she entered basic training for the IDF, with which she’ll serve two years.
“She has known since a very young age, about 10, that she wanted to live in Israel,” Richman recalled about Rebecca, who has dual citizenship. “Rebecca loves the United States. This is not a choice she made because she didn’t like it here. She just felt that the need was great in Israel.”
For Israeli citizens it’s mandatory to enlist in the IDF. But for those lone soldiers who come from abroad it’s voluntary.
Rebecca’s interest in service was inspired by the story of Staff Sgt. Michael Levin, of Bucks County, who joined the IDF as a lone soldier and who at 22 was killed in Lebanon in 2006.
“She saw that story and that inspired her even further,” Richman recalled.
In her blog entitled, “It’s Always Sunny in Beit She’an,” Rebecca reflected on the impact that Levin’s death had on her while she was in middle school and on the inspiration she found in his life, depicted in a documentary shown to every soldier in the IDF during basic training. The documentary provided her an understanding about what it’s like to leave everything behind to go to Israel.
“I had already fallen in love with Israel a little more than a year before, but hearing about Michael and his story brought an entirely new dimension to what had up until then only been a fantasy. I could actually move to Israel. I could even serve Israel. Hearing about his life - after his death - was the first time I realized that this is something I could actually, literally do. Visiting Israel at 10 years old may have been the first step in the journey I’m on right now, but Michael’s story was the second and the biggest,” Rebecca wrote in an August 2013 blog post she called “You Can’t Fulfill Your Dreams Unless You Dare to Risk It All.”
In the moving tribute, Rebecca called Levin “an inspiringly beautiful person.”
Currently, Rebecca is assigned to a civil administration unit with the IDF, which is the point of contact between the Palestinian population and the Israeli government.
“I think she values that while all of this hostility is going on, she’s having an opportunity to, hopefully, through her conduct, foster one-on-one relationships with the Palestinian people she deals with to, hopefully, begin to build trust between them,” Richman said.
Rebecca’s basic two-year stint with the IDF ends in December.
“It’s frustrating not being a combat soldier right now. My job has very little to do with the current operation, and so I’m stuck here watching the beginnings of a war with no way to stop it, no way to contribute. But I’m part of something bigger. My unit is the one communicating with the civilians of Gaza, we are the ones who create and distribute fliers warning people to evacuate their homes before an attack. And even bigger than that, I’m part of an army that will do anything to protect my friends who are being torn from childhood and thrown into war,” Rebecca wrote in a July 2014 blog post.
Richman said it’s terrible that Israeli and Palestinian children face fear each day.
“But I can’t help but think about Rebecca and the other kids who weren’t inoculated with that growing up. These kids left a pretty sheltered life in the United States and find themselves in the middle of a war zone. They get a lot of support from organizations that support the lone soldiers but I know that they were not prepared for that,” Richman said.
The ups and downs - periods of cease-fire and then the resumption of rocket bombardments – are difficult to deal with, Richman said, “nerve-wracking,” especially when it’s been awhile since he’s heard from his daughter.
Richman beamed with joy as his phone suddenly rang, indicating an incoming call from Rebecca.
“Hi sweetie,” Richman spoke into his phone and Rebecca gleefully replied, “Hi dad.”
“Are you safe?” asked Richman, his voice filled with concern. “Having that question hanging out there without an answer till now it’s very nerve-wracking.”
“I’m okay. Yes, I’m taking care of myself. It makes me feel better that I can assure you that I’m okay and that I can, you know, calm you down,” Rebecca replied on the other end, comforting her dad as her voice filled with emotion.
Rebecca said she’s pleased to connect with family and friends while she’s so far away from home.
“It’s amazing. Knowing he couldn’t talk to me, and he gets pretty panic stricken, it makes me feel better that I can call him,” Rebecca said, the strong bond between father and daughter apparent. “For me, it’s hard being here without family. I don’t know how people did it before without Skype and FaceTime.”
Smiling, Richman’s face expressed great relief after the long-distance conversation between father and daughter concluded.
“I was very happy to talk to her. I was very anxious to hear from her,” Richman said.