Tomer Kay’s parents flew as far as possible from Israel so that he wouldn’t have to enlist in the IDF. It didn’t work: Seven years after they left Israel, Tomer is in the midst of training to be in the IDF Paratrooper Brigade Special Forces. We met at Ben-Gurion airport before we flew to Australia to surprise his parents. A few days earlier he told me on the phone that “I hope they don’t plan on coming to Israel by surprise while we’re there, that would be problematic.” At the airport, he was carrying a large backpack. I suggested that he take a stroller to use inside the airport, but he explains that he’s used to it: He’s been carrying heavier loads in less-comfortable bags as part of his soldierly routine.
Soldiers on leave are notorious for being able to fall asleep anywhere. If they can do it on a bus to Beer Sheva or Haifa, they can do it on a flight to Australia. While I contemplate when would be the best time to take a sleeping pill that would get me through the 22-hour flight, Tomer watches a movie, then covers himself in a blanket and falls asleep. He’s only been in the IDF for five months, and went through a 30-kilometer march a week ago. One day in air-conditioned planes is nothing. Tomer is a typical soldier: Tall, modest, pleasant, intelligent, confident, naïve, and believes in the military.
On our way to Australia, we stopped for a five-hour layover in Hong Kong. Perhaps the distance from his IDF base gives Tomer an idea, and he says, “Let’s hit the lounge and arrive fresh on our connection.” We pay $64, and sadly, there’s no discount for soldiers. We sit down and get 15-minute back-and-neck massages. “This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever gotten a massage, ” he says. After that we showered and eat. Tomer drinks a beer and fills his plate with enough meat to feed a whole platoon.
Even though he’s considered a lone soldier “from Australia”, Tomer is completely Israeli. “An Israeli with an Australian passport, ” he says. He grew up in Hod Hasharon until the age of 12 when his family left. At the age of 17, he came for a visit in Israel and got a nice dose of teenager-like IDF fever. “My friends here talked about Special Forces selection, Sayeret Matkal selection, I saw pictures of friends from the military and it really excited me. But my father, who was a Golani fighter, was the first push. I always looked at how he fought and felt I needed to as well. The whole situation in Israel also gave me a push, and (in addition there was) the fact that in the past two years I studied at a Jewish school. And also the kind of person I am, who can’t look from the side, but (prefers to) suffer alongside my friends.”
You could have suffered alongside your friends in Australia.
“The day I enlisted, three of my good friends from Sidney flew to Cambodia and Thailand, and when I was in basic training, others were in India and Nepal. When I call them and tell them I marched for 30 kilometers, they don’t understand why.
And in Israel?
“People ask me, ‘Why did you come?’ ‘What do you need this for?’ This week, I was told, ‘Instead of being in the field, you could have been at sea now, and in Australia of all places.’ There are also those who say ‘What a hero.’ I listen to neither – (I’m) not a hero, nor a sucker.
An Israeli is like a junkie
When our plane touched down in Australia Tomer explained that “they don’t clap here when the plane lands”. We leave the Sidney airport and immediately feel the presence of the city: The sun is shining, the people are smiling, and it’s as if someone depressurized the air. Yoni, Tomer’s younger brother, came here when he was 10 years old and completely blends in with the local population. He doesn’t have that Israeli spark that Tomer does, and his Hebrew is a bit weak as well. Will he enlist in a year too? “(I) don’t know yet. But If I do, I’m going for Sayeret Matkal, ” Yoni says.
On the 45-minute ride to the parents’ home we start to feel the excitement. On the way, we meet up with two local photographers who are set to document the event. We park a minute away, and Yoni goes ahead and enters the house. Tomer walks slowly behind.
The door is open, and we enter, our hearts pounding. Suddenly Sharon, Tomer’s mother, runs into the living room. She sees Tomer and starts to cry. It takes her a moment, and then she leaps on him and hugs him. She cries, stops to look at him, cries, shakes, hugs, looks at him again, cries again, and hugs. A few minutes pass before she even asks us who we are. In the meantime, we all tear up – for me it’s a soldier and his mother, for the Australian photographers it’s mother and son. Tomer’s younger sister Noa, Yoni’s twin, joins the hugging.
Fifteen minutes later, Tomer’s father Dave, who happened to have gone for a walk before we came, arrives as well. Tomer gets up and says, “Hi Dad.” Dave is surprised, looks at us, says “Tomer, ” and goes to hug his son. Sharon is still shaking and drying up her tears, but Dave is calm. He’ll later tell me he was shocked – the emotions were too strong.
Dave is enthused by the Israeli atmosphere that has suddenly sprung up in his home. “Being an Israeli is like being a junkie, ” he says, “when you’re there you have to get off of it, and when you’re not there you need it.” He makes us all black coffee. “I’ll make it, ” he says, and takes out several small glasses. “I bought (them) at a Palestinian woman’s store here, ” he says. We sit in the garden outside, next to the Kay family’s pool. It’s a 70s-style home, and very pleasant. After she catches her breath, Sharon and I go and talk in the kitchen.
“It’s harder for me to handle him being a lone soldier than a combat soldier. Not seeing him, not being there and making him schnitzels when he comes back (home from the base), ” she says. “But he’s wrapped up in love and friendship. My friends take care of him like they would their own son, and that’s a partial comfort. And he’s happy.”
Tomer isn’t worried about schnitzels. “It’s a joke amongst our group of friends, ” he says, “that I’m the least lonely lone soldier in the country. Every Friday I have at least four dinner invitations, and they always try and give me boxes (of leftovers) to take home. I have a grandpa and grandma In Israel, as well as two sets of parents – my dad’s best friend Nahum, and my mom’s best friend Lizzy. And their families are my adoptive families.”
“I have no one with whom to experience this experience, ” Sharon explains. “It’s very difficult for me; my friends here don’t understand it. I say my son is in the military and they say ‘wow, that’s great’. They think he’s making a lot of money, because it’s a profession in Australia. They say that they also miss their son who traveled to Thailand for two weeks. They don’t understand, so I stopped talking about it.”
The real worry with a soldier like him will come when he goes out on operations.
“I try not to think about that too much, or I’d totally lose it. Maybe I think he’s still in basic training so he’s protected, I don’t entirely comprehend what could happen. Maybe I’m naïve right now. My friends who have sons in combat positions told me that they haven’t slept for two years. Right now I lose sleep because he may be tired. And maybe because I’m far away, I try to disconnect from the whole risk thing.
Why did you leave Israel?
“Dave is originally English and I’m Dutch, I moved to Israel when I was 18. I met Dave in the military, at a Hebrew class. He sat next to me, copied off of me, we fell in love, and that was that. They always tell us we’re a bit European, not noisy like the Israelis, and in our minds we thought that maybe we could be more successful abroad. And then Dave was in the Second Lebanon War. He went for a month of reserve duty and told me, ‘I’m at the border, but I’m too old to go inside.’ Two weeks later, there was a reporter on TV saying ‘I’m with reservists who are entering Lebanon now, ‘ and there I see Dave. He was in Lebanon for two and a half weeks – it was very traumatic. He came back with a beard, and after ten minutes he went to his close friend to decompress. After that he told me, ‘I don’t want our boys to go through what I went through.’ Something happened to him there, but he won’t tell you that.”
You’re no Superman
Sharon goes outside, to Tomer, and Dave switches places with her in the kitchen. “I grew up in England, ” he says, “my parents divorced when I was six and my father lived in Israel. When I was 17 and a half he was suffering from heart disease and told me, ‘Come help your father’. He had a gardening business, and I became a gardener there. My brother was discharged from the military back then. We all three worked together and we got close. Slowly, my brother got me excited about the military.”
“I enlisted in Golani, at first in its Special Forces unit, but I was a little lazy and moved to the Orev unit in 1987 during the First Intifada. Jabalia was our Club Med, and I was at the Beaufort (outpost in Southern Lebanon) a lot. I have a lot of friends from back then to this day, many of whom are taking care of Tomer. There were difficult things. You think you’re Superman when nothing is happening, but when you walk around southern Lebanon and there’s a landmine, you understand that you’re not Superman, that you know the guy who got hurt, and that it’s dangerous.”
What happened during the Second Lebanon War?
“I had a wood floor business, and being an independent businessman wasn’t easy in Israel, even before the war. The war ended it for me. I was given an emergency draft order, and I went to the western front with my unit. No one knew who what was going on. I was always taught that we need to search, but we hid in houses, and they fired rockets into the homes we were in. That’s when I got scared.”
What were you scared by?
“I saw the ease with which they (the IDF) got all of the soldiers into Lebanon, how they neglected to take care of them, and how you can suddenly be hungry. We didn’t have food. And I was scared. It was dangerous. I didn’t want my children to grow up without a father. I came back shaken, Sharon told me, ‘fill out the forms’, and two years later we left. My brother told me, ‘our sons are reaching the age where they smell it; they’re baboons just like us’. We wanted to take them out of that danger. My brother flew to Shanghai six months after me, but his son also came back to Israel to enlist. I work with a Chinese man here – a smart guy. He told me, ‘Don’t let him go, it doesn’t make sense, hold him!’”
And what did you think about Tomer enlisting?
“I admire him. When we came here, Tomer told me, “Dad, you decided on Australia? No problem, I won’t make trouble. At the age of 18 I’ll finish school, go back to Israel, and enlist.’ I told him, ‘Tomerico, that’s a great thought, but I’m sorry, at age 18 you won’t remember that. You’ll go to college and sit on the grass with all of the girls, and have a BA, maybe a first apartment too, while your friends in Israel will have knee and back problems.’”
He told me that the main reason for his enlistment is that you were a combat soldier.
“I didn’t spare them stories about the military, the war, either. They wanted to know, the asked, ‘What did you do? Did you kill?’ I said, ‘I fired a few rockets, ‘ but didn’t try to excite them. I could have said ‘no, ‘ and he would have listened. But then, he would have said ‘This is because of you’ about everything that would have gone wrong in his life.
Do you sleep at night?
“It’s hard. I don’t think about what’s to come – I don’t want to think.”
We go back to the yard. A perfect family moment is commemorated in a photo: Sharon, Dave, Tomer, Noa, and Yoni stand in front of the pool, embracing. Yoni has managed to put on his older brother’s end-of-basic-training t-shirt (Israeli battalion and/or company soldiers often self-print t-shirts to commemorate such events. -ed) in the meantime. Three lines are written on the back, “What you don’t see won’t hurt / November ’15 / We don’t see home.”
Some 6, 700 lone soldiers serve in the Israel Defense Forces today. Close to half of them come from more than 60 countries around the world. One of the flagship programs of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) is to support these soldiers. In 2015, according to FIDF figures, the organization supported 2, 665 lone soldiers, 1, 385 of whom received plane tickets to visit their families courtesy of the organization.
FIDF is an American non-for-profit organization which raises contributions to support IDF soldiers and their families through educational, cultural, economic and social programs. It currently has more than 150, 000 donors and 16 branches in the United States and in Panama. In 2015, the FIDF raised $101.4 million to support programs for IDF soldiers.
“These teenage girls and boys from all over the world, imbued with belief and a sense of mission, to leave their homes and families overseas and join the ranks of the IDF, choose to do something brave and noble to take part in the continued effort to defend the citizens of Israel and world Jewry, ” says FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir. “I see these lone soldiers as a source of inspiration, of pride and of hope for us all. FIDF aims to be an adoptive family for the lone soldiers in the IDF and to make sure that they will never ever feel alone.”
The quotes in this story were translated from the original Hebrew text published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, and thus may contain slight inaccuracies that do not affect the overall meaning conveyed.