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Nothing Will Hurt Me: Coping with the loss of a neighbor and IDF soldier

My wife called in the middle of a meeting the other day. I usually take her call in case it’s important. Perhaps, I thought, she needed me to run another errand on the way home. She shared with me the news of a soldier who was killed in a training accident. Uriel Liwerant was a neighbor of ours. As I listened to the news on the way home, I hoped that the report would be different, that my wife had been wrong. That perhaps nobody had died. My heart sunk to hear the news confirming her report.

We met Uriel’s parents Aharon and Joni the very first week we arrived in Israel, five years ago this week. Mutual friends alerted them to our arrival and Joni (who we later learned is a caterer) prepared a wonderful meal that they dropped off to welcome us. Four years ago this week we celebrated the birth of our son. Joni catered the festive meal following his bris.

Yesterday, we attended their son’s funeral. This must be among the worst possible experiences for a parent, The death of a child under any circumstances is one from which I suspect you don’t recover. Get by, move along, maybe. But ever fully recover from? Probably not.

But in Israel, this is too often a fact of life. I suspect that losing a child from disease, a car accident, or anything else is just as painful and traumatic. Yet here, we raise our children knowing that they will go off to serve Israel’s defense, and we send them off with extraordinary pride, but with trepidation until the moment they finish their military service. While it is no more or less painful when someone dies in service of his country, there may be an element both of pride that at least they died doing something meaningful for the country, but also that if we only were at peace and didn’t have to defend ourselves, maybe it would have been a death that could have been avoided.

There’s always a hope that one day, Israel won’t require a standing army. That our neighbors will accept our right to be here and make peace with us rather than threaten us with war. But from the day a baby boy is born, we raise him knowing the reality that one day he will go off as a soldier in Israel’s defense, with all the fear, worries, and longing to have them home that this encompasses.

Different people deal with their’ children’s conscription in different ways. Some don’t ask questions and just tell their children to be careful. Others don’t say so in so many words, but silently hope that their children will be safe. Some want to know everything.

But some of our children don’t tell their parents more than they need to know, or that they can deal with. It is a case of adult children protecting their parents, that they shouldn’t have undue fear or need to worry.

Parents of soldiers, and the soldiers themselves, develop their own way of communicating, or not, to each other and among themselves, about life in the army and the corresponding emotions, and fears. And many foundations of Israeli culture, or quirks, are also built on the army and things related to military service. Sometimes this morphs into an off color humor that is partly a defense mechanism for dealing with stress.

A popular song, “Nothing will hurt me,” plays on these fears and an underlying black humor where a son promises his parents he’ll be OK, that nothing is going to hurt him, but he worries that something bad might happen to his parents if something were to happen.

Nothing will hurt me, nothing
Not a woman, not a terrorists’ bullet, nothing
Because that’s what I promised my brother, my sister, my parents
And I cried and night and worried in the day
Because I was afraid that something would hurt my parents
My father’s voice has reverberated in my head for many years.

If something happens to you
There’s no point in living
There’s no point in tomorrow
There’s no point in living
There’s no point in tomorrowIf you are standing here above me
It seems I did not keep my promise
I am sorry, with all my soul
I am sorry, with all my soul
I am sorry, with all my soul

Nothing will hurt me, nothing
Not a woman, not a terrorists’ bullet, nothing

Today, we join the Liwerant family in mourning their loss and hoping that they are comforted in Uriel’s memory and the love of family, friends and their community.

But, I suspect that I was not alone in standing in the afternoon heat paying our respects to Uriel while having an uneasy feeling that one day I could be standing in their shoes. As proud as I will be of my children when they join the IDF and serve our country, I know that they’ll likely be involved in things that they won’t want to tell me about, or that they think I shouldn’t know. I raise them to give them everything I can and protect them, but one day they may try to protect me. I will continue raising them to be good people and knowing that we moved here, very much like the Liwerants I suspect, to build for our future. We do this as a matter of personal privilege, and as a responsibility. There are sacrifices indeed, from giving up 2-3 years of one’s life to defend their country, to even the ultimate sacrifice.

But especially for those who choose to live in Israel, this is part of the pace of life. Nobody should know the pain and grief the Liwerants feel today. We pray for peace and hope that our children will grow up and lead full lives free from war, terrorism and threats of an untimely death. But we also know that a cloud always looms somewhere that could shatter our dreams.

Usually, when I see a soldier in uniform, I think to myself how grateful I am for their keeping us safe. It’s no little thing to join the army and do things that are often physically and emotionally challenging to be ready to defend us, just in case. I know my own children will join their ranks one day. On days like today, I think that when I put them to bed, hug them, read with them, or just sit watching TV together, that all our time is precious. If I don’t always show it, it’s how I feel and I suspect that yesterday, hundreds of others went home recalibrating our internal compass to be mindful of the things that are most important. When we bless our children as Shabbat arrives, today it will be with an added measure of meaning.

May the Liwerant family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may Uriel’s memory serve as a blessing for us all.

Jonathan Feldstein is the Israel Representative of the American Friends of Magen David Adom. He made aliya in 2004 and has pioneered the opportunity for tourists to donate blood in Israel.