The best part of our trip’s Mifgash component was getting to know the eight soldiers who joined our group. The 19-year-old Hani, pronounced like honey, has a demeanor so sweet and warm that after five days together, we had a hard time saying goodbye to her and the rest of the soldiers.
The Kiryat Gat-born Hani is a mashakit nifgaim, which means she travels around the country visiting sick or injured soldiers at home or in hospitals, while maintaining contact with families of soldiers who have died in service. This is the same position my father held when he served in the IDF after moving to Israel from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
In order to become a mashakit nifgaim—a position today assigned predominantly to women—Hani underwent an interview process in which qualities like empathy and sensitivity were assessed. When I was younger, I would picture my father entering strangers’ homes with the tragic news that their loved ones had died in service. It always made sense to me that a refugee of a totalitarian system could muster the strength necessary to perform this difficult task.
Another female soldier, Maayan, knows Hani’s role all too well: two of her uncles died in service. Even today, 30 years later, Maayan’s grandparents still receive visits from soldiers like Hani. (Hearing this, I wished my country would do the same.)
A few days later, we visited Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, where Israeli leaders and soldiers who died during service are buried. It was an emotional day for all of us, Israeli and American, as we considered the impact of the universal draft on Israeli society. It was also the anniversary of a car accident that killed my 14-year-old brother, Eli. Born in Israel and raised in the United States, Eli was our civilian soldier taken too young. There were no answers or logic then, and today there still seem to be few.
At Mount Herzl, Yoav had us walk around the graves looking for individual details we could relate to, and then asked us to trace that part of the inscription. (The soldiers assisted with the Hebrew, adding to the activity’s significance). Pacing the symmetrical rows of stones and hedges, I heard Maayan read the name of a French-born 19-year-old soldier who died during duty: Eli.
Later on, Hani asked what I had chosen to trace. I shared the inscription, and my family’s tragedy, even though I had met her only days earlier. Hani held me in a firm embrace and told me everything would be okay. It didn’t solve much, but it provided a much needed sense of humanity and support. Her country is lucky to have her.