Editor’s note: Every day this week, The Scroll will publish a memory relating to an experience in Jewish education, in honor of those wonderful kids in our lives who are heading back to school, back to where it all begins, for better or worse.
These days my Facebook feed is full of pictures, posted by parents, of their teenagers newly installed into college dorm rooms. Yet for me sending my first child off to college felt anti-climactic. Nevertheless, sending her off to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, an education unto itself, was easier than sending her off to college in Boston.
My daughter reported that her high school friends were appalled when they learned my husband would be dropping her off at the airport. “What?” they exclaimed. “Your parents are not taking you to college?”
“Well you see,” she explained, “my parents took me to Israel two years ago to serve in the IDF, so shipping me off to Boston is not a big deal.”
Indeed, it is not.
Unlike her first few months in the IDF, I know where she is going to sleep at college, and that all she has to worry about is whether or not the bedding we shipped will arrive on time. By the time she left for Boston, she’d already met her roommate in person when she visited Chicago for a long weekend, and they seem to have hit it off. In fact, when her roommate arrived on campus a few days before my daughter did, she sent her a video of their room and adjacent bathroom.
Two summers ago, when I spent two weeks with my daughter in Israel while she did all the paperwork to join the IDF, my daughter was living out of two big black suitcases. Now she will only have to pack one when she comes home for Rosh Hashanah and exchanges summer for winter clothes. Because Israel is a small cash-strapped country and pretty much everybody is drafted, soldiers live at home during their service. Most military bases don’t even have washing machines; soldiers cart their dirty laundry home on weekends off. But for lone soldiers—a term for IDF soldiers from abroad without any family in Israel—where ones lives is a huge issue.
Our daughter first roomed with cousins in Tel Aviv, then with a friend of ours, then she got a host family only to be told to move out after a few months because the host mother’s boyfriend wanted to move in. When she finally got her own apartment, it had a functioning bathroom, a sink in the kitchen, and thankfully, functioning a/c. But there was no fridge, no stove, no washing machine, no bed, no chair, no closet. Thankfully, she had a sleeping bag and a blow-up camping mattress, and her two suitcases.
When I visited a few weeks later from Chicago, I came upon an apartment piled high with household good donations, mainly from the IDF itself, as it is somewhat used to supporting lone soldiers. On only intermittent weekends off from her job as a dog trainer for the IDF’s canine unit Oketz, my daughter had had little time to get settled. So for the first few days of my visit (and her vacation), we sorted and set up. We loaded my rental car to return donations she didn’t need. We made a trip to IKEA to buy a shower curtain, a bedside table, a chest of drawers so her clothes wouldn’t be stacked in a donated book shelf, and a few lamps so she wouldn’t be looking at bare light bulbs. All that nest-building was a good investment: One year later, when her younger brother decided to join the IDF too, he had a place to live when his service began, like a hand-me-down of sorts.
After all that, the prospect of her moving into a fully-furnished dorm room with a dining hall next door seems more like summer camp. When my daughter and husband flew out to Boston for orientation in June, he returned with the conclusion that we didn’t need to accompany her on moving-in day. “We both have seen where she is going to be,” he said. “So what would we fly out for? To carry her one suitcase?”
So a couple weeks ago, on a Sunday, he simply drove her to the O’Hare and dropped her off at Departures. She waved, he reported, in that characteristic “What are you waiting for?” way of hers.
Saying goodbye this time was not so difficult because it wasn’t the first time I’d done so. For one, she isn’t so far away. When she was a lone soldier, her best friends, before she even began basic training, were other lone soldiers, a vastly diverse group of young people from all over the world who share at least one core value: protecting Israel. On U.S. college campuses, however, conversations and perspective about Israel, however, run the gamut (not that she ill-equipped to stand up for herself).
However, the question of greater consequence is: What am I going to do with my life? As an IDF soldier, her sense of purpose was taken care of. She got up in the morning and knew what she was doing and why she was doing it. At college, these questions smack you in the face every day, and they’ve not easily answered. After all, college is supposed to be about forging a path into the future and finding your place in this world. And that weights heavier than having to deal with a three-day field exercise in desert heat on chickpea rations.
Finally, there are questions of financial value. Financially, going to college is a regression of sorts. As an IDF soldier, my daughter was financially independent, and we parents “just” had travel expenses or incidentals like buying a washing machine. Now we are again shelling out large amounts of money for her education, and she is again financially dependent on us. And that contributes to all our feelings of this better be worth it. Remarkably, while she was an IDF soldier, I never once asked myself, “Is this worth it?”
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust.