The other side of the door
As part of my position as the shliha, Israel emissary, working for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, I speak with a lot of people of various ages about Israel. One topic that holds a great deal of interest is service in the army. This is especially true for kids. At first, when they hear that I am an officer, a captain, they pay a bit more attention, but when I tell them that I am trained in weapons, like any other soldier who goes through boot camp in the Israel Defense Forces, I can see the shock on their faces; I am, after all, a “girl.”
But after the initial excitement, their curiosity leads them to ask the more complicated questions. So what did I do during my mandatory service? they ask, and I explain.
You see, in every major city in Israel there is an army base inside a regular building. It is called K’tzin Ha’ir. This unit is in charge of two extremely important areas of responsibilities in the military; both concern the welfare of soldiers in service. The Department of Soldiers’ Welfare is a type of customer service center. If soldiers or their family members encounter difficulties related to the soldier’s service, K’tzin Ha’ir will try to find a solution. Can you imagine an army that allows the mother of a soldier to have direct contact with her son’s commanding officer?
K’tzin Ha’ir is also in charge of delivering notifications of casualties. The modi’ei nifga’im (casualties notification officers) visit families of IDF soldiers to deliver news of four unfortunate cases: abduction, missing in action, serious injury, and death. We are the people who go and knock on the door and change people’s lives forever.
This is what I do in my reserve duty. I am one of the youngest people to do this in Israel.
How can I articulate my feelings as the person coming to the door? Upon arriving, we leave the car and move quickly, not wanting to give enough time for neighbors, friends, or the designated family the chance to see us before we reach the house. For a family with a son or daughter in the army, this is their worst nightmare. This is etched in Israeli culture, so that every Israeli knows the meaning of three officers dressed in army uniform walking in a civilian neighborhood.
I personally find the moment after we knock on the door the hardest. Your heart beats fast and there is so much uncertainty in that moment. You never know who might open the door, perhaps a young child. And I find myself wishing I could prolong that moment before we knock, before the life of this family will irrevocably change, before our entrance into their life will state the dichotomy of the before and after.
The IDF team stays with the family for as long as they need. We provide them with medical and psychological assistance if needed, but most of all we offer ourselves as a shoulder to lean on and cry on, as an outlet for the initial confusion and pain.
The grief for the loss of IDF soldiers is felt on a national level. When Gilad Shalit was taken hostage, nobody referred to him as “Shalit,” but rather as “Gilad.” People would say his first name as if he were a brother, a relative. In a way, he is. There is a sense of shared fate and mutual responsibility. We, the casualties notifiers, cannot simply leave the house of a bereaved family right after notification has been delivered because that would mean turning our backs on that ultimate sacrifice that was handed to the State of Israel. The loss is horrific but necessary. So we stay for as long as the family needs us. This relationship — among the family, the army, and the state — is a bond made of steel.
After we say goodbye, the family will be taken care of by a different casualties officer, one who belongs to the soldier’s corps. From then on, that officer will sustain the connection between the family and the army. They will never be forgotten, but the original team will no longer be in touch, for the family’s sake as well as our own. Our faces will be forever associated with their tragedy, and we accept this and move on. I remember every fallen soldier who came into my life; I regard this as part of my shlihut. And I see it as my z’hut, my privilege, to help a family in their first stage of grief and mourning. Casualties notifiers may differ in a lot of things, but we all share this feeling in common. This is the reason this position is voluntary; it cannot be done any other way.
I decided to share my story because I believe this position, one that is not so commonly known to the general public, holds an immense responsibility that mirrors the nature and the values that the State of Israel holds by.