‘I just want her to get through this in one piece’
Worried parents of Canadians serving in Israeli military hope for safe return
Martin Gelb expected his daughter to go to university when she graduated from high school in Richmond Hill, Ont., last year. There were several offers from Canadian universities. But instead she joined the Israeli Defense Forces.
And now Netta, 19, is one of at least a handful of Canadian citizens serving in various roles with the IDF amid a two-week war that has killed more than 695 Palestinians and 34 Israelis; and Gelb has become part of an online support group for Canadian parents of “lone soldiers” in Israel — referred to as such because they have no immediate family in the region.
“There was really not much we could do to stop [her],” said Gelb. “It’s very difficult to explain it to people … how she could make that decision, and go off and do it.
“At that age, you can’t really tell them anything.”
When Netta — Israeli-born, with citizenship in Canada where she has lived since age seven — left for Israel in July 2013 along with at least 15 other Canadians, Gelb knew that another Israeli conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip was “inevitable.” But he didn’t think it would happen while his daughter was in combat duty in the region.
“Be safe,” he said to her over the phone Tuesday.
“That’s the one thing we say over and over,” said Gelb, who was born in Canada and served for the IDF in the 1980s. His daughter is with the Israel’s air defence command in the southern region. Gelb couldn’t go into much detail on his daughter’s role, but said he doesn’t believe she is in “any immediate danger.”
“I just want her to get through this in one piece.”
Perla Riesenbach, whose son Ariel returned from IDF service last October, helped start a Toronto-area support group for Canadian parents of lone soldiers, which meets several times a year. There is also a private Facebook group.
“As Canadians, we don’t know how to be parents of soldiers. We’re finding our way together,” said Riesenbach, whose six-monthold contact list of Ontario-based parents with lone soldiers in Israel totalled 30 names.
“Obviously this (number) is constantly in flux with soldiers enlisting and being discharged,” she said.
Dr. Gary Mann, an emergency room physician at Rouge Valley hospital in Ajax, Ont., was one of the parents at a support-group meeting in Thornhill, Ont., in the spring. His son Ilan, 25, is in Israel as a reservist for the IDF who reiterated to supervisors this week that he is prepared to enter active duty. Mann’s younger son, Leor, is completing specialty training for an infantry unit in the region.
“They felt it was their moral obligation to serve the state of Israel and help defend it,” he said of the boys, both of whom were born in Canada.
Two Americans serving as lone soldiers were among 13 Israeli soldiers and scores of Palestinians over the weekend who died during the first major ground battle in two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
There were about 5,500 lone soldiers serving in the military in 2012, according to the Israeli Defense Forces. Groups for families of lone soldiers, like the support group in Toronto, have recently started in Los Angeles and other cities, providing a support network as the fighting intensifies.
“Lone soldiers are a kind of star in Israel,” Jewish Journal reported. “For Israeli kids, army service is a rite of passage. But because it is a choice for the young members of the Diaspora who re-direct their own life paths to protect Israel, those en-listers are given a hero’s welcome — and a lifetime of Shabbat dinner invitations from their fellow soldiers, who become their surrogate families.”