The about-face was stunning for its suddenness. The same woman — let’s call her my wife — who had coolly arranged for my son’s ticket, icily orchestrated his passport, and calculatedly coordinated his luggage and international cell phone, this same woman, upon seeing him pass through the airport checkpoint that leads to the gate, opened some internal spigot, and became a caricature of the mother who has lost her only child.
As the tears began to flow, my first thought was, “What’s wrong with her?” My second was, “What’s wrong with me?”
My children tried in their own ways to cheer her up. One brandished the baby in her face, good for a smile through the teardrops. Another offered to buy her a drink at the airport bar. Yet a third reminded her that we really weren’t so fond of my son as to warrant all this emotion.
I took it all in, watching, as from a distance, wondering why I wasn’t more affected. After all, he’s my son too.
Why wasn’t I more worried about sending my first-born child to Israel, at the fledgling age of 18? Remember? Katyushas, exploding buses, rude bureaucrats — hey, they just had a war there!
The truth is, I had no shortage of people urging me to worry. Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union had just coordinated a conference call on Tisha B’Av for parents feeling apprehensive about sending their children to study. I couldn’t help thinking that if the point was to get us not to worry, scheduling it on Tisha B’Av was sure a step in the wrong direction. I didn’t call in.
A journalist friend of mine wrote to me that “there’s a culture of bravado, not to care or even talk about security… American Religious Zionist rabbis promote a wishful ignorance and security-faith in a country that, frankly, doesn’t deserve that faith.” I think he has a point, but that didn’t stop me from sending my child.
Anyway, I didn’t need them to tell me what could happen. Back on May 13, 1980, two of my classmates at Y.U., Tzvi Glatt and Shmuel Mermelstein, were returning from Friday night services at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron when terrorist gunmen cut them down from a rooftop. During the first intifada, the son of one of my teachers at Ramaz was hit in the head by a rock, and struggles to this day with major medical issues.
So why tempt fate? Because the place that my son is going to be spending the next year is without a doubt the one most suited to his development as a human being, a Jew and an independent thinker.
Notice the word Zionist missing from the list. While I hope my son imbibes a love for the land and its people, and would support any decision he might make regarding aliyah, I deeply distrust the hard-sell proselytizing I experienced at a yeshiva in Israel. I have sent my son to a place that will teach him to choose — not choose for him. When he returns, my son will have to choose between a full scholarship at Y.U. and admission to Harvard. He will have to know himself well enough to envision the contribution he is to make to society. He will need to have a moral personality that can judge what is important and what ancillary, what aspects of life are amenable to compromise, and what are worth sacrificing, and even dying, for. His special soul, his upbringing, his schooling have brought him far; this year and this yeshiva are the crucible that must make it all come together.
There are so many things from which we cannot protect our children, so many things we cannot suffer in their place. All we can do is provide our children with the tools and opportunities to be able to grow and become a blessing to the world. The precise unfolding of that blessing is in the hands of God.
I don’t know of any place other than Israel where my son can take the necessary steps to make his life a blessing. He and we have entered a situation where the stakes are life and death — because this is the only road we know for choosing life.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg is director of public affairs for the Rabbinical Council of America. His son Yair is studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion.