For Israelis, there’s no moment in life quite like the day a son or daughter is drafted into the army for mandatory national service, that can last from two to three years.
While new recruits usually come home for that first weekend — except during the current pandemic, when it can take two or three weeks before they’re able to visit — it’s a significant turning point in the life of a family, when parents take stock of their 18-year-old and send them off, with a bittersweet mix of pride, worry and wistfulness.
It was an a-ha moment for Scott Tobin, an American immigrant who sent off the second of his five sons to the army in March, prompting him to think more deeply about the range of Israeli families who send their children to the military, and how they mark that pivotal moment.
“You see the entire nation there, and you get a chance to see the look on every parent’s face,” said Tobin. “It’s some combination of pride and fear and it’s what every parent goes through when their child goes to the army.”
Tobin turned to his friend, Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, the Israeli organization that strives to provide Jewish ritual services to secular Jews, and the two ended up having a prayer composed and sung by Kobi Oz, lead vocalist for the band Teapacks.
“What’s so special about this is the fact that we had to wait 70 years until people who came from outside Israel enlightened us and showed us what we really are,” said Stav. “You couldn’t describe a more Israeli experience than when parents escort their child to the army, and we didn’t have any way of expressing that.”
The new prayer emphasizes the public service to the State of Israel, praying for the safety of the soldiers. The prayer has been translated from Hebrew to various languages, including Amharic, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and English.
It took several months to compose and revise the prayer, as several Tzohar rabbis and a broader spectrum of communal leaders reviewed it to make sure it was culturally sensitive to a wide range of cultural and religious groups.
Tobin wanted to have it ready for one of the IDF’s major draft days that takes place in early August. Since then, there’s been a groundswell of support, including a note of public thanks from President Reuven Rivlin.
For Oz, the opportunity to participate in composing the tune to the prayer was a privilege, the singer said at a press conference introducing the composition.
“I had two and a half minutes to tie it all together, and I didn’t want it to be too simple because so many generations will sing this,” said Oz. “I had to find the soul of the text. It’s a celebratory moment, but also scary and intimate. It’s like a second bar mitzvah, in many ways.”
For the draft days of their two oldest sons, Tobin and his wife, Jennifer Tobin, had blessed their two oldest sons with the traditional Jewish blessing given to children on Friday night. Their second son, Coby, was drafted in March, from a nondescript parking lot in Israel’s south.
Yet the blessing, Tobin realized, wasn’t necessarily fitting for every family that sends a child to the military.
He looked around that parking lot in March and saw families of all stripes: secular, religious, Druze, Bedouin. There were people there who came to Israel from different countries, said Tobin, “and you realize that it’s really a national experience and almost a life-cycle event that anybody who sends their kids to the army kind of experiences together.”
“It’s this awkward moment when you wonder what to say,” said Tobin, who wondered why there wasn’t any prayer they had come across in their past that was designed for such an occasion. “We live in a modern state, and we’re always taught that religion is adaptable to modern times, yet here’s this very modern, [national] event that everyone goes through, but there’s nothing there for it.”
It needed to be a prayer that encompasses all communities in Israel that serve in the IDF, said Tobin, whose older son — a commander in a combat unit — had Druze and Christians, as well as Jews, in his unit. He felt it was a moment when the entire national community came together, and it had to be in every language spoken by every Israeli soldier.
Tobin said his involvement in this project was part of his greater absorption as an immigrant, having moved here 12 years ago, with his wife and then-four sons. Their fifth son was born in Israel.
“When you come to Israel, there are certain things you miss out on,” said Tobin. “You didn’t serve the country like many of your neighbors did and part of introducing this prayer is that it becomes part of the national narrative and with five boys… we did it in honor of them.”
The Israel Defense Forces hasn’t yet adopted the prayer, said Stav, but Tzohar has already received notes of thanks and appreciation from leaders of the Druze and Ethiopian communities.
“Hopefully people will embrace it regardless of political ideology,” said Tobin. “As parents of a child doing national service, it’s something that gives us time to think.”