September 21, 2006 / 28 Elul 5766
Silent tears stream down Anna Mazanko's face as she runs to greet the newly arrived bus. The composed 19-year-old new immigrant soldier in the Israeli army throws her arms around her father and is lifted off her feet in an all encompassing hug. Anna, an only child, has not seen her father in over a year, and her excitement is palpable.
"I came to Israel by myself. My parents couldn't afford to make the trip from my hometown of Vinnitza, Ukraine to visit me," says Anna. "The Jewish Agency's Keshet program brought my father to me and I am so happy."
The Keshet Program for Parents of Lone Soldiers reunites immigrant soldiers living alone in Israel with their parents – many of whom they haven't seen since making aliyah. Many of these lone soldiers are from the FSU, and served in elite combat units during the recent war in Lebanon. Their parents spent an unimaginable summer waiting for news of their battle-weary sons and daughters.
Anna's father Constantine says, “during the war with Hizbollah, my wife and I were glued to the television from morning until night. The news in Ukraine was very biased towards Lebanon so we were fed a lot of disinformation and it all seemed very bleak. We had no contact with Anna and were frantic. Only through the intervention of the Jewish Agency was Anna able to telephone us and for this we were so grateful."
Forty parents of lone soldiers came on the most recent Keshet program, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of Washington, D.C. and Metrowest, New Jersey. They saw their children for the first time in over a year in an emotional reunion in Jerusalem, followed by a trip to the Western Wall.
Over lunch, Irena Poddubny from Kharkov, Ukraine sits with her nineteen year old son Denis. Denis came to Israel at the age of 16 with the Jewish Agency's Na’aleh program. He lived and studied in a youth village in the coastal community of Binyamina until he joined the army. In one month's time Denis will join the fighting unit of the paratrooper regiment.
“Denis is my only child," says Irena. "When he first said he wanted to come to Israel it was very hard for me, but I knew that he would get a better education and have a better future in Israel."
"But when he joined the army and said he wanted to be in a fighting unit, I was devastated. We had many arguments but eventually I accepted that this is his dream. How could I stand in his way?"
In a moving speech over dinner Irena said, “It was so hard watching the war on television at home, but now that we are with our sons and daughters it makes it much easier. I sincerely thank everyone who made our visit possible, and hope that other parents like us will have the chance to visit their children."
"If it hadn't been for Keshet I don't know when I would have seen my father," says Anna, who serves in the engineering corps. "I can't get time off from the army and its so expensive for my parents to come here. This is the best New Year's present I could ever receive.”
During the weeklong Keshet trip, the parents tour Israel and have the opportunity to see how and where their children live – and why they have made the choice to live in Israel.
"It is wonderful to see Anna with my own eyes and know that she is fine," says Constantine, as he clasps one arm firmly around his daughters shoulders and showers her with modest presents.
Keshet is also part of the Jewish Agency's Rebuilding the Galilee program. Direct assistance for frontline populations include immigrant soldiers who fought in the war. The visits address both the parents' need to visit their children who have so selflessly opted to serve in the IDF, and the soldiers' need for the warmth and support of their families following their recent difficult service.
At the Kotel parents and their soldier children recite a Hebrew prayer of thanks together. There is touching, hand holding, smiles and small, familiar gestures as one mother brushes a bit of dirt off her son's uniform. As the Sabbath approaches, each parent and child break off to say their private prayers of thanks against the great wall, and bask in the precious moments of being together.