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When your child fights in Gaza, this is how it feels

by Jared Sichel

July 23, 2014 | 6:18 pm

<em>Guy Harel</em>

Guy Harel

Jonathan and Daphne Orenshein do not like when an unknown number pops up on their cell phone. 

Their son, Kevin, 21, operates a tank in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Givati unit and, as of his last report to his parents, was likely headed into a dense Gaza City neighborhood, into a place teeming with Hamas fighters who want to inflict as many casualties as possible while the IDF seeks out the terrorist group’s labyrinth of underground tunnels.

So when the phone rings, especially when it’s an unknown international number, his parents, who live in the Beverlywood neighborhood, have to wonder: Is an Israeli official calling to confirm their worst fears? Or is their son just calling home using the cell phone of an Israeli civilian? 

“Are we sleeping well?” Jonathan asked rhetorically. “No.”

A Lone Soldier who left his family, friends and home more than two years ago to endure the extreme physical and mental challenges of military life with the IDF, Kevin has made sure to stay in regular touch with his parents and his grandfather, an Israeli who served in both the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. 

[Related: In Gaza, IDF ground operation takes a toll]

In fact, his mother said his service was supposed to end six months ago, when Israel was enjoying a relative form of peace, but he decided he wanted to remain in the IDF for one more year, until January 2015.

Just hours before press time on July 22, Kevin had called — for the first time in two days — to say that his unit had, again, been given mixed signals about when it was going into Gaza. He was barely eating and was operating on little to no sleep over the last five days, his mother told the Journal. 

Recently, Kevin had been driving his parents “crazy,” his father said, when, multiple times last weekend, he said he was going dark because his unit was likely crossing the Gaza border — only to retract that when they were unexpectedly turned back on consecutive days.

“Thursday, he called and said goodbye, but then Friday he called right before Shabbos and said they never went in and it would be the next day instead,” Jonathan said on July 21. “And then he sent a ‘WhatsApp’ at like 3:30 in the morning saying, ‘Going in,’ but then [he] called yesterday.”

Jonathan said his son’s safety is on his mind “every second of the day.” 

His wife, making light of the contrast between her younger children “going out” with friends and Kevin “going out” to fight Hamas, said the motherly questions she has for him are, “Are you walking, Sweetie, or are you going to be in a tank?”

The Orensheins aren’t the only local family experiencing this sort of anxiety. Although Westwood residents Gil and Iris Harel became accustomed to hearing from their son, Guy, almost daily since he joined the IDF in November 2012 after he graduated from San Diego State University, they hadn’t heard from him in three days as of July 21. He is a member of a reconnaissance unit in the tank corps.

“Many sleepless nights and crazy days …” Gil said.

When they can’t reach Guy, the Harels use whatever backchannels they can to verify that he is safe. 

“We find out from other sources in the army that can find out, and they let us know that he’s OK and that his unit’s OK,” Gil said.

On July 20, the couple went to a memorial service in Canoga Park for Max Steinberg, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and was a fellow IDF volunteer who was killed earlier in the day when his unit’s vehicle was ambushed in a Gaza neighborhood. Gil said he and his wife didn’t know the Steinbergs, but that being the parent of a soldier makes any death feel closer to home. 

He was speaking with the Journal on July 21 just minutes after he heard that more soldiers had been killed in the Gaza offensive.

“It’s anxious, it’s nervousness, it’s the unknown and listening and glued to the news,” he said.

Rabbi Arye Berk, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Westwood, said it feels as if he and his wife have been holding their breath since Israel’s operation began on July 8 — their son, Shai, had been “incommunicado” as of July 20, having told his parents on July 17 that he wouldn’t be able to call for a few days.

“That has never been the case before,” Berk said, echoing the angst that other parents feel when they receive a call from an unknown number. “The phone ringing is a tough thing when you don’t recognize the number.”

But even with the anxiety and fear that Shai’s parents feel daily, Berk knows that his son — a 20-year-old sniper in Givati — is acting on values that his parents instilled in him.

“He sat around a Zionist Shabbat table, so it’s not surprising,” Berk said. “He knew from an early age that he wanted to go and enlist in the IDF.”

Jonathan Orenshein conceded, however, that he’s a little torn about his son’s involvement as he worries for his safety, even as the young man pursues a lifelong dream. 

“This has been his goal forever,” Jonathan said with pride, adding that his son has been drawn to the military since a young age. “Do you want him to not realize that dream?”

Daphne added: “I have to keep telling myself that, above all, we are really, really proud of this kid. No matter what happens, I’m forever intensely proud.”

Still, the Orensheins would feel much better if their son wasn’t putting his life on the line.  

“Does [Daphne] text me every hour asking have I heard anything? Yes, she does,” Jonathan said.

His wife said she does her best to stay busy, despite the nagging worries that make it so difficult.

“I choose to live simcha as much as possible,” she said, adding that it’s a really, really difficult thing to do.

“I feel guilty eating, I feel guilty going to coffee with a friend of mine,” she admitted. “How dare I? I should just be, I don’t know, pacing — pacing back and forth and worrying.”

Gil Harel described his own emotions when his son announced he was joining the IDF as a mixture of shock and pride. Shock that his son was choosing such a dangerous route after finishing college — “You expect him to go on to his next stage in life” — but pride that Guy “wakes up every morning with a smile” as he protects Israel. 

Jonathan said his son’s current plan is to return to the United States for college. That said, Kevin’s parents will feel like a massive weight has been lifted from their shoulders. 

It will mean no more waking up in the middle of the night from “bizarre dreams,” as Daphne described it, and no more plumbing the depths of the Internet or cable news for updates from Israel at all hours of the day and night.

“People send their children away to go to school and they worry about them,” Kevin’s father said. “The reality is here. This is true worry.”

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