Israeli Mothers Knew Their Sons Would Serve. But They Didn’t Expect War.

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By Ketrin Agustine

Israeli Mothers Knew Their Sons Would Serve. But They Didn’t Expect War.

Many mothers are grappling with anxiety as their sons head off to fight in Gaza. “It felt like my children were being taken away, one by one, until no one was left,” one said.

The six mothers had gathered in a Jerusalem home on a recent Friday to prepare challah, the braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath. After they recited a blessing that is part of the ritual, each woman added a prayer of her own.

“I just want everybody to come back alive and in one piece, mentally and physically,” said one, her voice breaking. “May they return in peace,” said another, wiping away tears. “With this challah, I want to bless my three sons who are in the army and all the soldiers,” said Ruthie Tick, who had convened the mothers so they could comfort one another.

Collectively, they had 10 sons serving in the Israeli Army, either in Gaza fighting Hamas in response to the group’s incursion and deadly rampage on Oct. 7, or in the north, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia has been launching missiles at Israel from Lebanon.

No sooner had the women finished praying than a WhatsApp message appeared on Rebecca Haviv’s cellphone. “I’m gonna be without a phone soon,” wrote her son, Adam, a 29-year-old combat soldier on reserve duty. “Love you so much, ma, and will be in touch.”

“He’s entering Gaza,” said Ms. Haviv, anguished. Adam, her only son and father of her only grandchild, a three-month-old boy, was beginning his second mission inside Gaza. She had endured 13 days of radio silence during his first. How long would it be this time?

“I love you, too,” Ms. Haviv replied, adding a heart emoji and hoping that two blue check marks would appear to signify that Adam had read the message. They didn’t.

Israeli soldiers near the border with Gaza last month.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Israel called up about 360,000 reservists after the Hamas-led attack on Israeli border communities in which the assailants killed over 1,200 people and seized some 240 hostages, according to the Israeli authorities.

The mass mobilization has upended families across the country, and many Israeli mothers turned to one another for support, even as they gained some respite when a temporary cease-fire took hold last week.

Israel’s citizen army is the bedrock of society, and mandatory service is a rite of passage for most young Israelis, both men and women, although only a small number of women serve in combat units. More than a dozen mothers said in interviews that, even as their sons were trained in frontline roles as snipers, paratroopers and commandos, they had never imagined themselves raising warriors.

Nor had they expected their children to have to fight a full-blown war after Israel reached peace agreements with several Arab countries, normalization with Saudi Arabia was progressing and Israelis were vacationing in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Sons of the women at the Friday challah gathering had become musicians, engineers and physical therapists since completing military service. Some were newlyweds or had started families. Now, recalled to the military, they were fighting alongside regular troops.

And while all said they were proud of their children, many expressed dismay that their children might take the lives of others.

Rebecca Haviv’s son, Adam, is a reservist who has been deployed in Gaza.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

“I don’t want my sons to kill anyone; it will injure their hearts,” said Rakefet Yoeli, an obstetrician whose twins are in combat units.

So far, Israeli military strikes have claimed more than 15,000 Palestinian lives, according to Gaza’s health ministry. About 80 Israeli soldiers have died since the ground war began, according to the Israeli authorities.

As the war drags on, the mothers said they were grappling with intensifying, and sometimes debilitating, anxiety. To cope, some have turned to their faith for solace. Others meditate. Or both. Many have joined support groups.

“The war falls on the shoulders of women — mothers, wives,” said Einat Roichman, who started “Drafted Women,” a support group with 100 participants, in the town of Binyamina. “The agony is not just on the battlefield.”

Rakefet Yoeli’s father was a decorated Air Force pilot who fought in several wars. Her husband was a commander in a tank unit.

“My parents never believed their children and grandchildren would have to join an army, much less fight,” she said. “They thought there would be peace by now.”

But now their twin grandsons are fighting in Gaza.

An obstetrician-gynecologist at Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv, Dr. Yoeli, 54, gave birth to Amit and Roee, 20, after one miscarriage and fertility treatment. Five years later, she had a third son, Uri.

The boys grew up proud of their family’s military legacy, and long dreamed of serving in elite combat units.

“I wanted them to play trombone,” said Dr. Yoeli, “but they wanted to be combat soldiers. I couldn’t stop them.”

Amit, one of Rakefet Yoeli’s sons, dressed as a soldier for the Jewish holiday of Purim as a child.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Last year the twins attended each other’s celebrations, when Roee was inducted into the paratroopers and Amit into a commando unit.

“If no one would do it, who would save us?” Dr. Yoeli asked.

On Oct. 7, Roee’s unit was among the first on the scene at besieged border communities. Roee did not tell his mother anything about what he had witnessed. Later, she learned that six soldiers on his team had died fighting Hamas, and that another was at her hospital in critical condition.

“All these years, I knew my boys would be going to the army, hoping there would be no conflict,” said Dr. Yoeli.

She said she had never cried in front of her sons. But as she spoke at her home, tears pooled in her eyes as she relayed her worries for them.

Dr. Yoeli folding her sons’ uniforms in Kiryat Ono, Israel, last month. “My parents never believed their children and grandchildren would have to join an army, much less fight,” she said.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Dr. Yoeli said that she was accustomed to curt responses from her boys and few displays of affection. “Yes or no; I am hungry,” she said.

Before the war, “they never told me I love you,” she recalled. “Now, it’s totally different.”

On Oct. 29, Roee texted his parents, “I’m giving up my phone,” he said, and she knew he was going to Gaza. “I love you very much. Everything will be okay.”

Amit sent a similar text, sealed with a heart.

Air-raid sirens blared across Israel early on Oct. 7, shattering the quiet that normally prevails on the Sabbath.

In Jerusalem, Ruthie Tick, her husband, Drew, and their youngest son, Eli, 21, a soldier home for the weekend, filed into the safe room in the basement of their building. Later, as they sat watching television in their apartment, the dimensions of Hamas’s attacks became clear.

Eli’s phone rang. Within minutes, he donned his uniform, grabbed his gun and bid his parents goodbye. He had been days away from completing military service.

The next day, their eldest son, Lev, 30, who works in the technology sector, was summoned for reserve duty. And the following day, the second oldest, Sassoon, 27, a television technician, was summoned. Only Ms. Tick’s 25-year-old son, living in Florida, had been spared.

“I’m very, very proud of my children,” she said. “They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t question it.”

Ruthie Tick hugging her son, Eli, who was days away from completing his military service on Oct. 7.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

But Ms. Tick, 59, was in a state.

“I felt like my children were being taken away, one by one, every day, until no one was left,” recalled Ms. Tick, who works as a therapist.

A few days after the attacks and Israeli strikes on Gaza began, she and her husband rushed to meet Sassoon, stationed in the north, who had a narrow window of time to see them.

The three were at a restaurant when Ms. Tick got word from another son, Lev, that he was powering down his phone. She knew what it meant: Gaza.

“I just wanted to vomit,” she recalled. The next week, Ms. Tick and her husband prepared to visit Eli near Gaza and bring dinner for 30 of his comrades. She managed to reach Lev, who had returned to his base from Gaza, and he promised to meet them as well. He asked her: Could she bring meals for eight?

Ms. Tick baking challah at home in Jerusalem last month.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

A frantic Ms. Tick prepared dinner for about 40 soldiers in her kitchen: breaded chicken fillets, or schnitzel, and rice and peas for Eli and his team; for Lev, ground meat with hummus. She baked challah buns for both.

Near Gaza, the parents delivered the food, took pictures, gave their sons hugs and, within minutes, were driving back home. Later, they would learn that Lev had re-entered Gaza before enjoying his mother’s cooking.

Some days, Ms. Tick said, her stomach is in an “anxiety knot.”

When that happens, she says a special blessing for her sons, she said, envisioning them in the future, celebrating joyous occasions, like weddings and the birth of children. “I put a halo over them, and they’re safe,” she said.

Miriam Atun was not having it. She draped herself across the front door to block her son, Yaakov, military knapsack on his back, from leaving.

“Over my dead body,” she recalled crying to him. “You aren’t going back to the army.”

He was not fighting a war, she told him. He had already been on the front lines as a medic for an elite combat unit during a 2014 operation in Gaza.

“For 50 days, I lived in torment,” Ms Atun, a 53-year-old teacher, said. “My face broke out. I couldn’t eat.”

“The war falls on the shoulders of women — mothers, wives,” said Einat Roichman, right, who started “Drafted Women,” a support group with 100 participants, in the town of Binyamina. “The agony is not just on the battlefield.”Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Yaakov, a 29-year-old drummer who lives in Tel Aviv, had been visiting his parents in a nearby town when Hamas struck, and was called up for reserve duty.

Ms. Atun knew two soldiers who died on Oct. 7, the son of a relative and the son of a neighbor. No more, she thought — especially not her only son.

“I told him, ‘Tell them your mother is in the hospital. Tell them she is institutionalized. I don’t care what you tell them, you’re not going anywhere,’” she recalled.

With Ms. Atun increasingly agitated, one of her daughters called her brother’s commander and told him that their mother was having a breakdown. Yaakov was released from duty.

Days passed, and Yaakov told his mother repeatedly that it wasn’t right for him to sit at home while his friends served.

“Are you afraid I will die?” Ms. Atun recalled him asking. She didn’t answer.

When it became clear that his unit was unlikely to enter Gaza, Yaakov persuaded his mother to let him go. She agreed, provided that he text regularly and answer her calls. He promised that he would.

“I know there are mothers who say, ‘Go in there. Fight,’” said Ms. Atun. “I see it differently.”

Gal Koplewitz and Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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