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First Person: Sometimes our kids make a point we didn’t think of first

SAN FRANCISCO (j weekly) — “You don’t mind me applying to West Point Military Academy, Mom, do you?”

Michal Kohane with her sons Ohr Taylor, right, and Yonatan during West Point Acceptance Day, Aug. 18, 2012. (Courtesy Michal Kohane)

“West Point?” I thought, surprised.

But it was fall. Graduation seemed like light years away.

“Go ahead,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Let me know if you need anything,” I added on automatic pilot, not having a clue what might be needed.

My son Ohr thanked me politely and told me he wanted to do this by himself.

Some 1,000 candidates are accepted out of more than 15,000 applicants nationally, I told myself, perhaps as consolation. I backed off and watched Ohr fill out long applications, write essays, get recommendations and train regularly. He watched me trying to deal with the idea.

Hesitating, I asked if he was sure about all this.

“Everyone should serve their country,” he said. “You did that, Mom, didn’t you?”

Growing up in Israel, like everybody else around me, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces when I was 18 and served in an elite intelligence unit. My mom was a medic in the same army 30 years earlier during the War of Independence. Thirty years before that, her father was an officer in Europe during World War I. Others in our family have done the same, and yet … this was mandatory in countries far away. And none of them were my kid.

Ohr plodded along. He got the highly sought-after commendation letter from our congresswoman, Doris Matsui, and sometime later, the letter of appointment accepting him into West Point arrived. The title read, “On behalf of the President of the United States …” It started to feel more real: College admittance notices don’t quite look like this. Neither did my own flimsy handwritten IDF draft notice, sent on a 3-by-5 card.

Our family overseas told us they knew all about West Point: “ ‘Top Gun,’ isn’t it? Anyway, if he is already thinking army, why not come to Israel?”

They reminded me there are great programs for lone soldiers, and I should know: The headquarters for Garin Tzabar, which supports lone soldiers during their aliyah process and IDF army service, is right next to my office at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center. And what if one day Israel and the United States aren’t on the same side? Did I think about that?

Some of my friends told me to be proud. Others rolled their eyes in dismay. I shrugged, with a sort of half-smile. We had things to do, like book our tickets for R Day — that’s Army shorthand for Reception Day. And go to Travis Air Force Base to get some gear, like “low quarters” (Army for “shiny Shabbos shoes”) and heavy boots he should break in before basic training. He tried them on in the store — all this for the cute little toes I tickled when my baby nursed not that long ago.

Images of my own military service came back to me as we sat there. Smells of sweaty uniform, shoes, oily machinery, food in the mess hall. Relief at seeing the sunrise after a long night duty. Missing one vacation after another over a heated situation at the border. Coding phone calls, dealing with a harsh commander, losing a dear friend, hitchhiking home.

I must admit, throughout the process I had moments of “What’s gotten into him?” and “Where on earth did he get that idea from?”

But then came awards night at his high school. A colonel from West Point attended especially to congratulate Ohr as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. His classmates cheered, moms wiped away tears. One of the parents tapped my shoulder. “Great accomplishment,” he said, shaking my hand. “He tells me you’re his inspiration.”

I swallowed hard, caught off guard: all these things we teach our kids when we have no idea we’re even getting through to them, while in return they stretch who we are beyond what we ever imagined when they set out on their own journey!

In early July, we headed to the academy in upstate New York. While Ohr was called to start his “processing including receiving the first free haircut,” I walked around the grounds and remembered an earlier visit, when I dragged my mom to see this grand institution during our trip to the United States just before my own service.

I found the Jewish chapel, where the Torah in a glass display was open to Ohr’s Bar Mitzvah portion. I wiped salty fluids off my eyes and face. The weather started feeling just like a bad summer day in Tel Aviv. I realized, maybe this isn’t as far away as I initially thought.

(Michal Kohane is director of the Israel Center at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and a Torah columnist for the j weekly. This piece originally aired on KQED Radio’s “Perspectives.”)