I was 16 when I first visited Israel with my mother. She spent most of the trip coming between me and aggressive young Israeli men who thought it was cute when I said, “Shalom, korim li Tabby” (“Hi, I’m Tabby”) with a French accent because I couldn’t—and still can’t—roll my “R” like a true sabra.
To say that my mother was stringent about my dating life (or lack thereof) is a hilarious understatement. “No boys, no drugs, only education” was her motto for raising two daughters in America. That, and “Shove this steak into the meat grinder while it’s still cold.”
But one afternoon in Israel, my mother spotted an IDF soldier near the Western Wall, who introduced himself as Yitzhak, and she all but pushed me into his arms. “You want to go to a club with me?” he asked brazenly. I looked at my mother and blushed. “Go ahead!” she cried, and placed his arm around my shoulder. This, coming from a woman who begged me not to hold hands with my soon-to-be-fiancé a decade and a half later, fearing he would get the wrong message.
Each time my mother sees an IDF soldier, whether in Los Angeles or on the Internet, she slaps her cheek and says in Persian, “Ghorboon-et beram” (“May I be sacrificed for you”). It’s the Persian version of Israeli mothers who run after their beloved children, yelling “kapparah!”
What is it about Israeli soldiers that drives my mother crazy in the best possible way?
On Nov. 6, I attended a wonderful luncheon in honor of IDF soldiers organized by Friends of the IDF (FIDF) Western Region at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. The event was entirely sponsored by Simon Etehad and his wife, Malissa. Etehad, who left Iran at the age of 10, loves Israel with a kind of affection that’s utterly remarkable.
A local attorney, Etehad has been involved with FIDF for 20 years and formerly served as vice president of FIDF Western Region. He’s participated in multiple FIDF missions to Israel and helped organize soldiers’ visits to the United States to meet with various Jewish communities, whether at schools or synagogues. His first FIDF luncheon at Nessah was in 2004. He even met Malissa at an FIDF event.
Each year, FIDF coordinates a visit by a delegation of up to a dozen soldiers to visit the United States. In Los Angeles, the soldiers are guests of honor at the annual FIDF Gala. On Shabbat, they join hundreds of Iranian American Jews at Nessah for services and a fancy lunch, as only Persians can pull off (think sushi chefs next to a gourmet meat-carving station). The trip was canceled last year due to the pandemic, but resumed this year, though it only included four soldiers, who spent nearly a month in the United States, traveling to cities such as Chicago, New York, Palm Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We at FIDF, are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of love and support that the Los Angeles community provides to Israel’s soldiers. And this year was no exception,” Executive Director Jenna Griffin told me. “Together, we are sending a clear and strong message to these brave soldiers—that we stand wholeheartedly behind them in their protection of Israel.”
I was thrilled to meet the 2021 delegation: Lieutenant S., who serves in the IDF’s Home Front Command; Corporal A., a self-described “troubled kid” who now serves as a commander in the Educational Corps; and a father and son duo—the father, Lt. Colonel Y., is an F-16 pilot; his son, Corporal J., serves in the 947th Iron Dome Battalion. This past May, while his father was conducting aerial missions to protect the Jewish state, Corporal J. and six other soldiers were protecting over 200,000 Israelis from Hamas rockets by operating an Iron Dome battery in the south.
As I watched hundreds of attendees at Nessah’s annual Shabbat luncheon give the soldiers one standing ovation after another, I had an epiphany: This is extremely unusual. In fact, it defies all reason and sensibility.
Do those around the world who identify as French or Francophile, but who don’t live in France, attend events in support of the French army and embrace French soldiers as their own children? Are Korean Americans moved to tears upon meeting young Korean soldiers in Los Angeles? Could there even be an event that united Muslims in support of one army? (There are over 50 Muslim-majority countries worldwide—which army would be representative of 1.9 billion people?)
But there they were, hundreds of Jews at a Shabbat luncheon—99 percent of whom weren’t Israeli—crying and cheering and hugging Israeli soldiers with an unconditional love reminiscent of family bonds. Why?
Why wouldn’t a little old woman in Quebec run into a French soldier and kiss his or her hand? Why aren’t there branches of FROK (Friends of the Republic of Korea Army) in the United States? Why wouldn’t a Muslim child from Bangladesh make a hand-written card of gratitude and shyly present it to an Afghan soldier? Do Catholics in Colombia sponsor visits by members of the de facto military of the Holy See in Vatican City?
And in what universe does a woman who was born in Tehran hug a 20-year-old Ashkenazi Israeli soldier so tightly that he nearly gasps for air? The answer is simple, yet eternal. Whether Iranian, Argentinian, Russian or Polish, most Jews are connected to Israel because it’s the only Jewish state in a world of nearly eight billion people. And, as the army of the Jewish state, love for the IDF defies nationality. That is something I can’t say for any other army.
“The ancient rabbis taught the value of ma’aseh avot siman labanim (‘the deeds of the parents are an example to their children,'” Etehad told me. “Our parents and grandparents set an example for us, and the Iranian Jews’ love for Israel and IDF is unmatched. I say this as someone who has, for years, taken these soldiers to different synagogues, schools and various other events to both shine a light on what our IDF does for us and raise both awareness and support.”
The Nessah luncheon raised $250,000 for FIDF and elevated the attendees as well the soldiers themselves. For Etehad, supporting Israeli soldiers involves as much heart as it does logic.
“I have always said, if the Islamic Republic of Iran can spend one billion dollars a year to support Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, we Iranian Jews should each raise a million dollars a year to support Israel and our IDF soldiers.”
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and civic-action advocate. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.