On Friday morning, I walked. At 8:30am, I rushed my family out the door to the municipal pool parking lot, where we joined about 1,400 other people—Israelis, Brits, Australians, French, South Africans, Americans—and walked. We walked alongside people pushing babies in strollers and others pushing people in wheelchairs. We walked with people walking their dogs. In a mass of humanity, all wearing the same inscribed white and green t-shirts and baseball caps, we walked to raise money for an organization I recently discovered called HaBayit Shel Benji, Benji’s Home.
Benji’s Home is named in honor of a young man Benji Hillman, who was born in London in 1979. When he was little, his family moved to Israel, settling in Raanana. At 18, after high school, he went into the army, and two years later, enrolled in an officer training school, serving in elite commando units for the years following. In the summer of 2006, Benji married his longtime girlfriend, and a month later, he served in the Second Lebanon War, leading his men from the front in the first IDF foot incursion to attempt to rout out the Hizbollah terrorists in Lebanon. There, in a village called Moran Aras, Benji Hillman died in action.
In August of that same summer, his family founded the Benji Hillman Foundation. Its objective is to help lone soldiers and soldiers from deprived backgrounds in Israel, during and after their army service, by providing them with a home—in Raanana— which has been named Habayit Shel Benji. Over the last five years, the Foundation has raised over $3.3 million and the city has allocated 1.5 dunams of land. Ground broke late 2010, and the home is due to open this summer.
As described on the Foundation’s website, Benji Hillman was fiercely protective of the soldiers under his command, particularly those in distress. And while I am not familiar with that population, I do know about those that come to this country as lone soldiers. They are young men and women who have left their native countries to join the Israeli army; they have no family here, often barely speak Hebrew and are usually unable to rent an apartment because they don’t get enough income from the army. During their leave, they have nowhere to go. “They must seek out places to stay, figure out a way to do their laundry, grab an inexpensive meal, or take care of personal errands instead of catching up on precious sleep and receiving a little well-deserved care and attention.”
After our son Benjamin announced his post-high school graduation plan to move to Israel and enlist in the IDF and before Philippe and I told him and his sisters of our own plan to return, he was set to sign up as a lone soldier. In fact, the day we told him of our intention, he was crushed, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to benefit from the perks afforded to these soldiers (one month off to visit family abroad each year, a higher monthly stipend, less service time). Philippe and I, in turn, sighed in relief, knowing that while the army was still far away for all of us, we would be there to support him, even if he said—and continues to say—that he didn’t want or need us.
A few years ago, my childhood friend Judy, a pediatrician on a moshav, told me that her family had adopted a lone soldier. Every other Shabbat, this American boy would come to their house with his dirty laundry, eat their home cooked food, sleep on a warm bed and play big brother to Judy and Amos’ three kids. Their door was and still is always open, as I am sure many other families’ doors are around this country.
Soon, Raanana will have its own home, exclusively for these soldiers. The Hillman family, one of the many Anglo-Saxons in this city that I have not yet met, has created something extraordinary out of their loss.
On Friday morning, I walked. And while I walked in the fields with the sun beating down on me, I thought about the difference between saying and doing, about seeing holes and filling them, about our ability as humans to turn something devastating into something amazing .
Today, as I submit this post, our Benjamin starts his first day in the army after five weeks of basic training. Not only is he a soldier with a home and a family to go to, but he is also a soldier who has chosen not to enter a combat unit. And again, Philippe and I sigh in relief, hoping that he will always stay safe.