From the moment we met the busload of Israeli soldiers at Artesa Winery to the end of the amazing day when we bid our new friends a tearful farewell, I was on the verge of tears.
On Dec. 14, 32 bereaved soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, 16 boys and 16 girls, all having lost a loved one, visited the Napa Valley for the second year in a row for a complete day of rest and relaxation.
Brought here by the Friends of the IDF and sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley, the soldiers, mostly too young to legally drink alcohol, arrived at Artesa, nestled on a hilltop overlooking much of the Bay Area, for a morning tour. Mere children, I thought to myself, as I beheld the group huddled together to hear the docent’s words. They were awed by the view and I was amazed at the youthfulness, politeness, respect, appreciation and gentility of these fierce warriors.
Following the winery tour, the bus pulled up to the Kopol Bonick photography studio in Carneros, where numerous Napa supporters of the IDF busied themselves preparing a hearty kosher lunch.
Naturally, Dona Kopol Bonick snapped a group photo, which was quickly dashed over to Target for 8 x 10 glossy reproductions for each soldier to have as a souvenir.
During lunch, two beautiful female soldiers came to sit by me.
Netta’s family came to Israel from Iraq soon after Israel was established. She said her brother died during a training exercise. The other soldier, Galit, lost her mother to a terrorist’s bomb.
Both young ladies serve in the IDF intelligence unit, among the most difficult units in which to gain acceptance. They were prohibited from engaging in political discussions and preferred to talk about Napa, music, movies and family.
I thought to myself it was sad that rather than pursuing a college degree or being involved in typical teen activities, these children, barely out of high school, like our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are burdened with the enormously dangerous task of defending their homeland.
Israel is the only country in the world whose establishment is still questioned, and the only one openly threatened with annihilation. Every Jewish boy in Israel must serve in the IDF for three years, and every girl two years.
The Israelis grow up fast, living in the Middle East. The girls serving in the intelligence unit told me how thrilled they were to be in a place like Napa, where they can simply be themselves. “You don’t know how it feels to be here breathing this fine air and not afraid of being attacked … people simply do not understand our devotion to our home … our only home,” Galit said.
Added Netta, “All we want is to live in peace with all of our neighbors in our tiny little country.”
After lunch the soldiers were bused to Hagafen Cellars on the Silverado Trail to hear owner Ernie Weir, in perfect Hebrew, explain the fine details involved in creating award-winning kosher wine. One boy rolled his eyes and said, “We train with powerful weapons and fight for our land, but we cannot taste a drop of wine. But who cares … we are very happy to be here.”
The final stop for the soldiers was a private farmhouse nestled in the rolling hills of south Napa for the actual R&R part of the day: 12-minute chair massages by professional therapists were available to all, as were facials and make-up applications for the girls, and plenty of nosh. Many took to the hot tub on the deck, boys and girls together, relaxed and happy.
A lavish kosher dinner of potato latkes, baba ganoush, hummus, Israeli salad and more was enjoyed by all. After dinner, the Israeli soldiers conducted the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah — one candle for each of eight nights commemorating a Jewish victory over the Greeks, intent on Hellenizing Judea thousands of years ago. After reciting Hanukkah blessings and kindling the fourth candle of the holiday, the Israelis burst out singing “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Ages), they in Hebrew, we in English.
Rob Sherman, with a friend accompanying him on bass, sang Beatles songs and the Israelis joined in. Zoë Kahn, the chief organizer of the day’s events, introduced and thanked her amazing Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley staff — Lauren Chevlen, Donna Mendelsohn, Lynn Michalski and Louise Packard — which she calls her “Knesset.”
Toward the end of the evening, the soldiers rose in unison and sang with emotion their national anthem, “Ha Tikvah,” (The Hope). We all got goose bumps, some cried.
A handsome young man with bright sparkling eyes, Dolev, plopped himself down beside me. “I can see in your eyes, and in everyone’s eyes how truly happy you all are to be with us,” he said. “You all say the same words, but I can see the feelings reflected in your eyes.”
I told him we were happy to welcome him.
He smiled. “Do you not know how your love here in America affects each of us? Sometimes we feel all alone in the world … the world does not understand the hardships and sacrifices we make every day, and what our people have endured over the centuries.”
All I could say was, “People here in Napa do not worry if their children will arrive safely at school every morning …”
We fell silent, trying to follow the joyous holiday music in the air.
It was late and the bus was prepared to transport the young Israelis back to San Francisco. They would visit the Google and Apple campuses the following day, then head south for a full week of activities in Los Angeles before returning to their duties with the IDF. The soldiers formed a single line to say their goodbyes and received swag bags full of Napa souvenirs. We hugged each youngster as if they were our own children going off to war. The hugs were genuine, and the tears real.
“l’hitra’ot, shalom and be strong”, I said, choking back tears as the bus departed into the night, two red lights vanishing into the darkness.