Russians with sons in Israel army share joys, anxieties

MOSCOW — Every week, the Gorelikovs anxiously await a phone call from their son in Israel.

Pavel Gorelikov, who left for Israel five years ago, has been serving in the Israeli army since last year.

His parents, who remained in Russia, are proud that their son is defending the Jewish state, but they are worried about his safety.

Gorelikov is just one of hundreds of young Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel without their parents and were later drafted into the army.

Many of these young Russians went to Israel as participants in Na'aleh, a Jewish Agency for Israel program that encourages Jewish high school students in the former Soviet Union to live in Israel. Some left for Israel to avoid serving in the Russian army.

More than 2,000 participants in the program, which began in 1992, have graduated from Israeli high schools. Most have decided to stay in Israel and have joined the army.

While one of the program's objectives is to influence students' parents to join their children in Israel, many parents fear that their age would prevent them from finding a good job in Israel.

Their worst nightmares were transformed into headlines in Israel earlier this year. After a young Russian immigrant soldier, Sgt. Nikolai Rappaport, was killed in action, it was discovered that his family was living in squalor.

Still, for the most part, parents whose children have moved to Israel without them believe their offspring are ensured a better future in the Jewish state.

But this belief doesn't make these parents miss their children any less.

"It is very hard to me to realize that the son is far away," says Moris Fiks, a Moscow physicist whose son David, now 21, left for Israel five years ago.

Recently, Jewish Agency representatives in Russia decided that parents such as Fiks need special attention.

"These parents need to know where do their children serve, what are the conditions there," says Rachel Vilenski of the Jewish Agency's Moscow office. "Parents want to share their problems and also to share pride for the children."

The agency has organized several dozen of these parents into a group known as Dargot — Hebrew for "ranks." The group meets once a month, allowing parents to pose questions to agency and Israeli military officials, as well as to meet with psychologists.

At a recent meeting, parents proudly showed photographs of their children in Israeli army uniforms. Some read letters from the children aloud.

Many immigrant soldiers — perhaps feeling the need to prove that they are as tough as their Israeli counterparts — seek difficult assignments in the army.

David Fiks volunteered to serve in a combat unit and his parents in Moscow had to give a written consent.

But few parents are complaining. Indeed, many of them say they sent their sons to Israel so that they would not have to serve in the Russian army, where violence and crime are rampant.

Two to three years of military duty is obligatory for young men in Russia.

Lev Gorelikov, Pavel's father, served in the Soviet army 30 years ago as a prison guard. He says he does not want his sons to experience the extreme conditions in today's Russian army.

Gorelikov says his 15-year-old son will follow his older brother's steps — finish high school in Israel and then serve in the Israeli army.

Oskar Loitzker, the father of another immigrant soldier, says his family cannot forget the difficulties his son had while serving in the Russian army in Siberia.

"It was almost 10 years ago, but even today my wife and I recall those two years with horror," he says.

Many of the soldiers' parents have visited Israel and have seen the difference between the two armies.

"I visited my son in the [Israeli] army and I saw how different are the conditions there," says Sergei Lyamichev, whose son volunteered to serve as a paratrooper in southern Lebanon.

He says there is a better sense of camaraderie in the Israeli army.

Recently, Lyamichev's son, Dima, called his parents in Moscow and said that his officer had invited him to his home for a Shabbat dinner.

"I just can't imagine such relations between soldiers and officers in the Russian army," Sergei Lyamichev said.