Categorized | Middle East, Philips_Erin, USA

Lone Soldiers’ mom alternates between pride and worry

Ari and Zachary Schuster

Ari and Zachary Friedman


By Erin Philips

Erin Philips

Erin Philips

SAN DIEGO – Karen Schuster remembers when her son, Ari Friedman, now 23, told her he was moving to Israel to become a combat medic with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It was 2012, and he was a student at UC Irvine, where he had been a leader among the Jewish student population during his two years on campus. But his heart belonged to Israel, where he had spent a gap year after high school participating in a Young Judea program. He wanted to stay, but Schuster had pleaded with him to come home and get his degree first. Ari reluctantly agreed. “I didn’t know how much time I had, but that’s when I knew he was going to go back to Israel and make Aliyah and he was going to fight,” Schuster said.

During his time at UCI, Ari frequently drove to LA to meet with visiting Israeli dignitaries to petition them to let him join the medic program. At the time, the position was open only to those who had graduated from an Israeli high school. One day Ari called Schuster from school and told her that he had signed himself out. At that point, Schuster realized she had to let him go. “That’s when I knew either I’m going to support him, or I’m going to lose my relationship with my child. Which is more important? Win or lose, I’m behind him one hundred percent.”

After putting in an extra year to perfect his Hebrew, Ari passed test after test to prove he could be a medic. His hard work and the time he had spent advocating for himself paid off; he was allowed to join the Netzach Yehuda Brigade as a combat medic, even though he had not graduated from an Israeli high school.

Schuster’s younger son, Zachary Friedman, 21, followed his brother to Israel in 2011 on a gap year program and never returned. He was drafted straight into the IDF as a combat soldier with the Gavati Brigade. As a Negevist, he carried a machine gun and protected the commander.

With two sons in Israel, Schuster has plenty to worry about. “I turn my fear to pride,” Schuster said. “Which is why I’m constantly bragging about them. Because if I don’t do that, I’m incapacitated. Because you don’t know when the phone call is going to come.”

Schuster grew up in Orange County and moved to San Diego from New York with her sons in 2001. As her boys were growing up, she instilled a love of Israel in them. “We’ve always been Zionistic,” she said. “I always tried to teach them the difference between being religious and how important the land of Israel is, the homeland. Without it, no Jew ever has a chance anywhere in the world.”

Ari and Zach have been in Israel now for two and three years, respectively. Schuster and her husband, Fred, have gone to visit several times. Schuster messages the boys via WhatsApp constantly and sometimes she doesn’t hear back from them for days. On Schuster’s last visit to Israel, a rabbi told her that his son had died in Ari’s position and that she should be prepared. “It’s always in the back of your mind that something irrevocable is going to happen, that you can’t take back,” Schuster said. “But what do I want, mama’s boys? No. I did not raise them to be mama’s boys. This is how I raised them and this is what they did. So, it’s hard. It’s very hard.”

Schuster relies on her family for support, and says her involvement with Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) has helped her greatly. The organization’s purpose is to support IDF soldiers and veterans, and families of fallen soldiers. The FIDF also supports Lone Soldiers from all over the world.

Schuster has experienced first-hand the importance of FIDF’s work. In August 2013, Zachary was injured; his arm was almost completely severed. The Lone Solider program was there immediately to make sure he received the best care possible, including the best surgeon, extra food and money throughout his rehabilitation, and transportation to and from physical therapy. Zachary did everything he could to build his profile back up so he could return to active duty in January 2014. “I never thought in my life that I would want my child to be reunited with his Negev,” Schuster said. “I was out of my mind that they took his gun away from him. It was worse than if he was going through a divorce. That is his identity.” Zachary was honorably discharged in June 2014 after completing his volunteer service. He is currently in the process of making Aliyah and waiting to be redrafted.

Ilan, Ari and Zachary’s younger brother, is 11. Schuster said he misses them and he can’t talk to them on the phone because it hurts him too much. But he is incredibly proud. Ilan said, “I’m happy for them, but since they’re adults, they can do whatever they want. To me, I’m sad, because I never get to see them, but I have to push through it, because I don’t have any other choice.” Ilan wants to follow his brothers to Israel and join the IDF as a sniper.

Schuster’s biggest fear is that one of the boys will be kidnapped. “Two-thirds of my children live in the hot spot of the world. And I have no control over them at all,” Schuster says. “I wanted them to be able to be independent, go anywhere in the world, be able to take care of themselves, know who they are. And then I know that I’ve been a good mother. But it’s hell.”

Schuster is a member of the event planning committee for the upcoming FIDF fundraiser, Music Brings Us Together: San Diego Community Salutes the IDF. The concert features IDF Chief Cantor Lt. Col. Shai Abramson and the IDF Choir, and salutes the soldiers who served in Operation Protective Edge during this summer’s 50-day war with Hamas. The event takes place on Tuesday, October 28th at 7:00 PM at the Balboa Theatre and all proceeds go to FIDF programs. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit


Philips is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts.  She may be contacted via [email protected] 


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