Behind the Lines: Serving from the heart
Nahal’s southern base is home to a growing number of lone soldiers for whom the term ‘armchair Zionists’ is alien.
Ethan Snyder Photo: IDF Spokesman
Deep in the eastern Negev desert, in Tel Arad, lies the Nahal Brigade’s training
base, home to the highest number of lone soldiers in the IDF.
years now, young Jewish men born around the world have arrived at the base of
their own free will, out of a deep commitment to contribute to Israel’s national
Each of the volunteer soldiers from North America, South
America and Europe represent a unique story. But all of them have one thing in
common: an unwavering will to translate a love for Israel into tangible
“They’ve been coming here from all over the world in growing
numbers,” Lt.- Col. Yisrael Shomer, commander of the base, told The Jerusalem
Post this week.
Many hear about the Mahal program, designed to allow
volunteers to realize their ambition, through the Internet or from peers who
have completed their service, Shomer says.
One of those soldiers is
20-year-old Ethan Snyder, from Los Angeles, who has completed his basic training
and is about to begin his advanced training course.
“I thought it was
unfair for Israelis to face military service alone while Zionists [outside of
Israel] didn’t have this burden,” he says. After visiting Israel for the first
time on a Young Judaea program at age 18, Snyder felt an overwhelming connection
to the country and decided to volunteer for military service.
my family was pretty amazed,” he says.
After learning more about the
program, Snyder’s mother came around to accepting his decision.
says he found the training’s difficulty level to be reasonable. “In the army, we
learn that time is holy. To make the most of our time,” he says.
one big family here,” Snyder adds. He says he is looking forward to aiding the
country’s security in a few months’ time, when he will take up an operational
“These soldiers are searching for a soft landing in Israel. They
know the service will be as hard for them as it is for Israeli soldiers. But
they are seeking – and find – comradeship early on in the process. This is what
creates the pull,” says Shomer.
The commander admits that even he is
occasionally amazed by the level of commitment he has seen during his time on
the base. “We had a 27-year-old guy from Brazil who became a conscript. I
had to ask myself, ‘What is he doing here?’ The answer is that he wanted to
serve the country, to protect the nation,” Shomer says. “Every year, we see guys
This year, as in the past, dozens of lone soldiers have
arrived from the US, Brazil, Britain, France, Belgium, Peru and other countries,
without close relatives in Israel.
The volunteers enter a tough phase of
basic training. “We make no allowances for them. But we do receive them a little
differently,” Shomer explains.
The IDF provides the lone soldiers with
access to support officers, who help get them set up with living quarters,
typically in a kibbutz.
The officers also ensure they have all the food
they need, as well as sufficient funds, and watch over their integration
On weekends and holidays, when Israeli soldiers go home to their
families, the support officers locate families to host the lone
Like all the other soldiers, the new recruits set out on
increasingly long runs while carrying heavy packs that gradually get heavier.
They undergo firearms training for a variety of weapons, eventually going on to
master heavy machine guns and long-range arms. They also attend classes on the
IDF’s values and spirit.
“Later, they begin nighttime training. The
difficulty increases over a four-month period,” Shomer says.
completing basic training, the soldiers enter phase two, advanced training,
which lasts three months. They are then sent as units to the field to defend the
borders. The Nahal unit has recently been securing the Israel-Egypt border under
the IDF’s Southern Command, and has been on continuous security missions in West
Bank locations, such as Nablus, under the IDF’s Central Command.
serve like all the other infantry brigades, such as paratroopers and
Some 15 percent of Mahal soldiers go on to become professional
soldiers, taking up roles such as unit and squad commander. Others go on to make
aliya, Shomer says. Some, however, choose to return to their home countries.
Those who stay receive IDF assistance in getting scholarships at universities.