The telltale signs are there – you just have to know where to look. When you enter Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue on the first Friday night of each month for a special dinner for close to 200 people, you might be forgiven for assuming that the people you see are just another youth group here on a visit to the Holy Land. But under the tables laden with Shabbat delicacies lie M-16 assault rifles. And then there are the unmistakable standard issue military green jackets on the backs of a number of chairs. These are no tourists.

It’s no secret that life in the military can be an arduous experience, but while Israeli soldiers can look forward to their “off” weekends when they get to go home, relax and eat warm meals with their families, lone soldiers often do not have the luxury of having a family in Israel that they may return to on their furloughs.

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There are currently more than 5,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, and although they come from countries around the world, they share much in common. All serve in the IDF voluntarily without the crucial support of their immediate family, and many speak Hebrew as a second language.

While the army does formally recognize lone soldiers and affords them certain benefits, such as a higher salary and an additional day each month to go home and take care of their responsibilities, it remains hard for soldiers from abroad to cope with the added stress of trying to adapt to life in a new country at the same time as serving in the military.

Instead of taking the well-earned opportunity to “crash” in a proper bed for the first time in two or three weeks as their Israeli counterparts do, lone soldiers have to deal with the mundane chores that they have been unable to attend to while serving their country. Whereas an Israeli soldier’s family is able to take care of their child’s finances and laundry in his absence, soldiers coming from abroad find that large chunks of their weekend are taken up by these basic tedious responsibilities.

Enter the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. “Four months ago a group of about 100 soldiers from Kfir were listening to a lecture by a rabbi in our shul,” explains Asher Schapiro, the synagogue’s chairman. “I walked in at the end to hear 100 soldiers responding to ‘Barchu’ [a part of the Jewish liturgy recited at morning and evening prayers] together.”

The powerful experience triggered something within Schapiro. “It occurred to me that these soldiers experience personal problems while serving the country, and I ended up doing a little research on it. I found out that these very devoted young women and men often need a little help, and so I spoke with Rabbi George Finklestein and the board of directors about reaching out and offering our hand in friendship to them. They were all very enthusiastic and the membership were very supportive, too, and readily came forward to help fund the project,” he explains.

“We contacted the Michael Levin Memorial Center for Lone Soldiers run by Tziki Aud and consulted with Nefesh B’Nefesh and decided to host a group Shabbat meal here in our own hall. We expected maybe 50 soldiers to show up for our first event, but 150 soldiers made reservations. The following month we hit closer to 190 soldiers,” Schapiro adds.

The Lone Soldier Center, founded by Tziki Aud, Josh Flaster and Jared White, aims to provide critical support to lone soldiers. Flaster, director of programming and outreach, describes his own experience as a lone soldier and his reasons for creating the center.

“I was a lone soldier. I lived through the ups and downs of life as a lone soldier,” he says. “During my service, the greatest help I received was from other lone soldiers who knew of places to live and helped me receive my rights in the army. Based on our shared experiences, a group of us came together to create a center where lone soldiers would be able to receive advice, get help finding an apartment and receive invitations to Shabbat meals.”

The result is that once a month, the synagogue’s main hall hosts close to 200 past and present lone soldiers. Visiting family members and spouses are welcome too. “They are all invited. The soldiers can bring wives or parents, whoever. We want them to feel at home here,” remarks Schapiro.

Schapiro is at pains to point out that, “Although we are a traditional synagogue run in accordance with Halacha, we ask no questions of the soldiers. They come, and we provide. There is no coercion, no attempt to impress any particular approach – we absolutely respect our guests.”

The event is met with universal approval by the soldiers. After all, who can say no to a free meal?

“The food is delicious, and it’s such a rejuvenating experience after three weeks in the army without a break,” says Yoni Steinberg, formerly of Pittsburg, who has just started his basic training to become a combat soldier. “It’s wonderful to be reminded that people care about us and appreciate our service.”

Another soldier, Koby Stern, a Brooklyn native now serving as an officer with the armored corps, is grateful for the opportunity to meet friends old and new. He tells how even when he has time off from the army, “It’s not as if you know many people you can go hang out, grab a beer with – your social group is very small, as you come from abroad.”

Stern says that he “heard about this event from Nefesh B’Nefesh – I have someone there who calls me on a regular basis to check up on me, and she mentioned that there was this event in the middle of Jerusalem, the city I live in, for lone soldiers to come and enjoy a traditional Friday night meal together. The atmosphere here is perfect. The army is a huge part of all our lives – you can’t avoid talking about it, and sharing with people who are going through the same experience as you is nice. As soldiers we all have a common experience and the conversation turns naturally to our lives in the army. We don’t need to explain things to one another – we all understand and it makes for a great evening together. We are all so grateful to Tziki – he’s a father figure to so many of the soldiers here.”

Although current and past lone soldiers are invited, people who are considering joining the IDF are invited, too. “I found it very useful – I had a lot of questions to ask but didn’t have a lot of information,” explains Naomi Greenbaum of Southfield, Michigan. “I’m seriously considering joining the IDF in the near future, and it is very encouraging to look around at all these other people. I’ve asked current soldiers at my table and learned a lot.” 

Motti Schnitzer, who serves in the IDF spokesman’s unit, confirms this. “I’ve been able to give advice to a lot of guys – it just comes out in conversation. They were sitting at the same table as me, and so we exchanged valuable information.”

Schnitzer, originally from Antwerp, Belgium, adds, “We all go through difficult periods in the army, and so events like these make us feel appreciated and help us remember that it’s not for nothing, that the job we’re doing is extremely important.”
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