LONE SOLDIER Maksim Kolesnikov reunites yesterday at Ben-Gurion Airport with his newly arrived parents..
(photo credit: EITAN AROM)
For more than an hour before his mother arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, Slava Podgursky sat at the arrivals gate in his Israel Air Force uniform, holding a bouquet of roses.
He had not seen her for more than six years.
Podgursky is a lone soldier, a member of the Israel Defense Forces with no immediate family in Israel. His mother arrived from Russia on the first of 21 flights on Thursday and Friday that will bring family members of lone soldiers to Israel, free of charge.
The project is a collaboration of El Al, the Israel Hotel Association, the IDF Manpower Directorate, and the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers.
It aims to honor and comfort lone soldiers who participated in Operation Protective Edge and lone soldiers in general.
“I knew it would be hard [to come here alone],” Podgursky said. “But I was doing it to bring my family here, so they could live a better life.”
Though Podgursky’s family still lives in Russia, his mother and brother will nonetheless have the opportunity to spend Rosh Hashana with him in Israel.
Among other activities, they plan on attending services at the Western Wall.
More than 200 family members of 77 lone soldiers will receive free round-trip tickets and five-day hotel stays in the Tel Aviv area during the holiday period.
Lone soldiers received heightened media attention during Protective Edge after the July deaths of Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg, two Israeli soldiers who had recently immigrated from the United States.
About 6,000 lone soldiers are currently serving in the IDF, including those who are from Israel but are not supported by their parents, according to an IDF spokesperson.
Many lone soldiers, such as Podgursky, serve in the hope of building better lives for their families, but others feel a particular attraction to the State of Israel.
“When I first came here at the age of 12, I thought to myself, ‘When am I going to come back?’ ” said Maksim Kolesnikov, another lone soldier whose parents arrived at Ben-Gurion on Thursday.
Standing next to him at the airport terminal, Kolesnikov’s mother, Irena, expressed mixed feelings about her son’s military service. On the one hand, she worries about his safety, but on the other, she is proud that he has the chance to serve his country.
“The whole month that the war was going on, I was checking the news on the Internet every second,” she said, her son translating from Russian.
Like Podgursky, Kolesnikov said his transition to Israeli life and culture was a difficult one. He spoke virtually no Hebrew when he arrived, outside of common greetings like “ma nishma?” (what’s up?).
For other lone soldiers, enlisting in the IDF is a homecoming.
Lee Fmouha moved from Israel to Kenya at age 10 with her parents, and returned last year to enroll in the IDF officer’s course.
“Kenya was a great host for those eight years that I lived there,” she said. “But at the age of 18 I felt like it was time to say thanks to my host and return to Israel.”
Though Fmouha said being a lone soldier has its pitfalls – for instance, not being able to enjoy her mother’s cooking on weekends or holidays – she has seen a massive outpouring of support from Israeli society.
“The countless offers I got from people to spend Rosh Hashana was really incredible,” she said. “It’s something really special about this country.”
Fmouha’s parents received a free flight from Kenya to visit her for the first time since she enlisted.
Immigrating as a lone soldiers may not be easy, but for those like Podgursky who hope to blaze the path to Israel for their families, it is the only way.
“Somebody had to do it,” he said. “Somebody had to be the first.”