On a kibbutz back in the early 1970s, when I was just embarking on my Israeli adventure, I found my way to the cemetery.
Nestled among the rows of the fragrant vineyards, it told part of the story of the collective community, especially of early hardships like malaria and typhus.
Then, in the southwestern corner, in a slightly raised area, I noticed a long row of identical graves, each with a headstone lying like a pillow at the top of a bed. This was the cemetery’s military section, the final resting place for some two dozen IDF soldiers who had been killed trying to open the nearby road to Jerusalem during the War of Independence.
There was missing information on some of the headstones – a date or place of birth, the name of a father or mother, in one case even the soldier’s full name aside from what was perhaps just a nickname.
These men, some really just boys, literally had been fresh off the boat from post-Holocaust Europe, all alone in a new land, a rifle quickly thrust into their hands and a one-way ride to battle for the struggling, nascent state.
Men and women like this were perhaps the epitome of the lone soldier, today an official Manpower Directorate category defined according to IDF Regulation 35.0808 as any unmarried conscript from abroad who prior to coming to Israel was not subject to conscription and whose parents and married self-sufficient siblings continue to reside outside the country’s borders.
These soldiers are eligible for benefits ranging from monetary grants aimed at helping them maintain a household outside the military framework, to free overseas phone calls, extra time off to run important errands and special leave for a long-distance family visit. A committee can also grant this status to the children of emissaries posted abroad, and even to those conscripts who “live alone for any other reason.”
I was a lone soldier. It wasn’t so bad for me because I had the kibbutz. Still, on those many weekends I was confined to base I’d gaze at the sun going down as I walked (or marched) to Shabbat dinner, imagining my family 6,000 miles and seven hours to the west, remembering the special dinners in the dining room, Mom lighting candles, Dad reciting the kiddush over the wine and my sister the blessing on the halla. The next day, I’d look wistfully at the guys heading out to the main gate to meet families that had come with a picnic lunch. Even when one of them invited me to tag along, which was often, it was never like being among my own family no matter how good the food or pleasant the conversation.
And believe me, I felt it.
The army can provide only so much assistance to the lone soldier. In times of war, an exhausted young man or woman on leave is also in need of someone to do the laundry, lay out a hot, homecooked meal or simply provide a listening ear. For these little extras, whether it’s a package of good old junk food or family hospitality or just the twinkle of an eye, there are people like Joan Kedem.
Kedem, 77, grew up in south London, where she was a member of Habonim, the Zionist youth movement. Her mother and father were active in the local synagogue, and during and after the war they cared for Holocaust survivors.
“My parents had a rule that one never, ever closed the door on anyone, with a kippa or without, rich or poor,” she says. “I follow that rule today.”
In 1960, a trained kindergarten teacher and pregnant with her second child, Kedem, her husband and son made aliya. Today, with four children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, she lives in Jerusalem, where she is a member of Moreshet Yisrael, a congregation in the center of town.
“Fourteen years ago Rabbi Ehud Bandel, then the president of our Masorti [Conservative] Movement, came to me and suggested that we set up a program for lone soldiers,” she relates. “We took the concept to our board and since then we have been actively involved in caring for these young men and women. We couldn’t do what we do without the ongoing support of our rabbi, Adam Frank, our synagogue and our movement both here and abroad.”
The congregational project started out with 20 lone soldiers. Today there are 250, not only in the IDF but also in the Border Police. There are even a few from the haredi community who have been disowned by their families for choosing to serve in uniform.
“We endeavor to reach them all with presents and supermarket coupons that allow them to buy what they need for the festivals, and for difficult times such as now,” Kedem explains, referring to Operation Protective Edge. “We are there when needed. All have my home telephone number and that of Moreshet Yisrael. In many cases, we have been able to help them when they find themselves in financial difficulties.”
The relationship does not necessarily end when the soldier completes his or her service.
“We decided some years ago, when they had already completed their army service and were beginning to study, to keep them within our program,” she says.
“That way I have become ‘grandmother’ to many, many young children.”
It is a way, she says, of acknowledging sacrifices that do not necessarily come out of obligation.
“I believe that we Israelis recognize with honor the choice made by those who are serving and have served, and are willing to pay the price of dying for our country,” Kedem concludes. “We are Jewish. We care. We live here and are proud to be Israelis.”
The turnout of many, many thousands at the funerals of lone soldiers Sean Carmeli, Max Steinberg and Jordan Ben-Simon, three of the young men killed in Protective Edge, show that the wider public also appreciates this.
They came after support groups initiated hurried campaigns via social media and other forms of communication, for there had been fears that only a few people would show up to pay their respects.
That possibility always ate at me while in uniform. Yes, I had the kibbutz. But not only was I a lone soldier, I had no relatives in the country. Not a one. Worst of all, the IDF, in its blockheaded, bureaucratic way, provided only enough space on its conscription forms for my first name and the first two Hebrew letters of my middle name, David. It then lumped the two names together so that on my dog tags I was officially “Lawrencedo Rifkin.”
Obviously, if it came to that this would also be the name on my military grave and, as ridiculous as it might sound, I was deeply troubled by the possibility that no one, including my poor mother, would be able to find me.
There are close to 6,000 lone soldiers currently serving in Israel’s army and security forces, and there are numerous organizations that help them, either as a primary mission or as part of a basket of wider services. One is the Lone Soldier Center (lonesoldiercenter.com), named for Michael Levin, a 22-year-old Philadelphia native and lone soldier who fell in 2006 while fighting in the Second Lebanon War with his paratroop unit.
Any initiative that helps our soldiers is a worthy cause. But there are some young men and women who need a little extra assistance, even if it’s just a warm word, a note of gratitude or a hug.
So support them.
These lone soldiers will thank you. Then they’ll return to their job of protecting you, and they’ll know they’re not alone.