The Jerusalem Post and Nefesh B’Nefesh are pleased to launch a new project: “Meet the Oleh.” Every month, we will bring you the stories of immigrants, including lone soldiers and families; aliya employment tips; information about the “Go North/ Go South” programs and more.
Lone soldier St.-Sgt. Abigail Blas is a dedicated, energetic and caring commander in the IDF Artillery Corps.
In addition to leading a team of soldiers entrusted with the protection of Israel’s citizens, Blas is a 22 year-old modern Orthodox born-and-bred New Yorker.
Blas says she is “very proud to be serving in the army. I feel like I am representing the country.”
She notes, “People feel safer when a soldier is around.”
She “always wanted to make aliya,” even though she was unclear about when the right time would be.
“I always thought about Israel, and wanted to learn more Hebrew. Even before kindergarten, I asked my dad to teach me, and ever since I was in grade school I have been learning Hebrew. We always talked about Israel at home. We knew Israel was the place for the Jews.”
Her first visit to the country was at age two, followed by “an eighth-grade trip,” and then “high-school trips and summer camps, once every other year.”
“My [maternal] grandparents [who came to Israel from Poland and Afghanistan] left to America, but we have a lot of family in Israel,” she says.
Growing up in the United States, Blas saw “Nefesh B’Nefesh ads to do aliya, to help you make aliya.” As a high-school senior, she met with a representative “to discuss what aliya really was and when would be the best time.”
But it was while she was on her Masa Israel “gap year” program at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv (on Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, near Beit She’an), which encourages its graduates to contribute to the state and to the advancement of Jewish society, that she made up her mind.
When Blas told her parents of her decision “to make aliya and join the army, they were not at all surprised,” she says. “They knew that this was something I had always wanted to do. They were not given the opportunity that I was at age 18 to start my life in a new country and really follow my own dream.”
Blas explains that she made aliya directly to Kibbutz Beit Rimon in Lower Galilee, sent there by Garin Tzabar, a lone-soldier program for new immigrants.
“From the very first moment Nefesh B’Nefesh were very helpful,” she says. “We had these seminars in the spring before making aliya, and they helped me join Garin Tzabar.
“Obviously it’s an unfortunate reality that we need to have an army,” Blas says, “but the fact is that we do and it is amazing.
“Our army is really strong, and the soldiers are very dedicated. We go in at age 18, when in the US you would send your kid to college. In Israel, you are given a gun and sent to fight in the field.
This really changes you; you mature and learn a lot about yourself. It’s a very important experience.”
Receiving a weapon during basic training, she explains, was “hard, very scary. The first time I had to shoot in training, I was really nervous. I stopped for a second and thought: This is a gun and this can shoot and kill. Then I reminded myself that it is just part of my uniform. I hope that I will never have to use it, but it makes the uniform stronger. It strengthens the soldier, shows how powerful they are; I think it makes them more confident.”
Her decision to become a commander “really came all on its own,” she says.
“I did regular combat [eight months] training, and then commander’s training. I didn’t think before I was drafted that it would be something I would be confident to do, but then I realized I could go further, and it kind of just happened.”
In her artillery combat unit, there are four commanders for every 20 soldiers.
With only a few months until she is discharged in July, Blas says, “It’s amazing how the whole country really loves soldiers. People on the street tell you ‘kol hakavod’ [bravo] and ‘be safe.’” She notes that, particularly to lone soldiers, “Israelis are so welcoming. They invite you over even if they don’t know you. People invite you for Shabbat – I always have a place to stay.”
As a lone soldier, Blas says she has missed out on “advantages other soldiers take for granted” such as a mother’s hug upon returning from base, home cooking and someone to do their laundry.
“I come home on weekends and I don’t have my parents there to talk to about my week (I only see them once or twice a year), to complain to, to express my feelings to.”
Nevertheless, she appreciates the maturity and independence the experience has given her, as well as the moral support of friends and officers.
“I have a different support group. I live with 10 other lone soldiers whose week looked just like mine, who are going through the same challenges and experiencing similar army stories.”
Blas also misses her brother, 23, and her sisters, 19 and 17.
“It is not easy. My three siblings and I went almost two years without all four of us being in the same place together.”
Even from afar, however, they are very encouraging, she says.
“They love coming to my ceremonies, and they are so proud when they tell their friends about me. Even friends of theirs who don’t know me ask them how I am, and particularly during the Protective Edge operation in 2014 they were worried and very interested in my life.”
Last Thanksgiving, Blas did find an original way to have dinner with her entire family, though.
“I Skyped my family as they sat around the dining table eating turkey,” she says.
“I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that I was sitting on my bed on base, in uniform, but I am extraordinarily lucky to have a family who supports me and is proud of me, and always has my back.”
This Independence Day will be Blas’s last as a member of the IDF. She says she is always moved by the Remembrance Day siren on the night before, “when everything stops and we remember the fallen,” and she loves how the mourning morphs into celebration.
Referring to the experience of friends who have already finished their service, she says, “You go from being a lone soldier to realizing you are like any other Israeli. The army is no longer your support system.”
Once her stint in the IDF is over, Blas plans to “work and travel a bit and then get a degree in Israel.” Just like any other Israeli.
Although a little wistful at the prospect of moving on, she is also “very excited to start non-soldier life after two-and-a-half years,” and will fly to the US right away to visit her family.
“Looking back,” she says, “it has been a big accomplishment.”
■ In cooperation with the IDF and in partnership with Friends of the IDF, the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program was established in order to assist and support the brave young men and women who choose to serve in the IDF, regardless of their country of origin.
There are currently 3,000 Lone Soldier immigrants serving in a range of positions in the army, without close family in Israel. For these soldiers, military service is a challenging and empowering experience. However, this challenge is often accompanied by difficulty acclimating to military service and an independent life style in Israeli society.