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.

July 12, 2012 22:06
3 minute read.
Ethan Snyder

Ethan Snyder 370. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)


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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.

For several 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 security.

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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 action.

“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.

“At first, my family was pretty amazed,” he says.

After learning more about the program, Snyder’s mother came around to accepting his decision.

Snyder 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.

“We are 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 role.

“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 like that.”

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 process.

On weekends and holidays, when Israeli soldiers go home to their families, the support officers locate families to host the lone soldiers.

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.

After 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.

“They serve like all the other infantry brigades, such as paratroopers and Golani.”

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.

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