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After three years of fundraising, research and planning, representatives of the Ra'anana-based Benji Hillman Foundation laid the cornerstone last week for HaBayit Shel Benji, a home for lone combat soldiers.
HaBayit Shel Benji is the work of relatives of Maj. Benji Hillman, an IDF commander killed in battle on July 20, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. Just three weeks previously, Hillman had celebrated his wedding to Ayala, his longtime girlfriend.
Also present at the groundbreaking ceremony were Vice Premier and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, Ra'anana Mayor Nahum Hofree and local community leaders. In a moving speech, Ya'alon told the crowd that "heroism was a way of life" for Hillman, who was "among those who [were] not afraid of the hard road."
Born in London, Hillman came to Israel at age four, when his family made aliya. The Hillmans settled in Ra'anana, where Benji grew up. Described by close family as a modest young man, Hillman, a company commander in the elite Egoz unit, was an outstanding leader who cared deeply for his soldiers and inspired great respect among them.
Daniel King wrote The Jerusalem Post's tribute to Hillman following his death, calling him "the absolute model of a committed Jew and IDF commanderâ€¦ The needs of his soldiers took precedence over his own, and in battle he always led from the front."
Saul Rurka, Hillman's first cousin, explained how the young commander's close family and friends had established the Benji Hillman Foundation in August 2006.
"We decided we had to find a way to continue Benji's legacy with a project that would capture the essence of such a fine person, who gave everything to his soldiers," Rurka said.
The family chose to continue Hillman's legacy of caring for hayalim bodedim, or lone combat soldiers.
"These are heroes who guard our country and defend and protect us," said Rurka in his speech at the groundbreaking ceremony.
There are about 2,500 lone combat soldiers serving in the IDF, many in high-risk areas along the northern border, near Gaza or in Judea and Samaria. Lone soldiers are usually new immigrants or young men and women from severely underprivileged backgrounds. Serving under such tough conditions without a supportive network of family and friends in Israel, they face many hardships during their IDF service.
Without a family to go home to, a weekend's leave becomes an exhausting logistical nightmare for lone soldiers. Canadian oleh Ben Cates, a former lone soldier, explained that lone soldiers could stay on a kibbutz or with a host family, but kibbutzim were often located far from their bases, and the soldiers sometimes found it hard to integrate into kibbutz life.
Also difficult are basic activities like laundry and food shopping.
"After 28 days of service - even more than that during wartime - all you want is to go home and rest," said Cates. Lone soldiers just don't have that option.
"It's impossible to fit in laundry, food shopping, everything on a Friday before everything closes down for Shabbat," he added.
Cates explained that apart from these logistical difficulties, lone soldiers also suffered without the warmth and loving care of a real home in Israel.
Rurka emphasized that HaBayit Shel Benji would provide such a home - "a real home, not just a house." Resident soldiers will receive individual care and attention from a resident house mother. There will be hot meals, leisure activities, a library, laundry and gardens. Immigrant soldiers will benefit from computers and a call center, enabling them to keep in touch with family overseas.
In addition, the young soldiers will have the chance to make friends and build their own social and support networks. Unlike on a kibbutz, where soldiers might feel isolated, "HaBayit Shel Benji is in Ra'anana, a city in the center of Israel, so lone soldiers will even have the chance to go out, to make friends and feel connected," Cates explained.
The Ra'anana community will continue its involvement with the project, with local families "adopting" lone soldiers. These "adoptive" families will offer love and attention whenever needed, and even attend army ceremonies - all the things that lone soldiers so dearly miss.
This sort of loving care is priceless to a lone soldier, explained Cates.
"This way, the lone soldiers will be a part of the local neighborhood," he said. "They will get to know people here. And that's a really big deal."
Lone soldiers' difficulties don't end when their mandatory army service does. Particularly for new immigrants, integrating into mainstream Israeli life post-army is tough. Large numbers of lone soldiers leave Israel after their army service and return to their countries of origin.
Rurka explained that HaBayit Shel Benji would also reach out to these soldiers after they had completed their service. The project will include a guidance center offering post-army assistance, teaching the soldiers about their education and employment options after the IDF - a service open to all lone soldiers, not just residents of the home.
Cates agreed that this was an essential part of the project.
"There's a big problem with olim who go home after the army," he said. "But it's not surprising. Soldiers go suddenly from having a salary and a structured life, to having nothing. It's an overnight change."
Even for soldiers who have families in Israel, this is often a challenging time. For lone soldiers, these challenges are compounded by having no family home where they can stay while they sort out their post-army lives.
"Lone soldiers have to find a job, or figure out what to study - and integrate into Israeli society at the same time," Cates pointed out. "All this without support from their family."
Rurka believes HaBayit Shel Benji's guidance service will help reduce the numbers of lone soldiers leaving Israel after the army, and assist them in building a future here.
"The idea is to keep these young men and women around, for their own good and for the good of the country," he said.
The sheer dedication of Hillman's family and friends in raising the funds for the project has been impressive. Rurka, a "serial entrepreneur" with a background in hi-tech, has redirected his talents and energy into making HaBayit Shel Benji a success. The Benji Hillman Foundation team has raised $2.5 million in three years.
While many of these funds have come from US and UK foundations, HaBayit Shel Benji has captured the imagination of the Ra'anana community, which has turned out en masse to raise cash for the project in three sponsored walks. The Ra'anana Municipality and mayor have supported the project from the beginning, including donating the land on which the center will be built.
Hofree agrees that this is an important project for the city.
"Benji Hillman offered a great deal of assistance to lone soldiers during his military service," said Hofree. "It is a great honor for us to continue in his path - by helping and guiding these lone soldiers who serve the country without the nearby support and assistance of their families."
The groundbreaking ceremony was a major milestone for the project.
"Today marks the beginning of the next stage," declared Rurka, emphasizing that the foundation still needed more funds to start building.
The project requires $400,000 for equipment and building materials, some of which can be donated.
For more information about the project, visit www.benjihillman.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.