A hundred lone soldiers are beginning their journey with the IDF through the Garin Tzabar program, following their welcome ceremony at Kibbutz Avivim on Wednesday.
These lone soldiers came to Israel from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland and Thailand.
Founded in 1991, Garin Tzabar helps young Jews and Israelis living abroad who want to return to Israel to serve in the IDF.
The ceremony was held in cooperation with the Israel Scouts youth movement – which, with over 80,000 members, promotes Zionist education with an emphasis on leadership and social responsibility – as well as the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency.
“I am happy that I made aliya, although it’s not easy,” said 23-year-old Jenna Tabachnik from Florida. “For many of us, this is a dream come true.
We always felt that these are our people and this is our state, and we now have the opportunity to join the army and play a significant part in protecting the State of Israel and its citizens.”
The Garin Tzabar program requires participants to serve a minimum of two years in the army, and provides them with housing and support. According to the program, upon their arrival in Israel, participants are “adopted by an Israel community that quickly becomes their home away from home, throughout the duration of their army service.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post following the ceremony, 23-year-old Michal Hubert of Long Island said the program had “the best framework for getting into the system and not falling through the cracks.
There is always support for you, and that’s important.”
Hubert hopes to become a combat instructor in March, following three months of ulpan and preparation, because it would provide her with “great leadership skills and be a very interesting and meaningful service.
“I know that with the help of the Garin Tzabar staff and fellow participants, my absorption and preparation for army service will be meaningful and enjoyable. The connection we make with one another will be life-changing,” she added.
Eighteen-year-old Lena left her family in Bangkok to join the IDF as part of the Garin Tzabar program. She told the Post that she hopes to become a combat soldier or fitness instructor.
“My parents are proud of me.
My mother, who was born in Kenya, came to Israel with no support,” she said. “And while I will miss my family, I am excited.”
There are currently 2,700 lone soldiers who came to Israel as part of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldier Program, which, according to its website, was created with the “goal of providing assistance and support to new immigrants who are required to serve in the IDF.”
The program, in cooperation with Friend of the IDF, cares for the participants from before they immigrate to the pre-recruitment period, during their active military service and after they complete their service and are released and need to adjust to civilian life in Israel.
During their service, lone soldiers are entitled to additional assistance from the state, including monthly living stipends, discounts on electricity bills, exemption from municipal taxes, rental assistance or lodging provided by the Association for the Well-being of Israel’s Soldiers, and extra financial support for combat soldiers.
Once they complete their military service, lone soldiers receive a onetime lump sum of NIS 6,000, the option to live for three months in a soldiers dormitory and preparation and financial help to complete their matriculation and psychometric exams.
But with no help or guidance through Israel’s bureaucracy, daunting even for those born in Israel, they face challenges with little or no assistance. And that has led to a significant number leaving Israel once they are done with their service.
According to a report by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, half of lone soldiers left Israel immediately after completing their military service. And of the half that stayed, one third left shortly after.
On Tuesday, the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee stated that according to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, about 25% of lone soldiers left Israel following their service, because of a shortage of housing and the lack of government help in regard to grants and scholarships.
Yair Hess, the executive director of Hillel, said that the amount of aid given for housing has not changed in 20 years and that “it is impossible to rent an apartment with the help of the army,” forcing Hillel to step in to help.
Limor Mizrahi, the head of the Lone Soldier Department of the IDF, responded to Hess, saying that the aid given to a lone soldier for housing would increase at the beginning of 2017 from NIS 1,046 to NIS 1,300.
But even with an increase in financial support, according to Tzipi Nachshon Glick, a representative of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, there still are several obstacles for lone soldiers who receive housing subsidies, including the fact that many landlords do not accept rent from the state.
MK Yulia Malinovski (Yisrael Beytenu) said that “the army has a responsibility toward the troops and particularly after their release. It is the duty of the IDF to provide the tools for civilian life."