Defending our nation’s defenders

The army not only mirrors Israel’s vast potential, but also its challenges.

By RACHEL COHEN
April 17, 2018 16:18
President and Founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

President and Founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, is seen with IDF soliders; the Fellowship is heavily invested in supporting its lone soldiers. (photo credit: COURTESY IFCJ)

 
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With poverty on the rise in Israel, some of those who serve in our nation’s defense forces must also contend with how they or their families will pay the bills, or even where their next meal will come from.

But the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (“the Fellowship”) is working hard to better the lives of some 18,000 of Israel’s most impoverished soldiers and lone soldiers (those who serve without any immediate family in Israel), so they won’t be faced with such hardships.

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Fellowship projects for IDF soldiers are implemented in cooperation with Friends of the IDF (FIDF), Yahad-United for Israel’s Soldiers and the IDF Manpower Directorate.

Last year alone, thanks to the Fellowship and through generous donations from the world’s Christian community, soldiers from lower- income families received more than $5.6 million (NIS 20m.) to meet their most basic needs.

Fellowship global executive vice president Yael Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post that Israel’s largest charitable organization is also the largest provider of aid and basic needs to poor and lone soldiers in Israel.

“Thanks to the generous support of our Christian friends around the world, we are seeing a profound impact on Israeli society,” Eckstein said. Further, “There are no strings attached, whether the funds help our soldiers or our poorest Holocaust survivors,” she added.

Eckstein believes Israel’s army underscores Israel’s huge potential.

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“The army is the best reflection of our society, it shows us our nation’s strongest and also most challenging aspects,” she said.

“You have the youth given the most opportunity, serving alongside soldiers who have come from poverty stricken homes in difficult neighborhoods, given little opportunity.

The army offers the possibility of leveling the playing field and giving all Israeli youth the opportunity to succeed – if we help them meet their basic needs.”

For the Fellowship, helping the most vulnerable in Israel’s army “is an important chance to nip poverty in the bud before it gets out of control.

Many disadvantaged soldiers end up dropping out of the army to help their families and work minimum- wage jobs and get stuck in a cycle of poverty instead of taking that one opportunity to help themselves and their families get out of poverty,” Eckstein said. “So we are ensuring that these soldiers finish the army with respect and dignity and have the ability to go on to study at a college or university and have a chance at building a stronger future.”

THE FELLOWSHIP not only provides critical resources to poor soldiers, but also small, but important, necessities. “You see these elite navy soldiers serving our country, yet with rashes on their legs because they can’t afford socks. We have a program that provides shampoo, socks, undershirts and more, and when you come from a family that is well below the poverty line, these things are a lifesaver,” she said.

“The Fellowship is so proud of the work we do and we are honored to be there for them.”

The army not only mirrors Israel’s vast potential, but also its challenges.

Just as general population statistics show one in five Israelis live below the poverty line, the army is no different.

Linor Elkayam has served as the Fellowship’s program manager since 2012 and she sees the organization’s role as more than just helping soldiers. Those who serve must be fully engaged with their mission, she said. “What kind of soldier will he or she be if they are worrying about how their family is going to pay the bills, or if they will have enough to eat? We need them to be focused on their mission so that they can keep us safe.”

“What we do is not just for them, it is for our nation’s security,” she said.

The Fellowship’s support allows the organization to mobilize quickly, providing help within 24 hours of a request. That means giving cash assistance to help a soldier buy food or other basic essentials, Elkayam added.

Much of the Fellowship’s focus is on lone soldiers. There are now about 7,700 lone soldiers in the IDF to help defend the Jewish state.

Half come from outside of Israel – the other half are Israelis who are orphans or do not have connections with their families. Sometimes support extends beyond funds as well.

“Just this morning we got a fighter stationed on the Gaza Strip border.

He doesn’t have a washing machine. Tomorrow, he will have one,” she said. “This is not something especially for him – this is a daily story.”

Elyakam knows the story only too well. She grew up in a working-class family in Jerusalem and when she was serving in the army, her father was unable to work, leaving her mother, a kindergarten teacher, struggling to provide for her family of six children.

She recalled the turning point for her and her family. “I came home for Shabbat while I was in the army and my parents told me they were in financial despair. I returned to my base and told my commander I needed to leave and take care of my family. Since I am the oldest of my siblings, it’s my responsibility. My commander just said, ‘I’ll take care of it,’” Elkayam said.

“That night, I saw an envelope on my pillow with (what is now) $56 (NIS 200) with a note that said, ‘We are here for you.’ I was moved to tears. This inspired me to apply to college. Keep in mind, I grew up not even knowing the names of our universities, and now I have a master’s degree. And thanks to the Fellowship, I am helping soldiers, just like I needed help.”

Israel’s army “is the opportunity to change your future, because you can see all kinds of levels, all kinds of people,” she added. “You are not alone, you have a system that can hold you and promote you and build your skills, more than you could do by yourself. It is life-changing.”

And today, with the Fellowship, “I really feel like I can change the world.”

This article was written in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

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