Family matters: Wings to fly and reasons to stay

Last week she became the third enlistee to commit suicide this year among those who come from abroad, by themselves, to serve in the Israeli army.

May 29, 2019 20:02
Family matters: Wings to fly and reasons to stay

Mikey, Max, Gamliel and Alena on the celebrated balcony of the Jewish Agency building where David Ben-Gurion stood on November 29, 1947, as the UN voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state which they have now come to defend.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Michaela (Mica) Levit was a lone soldier, and apparently a desperately lonely one as well. Last week she became the third enlistee to commit suicide this year among those who come from abroad, by themselves, to serve in the Israeli army.

Some reported the incident as an indication of an encroaching epidemic. Others, including the Israel Defense Forces, denied there is any upward trend in this tragic phenomenon. But all concurred that the occurrence was heartbreaking, and that multiple support systems for these young, idealistic Zionists, prepared to sacrifice life and limb for the welfare of Israel and the Jewish people, are critical to their well-being and successful integration into the military and, eventually, civilian society.

There is, of course, always more that needs doing, but the good news is that there are already myriad programs and platforms dedicated to providing this assistance run by the army, government ministries, the Jewish Agency and a variety of NGOs. They offer everything from mental health hot lines to dedicated housing units, social clubs, financial aid, counseling services and adopting families.

To better understand what it means to be one of the more than 3,000 new immigrants serving in the IDF at any given time without firsthand familiarity with the cultural milieu their comrades in arms grew up in, without a family to come home to on weekends, and without that all-important network of friends and relatives to lean on, I recently sat with four veterans of the experience.

All of them have been taken in by “Wings,” a Jewish Agency initiative that, together with its pre-army preparatory programs, provides thousands of new immigrants from more than 40 Jewish communities around the world with a continuum of services from the time they first arrive in Israel until a number of years after their release from the IDF.

Appreciative of the passion and ideology that motivate these young people, the staffs of these programs are nonetheless well aware that these alone do not make for a successful absorption. Accordingly, they are there to help prevent these gutsy and spirited new arrivals from falling through the cracks, and to catch them if they should, providing a safety net woven of a range of resources and activities.

Gamliel Attalan arrived in Israel from Paris at the age of 17 with the express purpose of enlisting in a fighting unit. As a low medical profile disqualified him from that, he began his service with the military police. Refusing to give up on his original dream, however, he was finally allowed to train as a combat engineer after 16 months of stubborn campaigning, and ended up as an officer in the prestigious Yahalom unit. Today he is at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studying economics, political science and philosophy.

Alena Salodkaia knew she wanted to serve in the IDF from the age of five, after seeing a news broadcast in her native Siberia about the Israeli army drafting women. What her parents dismissed as a joke for years, Alena turned into reality at the age of 18. During her army service she trained as a dental assistant, and will soon be studying interior design at Shenkar College.

Max Kresch came to Israel from Detroit and studied in a Jerusalem yeshiva before joining Garin Tzabar, a nucleus of lone immigrants who plan on enlisting together as lone soldiers. He began his military service in the Egoz unit and trained as a combat medic. He is currently at the Hebrew University aspiring toward a degree in engineering.

Michael (Mikey) Soclof immigrated to Israel from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He enlisted in the Nahal Brigade, went on to become an officer, and completed his tour of duty as a lieutenant in the Armored Corps. He’s now married to Samantha, also a lone soldier when they met, and is studying geography at Hebrew University.

I listened to the four of them for hours, and came away inspired by their dedication, heartened by their enthusiasm, and strengthened by their resolve to continue fulfilling the Zionist dream. Following are excerpts from our conversation, which reflect their idealism along with a measure of nuance born of their demanding encounter with the most down-to-earth reality of Israeli life imaginable.

Mikey, Max, Gamliel and Alena on the celebrated balcony of the Jewish Agency building where David Ben-Gurion stood on November 29, 1947, as the UN voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state which they have now come to defend. (Credit: WINGS)

If you’d known before your decision to join the army what you know now, would you have done it anyway?
Gabriel: Without a doubt. The person I am today was forged by the challenges I had to deal with during this amazing period of my life. That includes self-confidence and absorbing the fullness of Israeli culture. Also, having this common army language allows you to feel completely a part of society day to day.
Alena: Yes, it’s a crazy experience that teaches a lot about life. It taught me to see the world from a different perspective, to accept responsibility and to know how to manage in different situations. Knowing that I was giving something of myself to the country was essential to the fun and enjoyment I had being in the army.
Max: I would have made sure that, going into the army, I had a very secure support network. My experience was extremely difficult due to the fact that my garin fell apart.
Mikey: Without a doubt. I still see my service as an absolute privilege, and remind myself that not too long ago, many were desperate for such an opportunity to defend themselves. Being able to salute the flag in uniform to this day is one of my greatest achievements. While there are plenty of areas to be improved in the army, I take the same stance as I do with the State of Israel on the whole. It is our responsibility to create the change we hope to see, and not to quit when the going gets tough.

Some who serve as lone soldiers decide to leave Israel once they’ve completed their army service. Do you believe you are here to stay?
Gamliel: I know I’ll stay here, no matter what. I don’t feel comfortable in any other country the way I feel here. In France, considered to be a democratic and rich country, I don’t like wearing a kippah and reading the media that’s consistently hostile to Israel.
Alena: With all my love and respect for Russia, which gave me a great education and culture, with all the beauty and nature of the place where I was born, I say yes, absolutely, I have no other country but Israel.
Max: For the time being, I have no intentions of leaving. With that said, I am open to the idea of living in other places if opportunities arise, but Israel will always be my home.
Mikey: I want to believe so, and the answer is very likely yes; but if there’s anything I learned during that time in my life, it’s that you can never truly predict what will happen next. One of the best lessons I learned as an officer was that it’s impossible to always make the right decision. What’s important is to know how to decide things and to take responsibility for the choices you ultimately make.

Is Israel today the country you thought you were coming to when you decided to make aliyah?
Gamliel: I love the love for Israel that can be found here and always being hosted by people you don’t even know. It hurts, though, to see so many people who prefer to see a half-empty glass. I didn’t expect to see people opposing Zionism and bothering soldiers doing their service.
Alena: The truth is that I never thought about that question. I just went straight into the army without thinking about how it might be. But what’s there to think about? Israel is special!
Max: Growing up, I was part of a religious and very Zionistic community. The idea of Israel as the home of the Jews was always romanticized, and I would say it put unrealistic pictures into my head. At the end of the day, just like people live their lives in America, they live their lives here. The thing that I find really amazing is the holidays; in America you don’t really feel them so much. Here, even the Arab bus driver will wish you a hag same’ah.
Mikey: After a gap year in Israel, I joined the IDF originally as a Mahal volunteer. The decision to make aliyah was made after a pre-army gap-year program of discovering many of the social complexities our nation deals with, and after experiencing training and command in the army. I like to think that I made an educated decision based on my experiences, but the truth is there is still much about living here that I have yet to understand. That being said, “Ein li eretz aheret” – I have no other country. The strong sense of belonging and completeness I feel from being in Israel is still unmatched by the feeling of being anywhere else.

LONE SOLDIERS raise their protein shakes at a Wings sports program. (Credit: WINGS)

Do you have any words of wisdom for young people today who might be considering coming to Israel to join the army?
Gamliel: As a soldier, I felt that the vital values of Zionism have been lost among the new generations of Israelis. Living here in the Land of Israel is taken for granted by many, and it must not be allowed to happen. It’s impossible to describe how the State of Israel constitutes a complete miracle. As a Jew, to be a part of this story is an exceptional opportunity that one could only dream about 70 years ago. Things that happen here don’t happen anywhere else in the world – an entire country stops breathing for two minutes when the siren sounds on Remembrance Day, and the atmosphere on Yom Kippur.
Alena: I wholeheartedly recommend joining the army. It’s a great school for self-discovery. I agree it might not be right for everyone, but serving is for a short period of one’s life (what’s two years anyway?!) and it’s an amazing experience offering unparalleled opportunities.
Max: Make sure you are joining for the right reasons. The army will not fix your problems or mold you into a new person. It will take the person you are and amplify it, the good and the bad. It will test you at your most extremes. With that said, it is also crucial that you have a strong support network. Behind every successful soldier is a massive support network, and it’s impossible to thrive in the army without it.
Mikey: Many of the things that will challenge you the most are not ones you can prepare for. For this reason, it’s important to have a strong resolve and reasoning for making the decision. It’s equally important to remember that it’s okay and even a good idea to allow that reasoning to change and evolve as you learn and grow throughout the experience. While I originally joined to “defend the Jewish homeland,” it was difficult to use that as a motivator while standing guard over a stack of toilet paper for three hours in the heat. Later on, I realized the importance of setting an example for my Israeli peers, soldiers and future lone soldiers – that it is an absolute privilege to serve in the IDF. Leading by example, and setting the bar as high as possible for yourself, began as a new motivation in the army, and now translates into a life lesson I take with me forever.

GAMLIEL, ALENA, Max and Mikey, born and bred in the Diaspora, imbibed while growing up an all-encompassing sense of belonging to the Jewish family and an overpowering sense of responsibility for protecting its home.

Though it was the Dalai Lama who said, “Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay,” it might just as easily have been spoken by any of Israel’s leaders. Roots, lone soldiers are given by those who raise them, and “Wings” by the Jewish Agency and others. Now to each of us falls the task of ensuring that they have “reasons to stay” – not only by extending a welcoming hand, but by holding fast to the ideals on which this country was built, that they have come here to defend.

The writer serves as deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency – 44 years after serving in the IDF as a new immigrant himself. The Jewish Agency is the ongoing story of Israel and the Jewish people. “Family Matters” tells that as it is, one chapter at a time.

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