lone soldiers 248 88.
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With 2,500 of them in the IDF, Israel's lone soldiers - servicemen and women whose families are outside of the country - comprise a significant, yet often overlooked component of Israeli society.
Kadima MK and former defense minister Minister Shaul Mofaz, along with the head of the IDF's Personnel Directorate Avi Zamir, praised the sacrifices of these lone soldiers at an event in Tel Aviv Wednesday celebrating five years of the Jewish Agency's Wings program.
Wings supports hundreds of lone soldiers during their time in the army and smooths their transition into life as Israeli citizens.
"The thing that has always moved me most in Israel, and what I consider to be the core of our country, is our soldiers," said Mofaz. "And when you consider what these lone soldiers give up to come here and serve, it's doubly moving."
And yet, as recently as five years ago, the Wings program did not exist. It is funded by the Merage foundation, whose founder, David Merage, left his family in Iran to move to England as a teenager.
"For Israel to bring these people here to join the army and train, there must be a continuation to the process after they are released," Merage said. "Five years ago, we wanted to tell 150 lone soldiers about this program, and we couldn't even find them - they had changed addresses too many times. Today, we don't have to search for them anymore."
In addition to serving as a network for the lone soldiers, Wings provides various workshops on life in Israel after the army.
Eric Spitzer, a Los Angeles native who joined the IDF a year after finishing high-school eventually becoming a commander, said that Wings fulfilled an important role in the realm of aliya aid.
"Ten or 15 years ago, the problems of lone soldiers weren't understood; they weren't looked at as carefully as they are today," said Spitzer, who was discharged from active duty three months ago after four and half years of service. "I've learned how to write a resume for the Israeli job market, how to translate what I did in the army into civilian life."
Spitzer contrasted Wings to the IDF's release conferences for lone soldiers, which he had a difficult time attending since he was a commander.
"The release conferences were not on the same level," he said. "Those were more motivational; they'd tell us that we're capable of more than we think, and it was all very general. Wings gives you an idea of which direction to head in, what you're interested in, what you're good at. It's more practical, and they're more aware of your own personal needs."
Another focus of Wings is to encourage lone soldiers to attend university in Israel for which the program provides scholarship assistance.
On the subject of providing soldiers with a college education, Professor Dan Ben-David, executive director of Tel Aviv University's Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, told the gathering that there had been sharp shift in Israeli development in the mid-1970s, and that had Israel's quality of life continued to rise - as it had through the 1960s - it would have caught up with the US by the early 1980s. But Israel's rate slowed dramatically, and the gap has only gotten larger.
"Israel is more of an anomaly than any other Western country that I have ever encountered," Ben-David said. He tied this phenomenon to a shift in focus away from higher education.
"The IDF needs to understand this disturbing trend," he said. "And the country as a whole needs to provide all of its citizens with the tools they need to be forward thinkers and continue their education."
Merage hopes that Wings can help in this area. "We have to encourage the lone soldiers to attend university," he said. "When you leave the army, you ask yourself, how do I go to school? How do I get a job? How can I build a business? There wasn't enough support for this transition, and that's what we're trying to fix."