Legend has it that on May 21, 1948, three Palmah fighters seeking to holiday on the Tel Aviv beach set out from Jerusalem following an old goat trail. Walking through the night, the three skirted the Arab positions laying siege to the city, and eventually arrived at Kibbutz Hulda on the southern coastal plain.
Immediately afterward, 150 Palmah fighters retraced the route, this time from west to east, and the Burma Road was born - a clandestine conduit for food and supplies that bypassed the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway and broke the Jordanians' blockade on the city.
Thursday, on Jerusalem Day, 170 lone soldiers - with countries of origins as diverse as their predecessors in the rag-tag Palmah forces that liberated Jerusalem in the War of Independence - were treated to jeep rides on the Burma Road on a symbolic journey up to the capital, in an event sponsored by the Beit Kobi Foundation. The soldiers immigrated to Israel without their families and have since enlisted in the Givati Brigade, one of the IDF's most respected combat units.
In March 2002, Kobi Ichelbom, a fighter and commander in the Givati Brigade, was killed in action in Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. That July, inspired by Kobi's own words - "It is not difficult to become a good soldier, with a home and family like mine. The real challenge is to take someone who has a tough life and elevate them" - his mother Aviva established Beit Kobi, or "Kobi's House," which provides apartments and/or adoptive families for 250 lone soldiers during their entire service.
Aviva beamed with pride when she spoke of the foundation's two furnished apartments in Modi'in and an apartment in Givatayim, which include washing machines and dryers so the soldiers can wash their uniforms while home on leave.
Thirty families cook for the soldiers and invite them for Shabbat and holiday dinners. The soldiers can live with adoptive families, but as Aviva said, "These are very independent young men, demonstrated by their coming to Israel alone, so we do give them their space in their free time as well." Aviva was especially proud of the fact that many of the soldiers remain in contact with their "new families" for many years after completing their service in the IDF.
Racheli Maron, director of social projects for Mirs Communications Limited, who volunteered dozens of personnel to assist in the event, said: "We like to contribute more than money, instead coming as volunteers where we can interact with these special soldiers."
"There is nothing like coming home from the base to be spoiled by Mom after a stretch in the army," said Sheni Shynuk, echoing Maron's sentiment. Shynuk took a day off work to take the soldiers up the trail in his 4 x 4. Having served in Givati himself in the late 1990s, he said, "I can't even imagine what it would be like to return home to an empty house."
"These soldiers leave their families and come to Israel to serve not because they have to, but because they want to," he added. "They honor the uniforms they wear, and this is the least we can do to show our appreciation for their sacrifice."
Besides the jeep rides, the soldiers were pampered with massages and treated to a barbecue and live music show at Ein Hemed. Typical of their modest perspective towards their exceptional service, some like Michail Harpaz, 21, originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, was somewhat embarrassed by the treatment.
"All my friends are in the desert doing exercises, and tonight they have a difficult march, and they pull me out so I can go on a jeep ride and get a massage... it doesn't seem right."
When asked the one question every lone soldier hears without end, "Why?" Israel Klerstein , 20, from Mexico City, simply smiled and pointed to the limestone-encrusted hills of Jerusalem rising above the forest in the distance.