In 1993, at the age of sixteen, I came to Israel alone through the NAALE program, which provides Jewish high school students worldwide the opportunity to study in Israel. Most of my fellow classmates and many NAALE graduates made aliya after high school with their families following at some point.
After high school I enlisted in the IDF Telecommunication Corps as a computer instructor, a position which was then very rarely open to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Though it was not combat service, I wasn’t able to leave during the week, and not even every weekend, because my team was working all over the country.
As all my family was still in Russia, I was defined as a Lone Soldier.
I had at that time only a few distant relatives in Israel whom I visited on some weekends when I was allowed. Twice a year my family, my parents and my lovely little brother and sister, came to visit, which was like a huge vacation for me.
My time in the IDF was very precious to me and I was extremely proud to wear the khaki of an Israeli soldier and to defend the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, it was not an easy time for me, being far from home, family and friends.
However, this is the life of a Lone Soldier, someone who gives up the familiarity of everything they know to defend their ancestral nation.
JFK’s famous and passionate appeal “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” is at the root of many lone soldiers’ principles when serving in the IDF, even though many were not born or raised in Israel.
Like me, around three-quarters of lone soldiers come to Israel without their parents. The rest have families in the country who are unable to support them financially.
Lone soldiers came here to fulfill their responsibilities toward the nation state of the Jewish people, one that our ancestors dreamed and pleaded for daily. They do their duty in quiet determination as they rise every morning defending our country and its people, sometimes thousands of miles from where they were raised.
The State of Israel goes far to ease their transition to their new country and army, and many special dispensations are given, including receiving between NIS 2,600 and 3,500 per month during their service.
However, the moment the lone soldier is released, he or she faces a very different reality. While other soldiers may return home to a warm embrace, a place to live and a financial safety net, the released lone soldier has few of these things, and on many occasions is left to fend for themselves with an uncertain future.
That is why the legislation proposed by Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovski to set up a new fund for recently released lone soldiers that will receive NIS 12 million a year ($3m.) and will disburse an extra NIS 1,000 ($250) a month for a year to them following their release, is vital.
The legislation, which has the firm backing of both Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, was motivated by the desperate stories of many lone soldiers who upon being released from the army were left in dire economic straits.
This extra stipend will help them integrate into Israeli society, as well as better recognize the contribution they made to Israel. According to a report by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, half of lone immigrants chose to leave Israel immediately after their service. Of the half that chose to stay, another third left a short time thereafter.
This should be a source of shame that those who joined the IDF, frequently when they are not obligated to do so, are not able to find their place in the country that they put their bodies on the line for, or at least gave up years of their lives for, when their contemporaries overseas may be beginning their college education or traveling the world with few worries.
As Malinovski said: “We have a moral responsibility as a society and a state to take care of lone soldiers who served in the IDF and want to live here. These are good, loyal citizens and we must be grateful that they chose to serve and contribute to the state.”
These words and this law, far beyond the material benefit of the extra stipend, are an acknowledgment of their sacrifices. They are meant as a warm embrace and a message to Diaspora youth who entertain the possibility of enlisting in the IDF and making aliya.
Through this law, Israel is saying to you that we understand your enormous sacrifice and we will be there with you, not just while you serve this nation, but, perhaps even more importantly, when you need to find your footing and the structure, food and regiment of the army has finished.
They simply asked what they can do for their country, now the country must find ways to give back to them. This law is an excellent start.
The writer is CEO of World Yisrael Beytenu, member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization and former adviser to Israel’s prime minister.