Open letter from a lone soldier

At the end of the day, the lone soldier wants to be able to say when it comes to Israel, “I matter, I made a difference.”

SOLDIERS WALK at night during a training mission.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
SOLDIERS WALK at night during a training mission.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I really wanted to just sleep in this morning but the Sunday morning shiva minyan (prayer service during the first week of mourning) started at 8:30 a.m. We heard the tragic news of the death the other day of lone soldier Michaela “Mika” Levit. What can anyone say to the parents and family of the 19-year-old young woman whose own dream was to return and serve in the IDF and now seems to have taken her own life? These stories are always awful. This time the tragedy hit close as the family lives nearby.
It is never easy to pay a shiva call, and frankly miserable in this circumstance. Among the first customs Jews kept thousands of years ago were those dealing with bereavement. In order to “say” Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), Jewish custom requires a quorum, or minyan. We are not meant to mourn alone. To “comfort the mourner,” to be menachem avel, is a very big deal. I needed to be at this minyan, I needed to say “amen” during Kaddish for the Levit family.
I never met Mika Levit or her family until that day. On my way to the shiva house, I realized that in and outside Israel most of our community knows what a lone soldier is, but they know nothing about being a lone soldier. There are two basic types of lone soldiers: Israelis drafted into the IDF after high school, who for personal or other reasons have no contact with their parents and family fall into one category. The second are young men and women who immigrate to Israel with the express purpose of serving in IDF.
The lone soldiers I write about here are the latter. They haven’t grown up in Israel, they don’t have close family in Israel, and they are as likely to leave the country or stay in the country after their service is done. These lone soldiers are living where their bed is, but it isn’t home. Being a lone soldier is hard, you have to really want to do this. What the lone soldier gets out of their service is not something that can be monetized. It could go on a resume, but likely very few will understand what it means. At the end of the day, the lone soldier wants to be able to say when it comes to Israel, “I matter, I made a difference.”
I am the father of three lone soldiers. During each of their IDF services, I did my best to help and guide them through difficult situations. I was also a lone soldier, which gave me important insight. I was an informed parent and was able, in small part, to help each cope with the difficulties they ultimately faced. I was able to anticipate and work with each of my children to resolve small problems before they become big ones. I couldn’t prevent injuries, depression or a thousand other things that can and did come up.
Ultimately, they each had to make their own decisions as to not just where they served, but how they served. What I tried to impress on each one was how they served would define their experience.
The lone soldier is an idealist, a dreamer, and is likely older and has lived a very different life than the 18-year-old Israelis he is serving with. Imagine being in brutal training conditions, often in the field, serving with folks you just don’t connect with, subjected to constant sleep deprivation while being exposed to the elements, bitter-cold in the winter to insanely hot in the summer.
DURING THEIR basic training they are exhausted, hungry, wet, stinky and confused. Did you forget your gun in your bunk? Did you lose your beret on the bus? Did you fall asleep on guard duty? A yes to any of these is all your 19-year-old commander needs to punish you by canceling your weekend pass or worse.
Time has a very different meaning as a lone soldier. Even when you leave base, when you aren’t being punished, you still can’t begin to understand the absolute loneliness you can feel when you are on that bus going “home” to your empty apartment. This is the life of a lone soldier, and it can be a recipe for disaster and heartache.
I was 22 when I was drafted. I think there were 12-15 lone soldiers total in the IDF then, and I knew 10 of them. I am exaggerating of course, but not by much. Our “rights?” Well, we had the right to feel out of place while living our dreams. We had the right to be in big trouble if we ever got sick or injured. My IDF service was the tale of two books. I ended up somewhere in between the idealism of Yonatan Netanyahu’s Self-Portrait of a Hero and the brutal insanity of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. You’d have to have been a lone soldier to understand. While we all want it to be like Yoni it is almost always more like Yossarian.
If you have never served you don’t know what it’s like to be so exhausted that you fell asleep standing up while riding on a bus. You can’t begin to understand what it is like to be in your dress uniform on the bus or walking around town. You can’t begin to understand what it is like to be in basic training and have no family at the Western Wall for your induction ceremony, no family to share your beret ceremony with you and no family to share the final ceremony where you earned the unit pin that is worn on your uniform over your heart.
Was it worth it? Ask any lone soldier how they felt the first time someone shouted “chayal!” to them when they were in uniform.
Lone soldiers don’t forget the empty apartment or empty refrigerator, or the unwashed clothes and uniforms when they came home from base for Shabbat. The difficulties, the sacrifice – you remember all of them. The saying goes that anything of value has a price. As hard as it was, if I could go back I wouldn’t change anything. Till my last breath I can say, when it comes to Israel, I matter, I made a difference. My kids know that being a lone soldier is the greatest honor I ever had.
I couldn’t stop crying during services this morning. I lost it each time Kaddish was said. I had to turn away and get myself together, I had to wipe the tears away. Please, why is Mika’s father saying Kaddish for her? We failed her. I failed her. I know I’m not the only one with a broken heart today.
When services were finally over this morning, I went up to Mika’s father. I told him that I had been a lone soldier and that my three kids were lone soldiers.
I looked into his eyes, choking up, I said: “Your daughter, Mika, is also our daughter.”
Hamakom yenahem etkhem betokh sha’ar avelay tzion viyerushalayim. May the Almighty One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
The writer is the son of a ham salesman and his grandpa sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan. The answer to his Yid-life crisis was to leave the private sector for Israel advocacy.