Last month at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, I felt as though I was completing a cycle. I was there to support my younger sister, Lior, as she embarked on her aliya – a journey that begins with the Garin Tzabar ceremony.
She is starting on that same journey that I made five years before.
In Hebrew, garin has a few meanings.
The first is a seed from which things grow. The second: a tight-knit group of individuals living together, supporting each other and growing into a family.
Garin Tzabar is a less conventional way of making aliya. The mainstream way is to go through Nefesh B’Nefesh, a program that supports new immigrants as they plunge into the depths of Israeli society and bureaucracy. Garin Tzabar is a program that takes the process a few steps further and supports olim in their drafting process. The program is specifically designed to help lone soldiers enlist and find their place here in Israel.
The program started in 1991 when a group of eight Israeli-American teens from San Francisco involved in Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) felt they wanted to fulfill the movement’s goals and make aliya and enlist in the IDF. Together, they were absorbed into a kibbutz and created the Tzofim Garin Tzabar program.
Today, this program absorbs around 400 young adults every year, placing them in supportive communities around Israel and supporting them through their army service. The Garin program aims to provide something that these Zionist teens left at home: family.
The three-month program includes basic ulpan for learning Hebrew; critical bonding moments within the group; army bureaucracy management; and general familiarization with the new “landscape” these olim now face. The program’s main goal is to create a support system for the olim to fall back on when faced with challenges in their army service that are especially difficult for lone soldiers.
A lone soldier in Israel is an active military soldier who either has no immediate family in Israel or in some cases, has immediate family in Israel but has no contact with them. Tzofim Garin Tzabar is a program for the former type of lone soldier.
GARIN TZABAR alumna Roni Gat steps onto the stage to host the ceremony.
Originally from Los Angeles and currently an officer in Shayetet 13 (the elite naval unit), she opens the ceremony by sharing some of her experiences, recalling that on the day she was drafted, “Everything was different – even the smell was different.”
She encourages the young olim by prompting them, “Look to your left, now look to your right, realize this is your new family. The garin is your family no matter what.”
MK Michael Oren takes the stage and recounts some of his more difficult experiences as a lone soldier 40 years ago.
On his enlistment day, he didn’t know he would need socks, so he came without them and collected stray ones he would find throughout his service just so he could have socks. Such were the conditions of lone soldiers in Israel in his generation; fortunately, conditions have greatly improved.
Oren says that the IDF has over 7,000 active lone soldiers today and though the conditions have gotten better, they are still not perfect. Lone soldiers receive a small housing allowance, a slightly higher salary than their native counterparts, a host family and some furniture from the army – things deemed “basic necessities.”
In spite of the difficulties ahead, Oren assures the soldiers, “You are a lone soldier, but you will never be alone.” This motif repeats itself throughout the ceremony, every speaker ending their segment with that very phrase.
The life of a lone soldier is challenging.
In my own garin we experienced issues with things like food, transportation and laundry. Sometimes we would go back to the army with wet or dirty clothes. Often members of my garin did not want to share such hardships with their commanders, but some did. When the garin members spoke to the soldiers serving as NCO social workers), they were greeted with great support. Another solution to our problems was to turn to Tzvika Levy.
Known as “the father to lone soldiers,” Levy works in coordination with the army and with caring civilians to get lone soldiers desperately needed basic necessities. Along with many other groups, he works day and night to help lone soldiers find solutions to their problems, but it is a great task with too little support.
The kibbutzim where much of the Garin Tzabar program is implemented are a major open door and open heart to lone soldiers. Aware that absorption of these soldiers is no small task, the kibbutzim accept the youngsters into their homes and take responsibility for their lives. The kibbutz members become extended family – from feeding the soldiers all the way to attending major army ceremonies to cheer them on.
The secretary general of the kibbutzim praises this work on stage, finishing his speech with a cry for help.
“Although they happily accept the responsibility, the kibbutzim are having a hard time carrying the burden by themselves. I encourage more kibbutzim and communities to participate in the absorption of these extraordinary individuals.”
Many aspiring Zionists land in Israel, are handed a T-shirt and pose for a group photo. This happens on the “aliya flights” that Nefesh B’Nefesh sponsors to bring olim to Israel. The olim are met with singing and dancing, praise, congratulations and hope.
Then the celebration is over and the olim go to their new homes. They unpack their belongings and begin to try to acquaint themselves in the new surroundings.
They will eventually meet their “first Israeli.” A few minutes into the conversation with this legendary creature, the Israeli asks, “What are you doing here? Wasn’t your life in [country of origin] better? Why do you need this mess?” At the ceremony, I was humbled by some of the responses to such a question and awed by the diversity of backgrounds.
Meshi Mizrahi, 19, from New York grew up in the Jewish community and was a member of the Tzofim youth movement. She participated in a mechina pre-army program alongside Israelis and “decided as the year went on, it was clear that this was what I wanted to do, it was right.” Mizrahi has some extended family in Israel.
Jeremy Reiner, 23, from Washington, comes from a very different situation.
His family was the only Jewish family in their town while he was growing up and he had little connection to Israel until his Birthright trip.
On Birthright, he “fell in love.” His goal was “to walk the streets and speak Hebrew.” His younger brother stood by him at the ceremony, with the prospect of joining the Garin Tzabar program in the future.
Yishai Adam, 19, spent his childhood in many different countries. Though he was brought up in “an Israeli household,” Adam feels that he will feel “welcomed by a new family here in Israel” and “wherever he goes he will be greeted with a glass of water and a slice of bread.”
One of the audience members, Noam Baltinester, 23, from San Diego and a Garin Tzabar alumnus, was also attending the ceremony to support his younger sister as she began her quest to become a soldier. Baltinester himself has no regrets about his decision and completely supports his sister, Reut.
I asked him whether he pushed his sister to follow in his path. “No,” he replied.
“If it is something she wants to do wholeheartedly, she has to do it for herself. If she does it for anyone else, she may have a bad experience.”
When asked to give advice to his sister, he says, “No service is ever perfect; you have to take what is hard and learn to grow. Be easygoing and understand the military – they’ll put you where they need you, it’s a huge machine and we are all small parts of it.”
President Reuven Rivlin made a point of saying, “Every year there is at least one lone soldier who receives the Presidential Excellency Award. These individuals are a unique class of people, whose ideology puts others before themselves. To me, that’s the purest form of Zionism.”