Lone soldier legacy

The deaths of three lone soldiers in Operation Protective Edge has brought the plight of the immigrant fighter into the public consciousness.

David Esses with his parents during his army service. (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Esses with his parents during his army service.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In many cities across Israel, including Jerusalem, you will come across a street called David Marcus. Marcus was an American volunteer and Israel’s first military general – and in today’s terms might be considered the Jewish state’s first lone soldier.
Born and raised in Brooklyn to Romanian Jewish immigrants, Marcus graduated West Point in 1920, went on to law school, then served in the US Army during World War II.
As part of his service in Europe, Marcus was placed in charge of liberating Nazi death camps, where he met Holocaust survivors.
The experience left a deep mark on Marcus and following the UN partition of Mandate Palestine in 1947, David Ben-Gurion asked Marcus to recruit an American officer to serve as a military adviser to Israel. Marcus volunteered himself, arriving in Tel Aviv in January 1948 as “Michael Stone.”
“Stone” then designed a command structure for Israel’s new army and planned its strategic tactics, successfully keeping the Egyptian army in the Negev off-balance and helping to secure the Jewish section of Jerusalem when the Arab armies attacked in May 1948.
At the age of 46, Marcus was killed by friendly fire near Abu Ghosh, but not before Ben-Gurion named him lieutenant-general – the first general of Israel in nearly 2,000 years, since the Jewish nation was exiled from its land by the Roman empire.
Marcus’s legacy continues to live on today through the thousands of lone soldiers who come to serve in the IDF each year, leaving behind families, friends and careers in order to contribute to the security and standing of the Jewish state.
“Today, lone soldiers come from a place of wanting to connect to Israel,” says Noya Govrin, director of the Lone Soldiers Program at Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN). “Many of the lone soldiers come from Zionistic homes; many are also born to Israelis abroad and want to return.”
“But for many lone soldiers, the connection to Israel runs deeper than just familial background; Zionism is in their blood and it is something very real for them,” Govrin tells The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. “This inspires a lot of appreciation from their fellow native Israeli soldiers, who grew up with the obligation to serve. Suddenly, they see these soldiers coming from abroad who didn’t grow up here, with this strong desire to join the army.”
David Esses, 24, is one of those lone soldiers. Born and raised in Mexico City, Esses decided to come to Israel on his own when he was 17. “To join the Israeli army was my childhood dream, growing up as a kid in Mexico.”
“I came to Israel and studied in yeshiva with other South Americans for a year before I joined the IDF,” he tells the Post. “I picked up Hebrew quickly and fell in love with this country. This is where I feel I belong.”
Esses left behind his family and older married siblings. “It’s not so common for members of the Jewish community in Mexico City to make aliya.
There is a strong Jewish community in Mexico City and a good quality of life. There is some anti- Semitism, but it is not open or violent,” he explains, speaking on his way to reserve duty.
Esses started off in the Paratroop Brigade, then moved to Shayetet 13, the naval special forces unit, where he was wounded. He went on to the Intelligence Corps and in total has served in the IDF for five years.
“The army is very different from what I first expected. I found my community here and met Israelis from all over the country. But there were hard moments, too – like when parents come to visit their children on base and bring food for them for the weekend, or the IDF ceremonies where you wish your own parents could be there to see you,” he says.
“As an Israeli, there were many elements to the army that I knew about because I grew up here,” explains Govrin. “For soldiers who come from abroad, everything is new – including the language – and this places them at a disadvantage. In our program, we do everything we can to help these lone soldiers find the right place in the army, as well as with army bureaucracy.”
“We also match lone soldiers up with Israeli families – and there are many of them who are willing to adopt lone soldiers. Just today, we matched a girl from South Africa who is enlisting in the army with a family from Haifa. But many soldiers opt to be fully independent, living in an apartment on their own or joining a kibbutz,” adds Govrin.
For Esses, the Friends of the IDF surprised him following his completion of the Intelligence Corps officers’ training course three years ago. The FIDF flew his parents in from Mexico for the ceremony, where they joined the thousands of other parents proudly watching their children. “It was a really important moment for me, and very moving to have my family there to see me reach that point in my army service,” recalls Esses.
NBN’s Lone Soldiers Program was established in 2012 alongside the FIDF. As noted on the program’s website, it provides a holistic solution that offers guidance, support and care for lone soldiers coming from abroad during all stages of the process.
“What makes our program unique is that we prepare the soldiers even before they set foot in Israel,” notes Govrin. “We guide and support them from abroad, during their aliya, the drafting process, throughout the army service and after the army service is completed, by helping them find employment.”
ANY MAN who makes aliya from 18 to 25 years of age must serve in the IDF, with the shortest amount of time being six months and the longest 30 months; for women, the age range is 17 to 20. A new immigrant begins the process of receiving lone soldier status six months before enlistment, when they are notified to meet with an army social worker, who will provide the appropriate documents. Once lone soldiers receive this status, they are eligible for financial support, housing assistance and extra vacation time, including one free flight to their home country to visit their families for 30 days during their period of service.
As for monthly payments, lone soldiers in noncombat units receive NIS 866 a month, while combat soldiers receive NIS 1,230; combat soldiers with seven months of advanced training receive NIS 1,618 a month.
In the past, the Lone Soldiers Program focused only on those who had made aliya from North America and England. But two years ago, the program was expanded to include lone soldiers from all over the world, and today assists those from 58 countries – including Morocco, Kenya, India, Estonia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The largest contingents of lone soldiers come from North America and Russian-speaking countries.
In total, there are 2,800 lone soldiers who have come from abroad to serve in the IDF, out of 6,000 who were also granted the status due to family estrangements and other issues.
NBN also works in conjunction with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, MEITAV, Garin Tzabar, Mentor for Life and other organizations aiding lone soldiers.
During times of war, the NBN program adapts itself to the times and provides support to the parents of lone soldiers as well. “We have an open hotline 24 hours a day, every day of the week since the war began. When parents call about their kids, we can’t tell them what is going on with their sons in Gaza because we don’t have that information, but we do calm the parents down, explain how things work and listen to the concerns. We also give them any other army contact information they may need,” says Govrin.
“Just the other day, we got a call from a concerned mom in Florida who was worried about her son – he wasn’t picking up the phone and she wasn’t getting through. We knew he wasn’t in Gaza, so we called him up and relayed the message that he better call his mom back. He did, and his mom was so happy to hear from her son.”
When asked how parents of lone soldiers generally view their sons and daughters joining the IDF, Govrin says that for the most part they are supportive. “We see all kinds of parents; some want their kids to finish their college degree first before joining, other lone soldiers join without their parents’ consent. But the majority of lone soldiers have their parents behind them.”
Benji Davis from Los Angeles is a former lone soldier, whose decision to join the IDF didn’t surprise his parents. “I was proud of him and felt it was a good idea if he wanted to live in Israel, in order to integrate and make connections,” his father, Steve, tells the Post. “We expected him to make aliya, he has wanted to since he was young.”
Following Benji, his sister Gaby also joined the IDF, in the Garin Tzabar kibbutz absorption framework.
“We couldn’t be prouder of both our kids,” adds their mom, Julie. “I believe our children’s growth in the army was something that Steve and I could never have given them here.”
Davis attended lone soldier Max Steinberg’s funeral in Jerusalem on July 23, after the fellow LA native was killed battling Hamas in the Gaza Strip last week, as were two other lone soldiers – Sean Carmeli from Texas and Jordan Bensimon from France.
Davis spoke of the brotherhood that is felt among lone soldiers and their unique connection with the Jewish world. “Max’s passing reminds us that the IDF is not just the Israel Defense Forces, but the army for all the Jewish people, an army that defends Jews from all over the world.”
REBECCA BASKIN, originally from Toronto, is another former lone soldier who served as a basic training instructor in the Israel Air Force; she also attended the funeral of Steinberg. “It was really important for me to be at the funeral because Max was one of us, even if I didn’t know him personally. As lone soldiers, we are a community that supports each other,” she says.
Baskin volunteers for the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center and serves as deputy director of the Jerusalem branch. The nonprofit was created by former lone soldiers to help current ones, both during their military service and when they have completed it. Baskin organizes social events for them, including Shabbat dinners, barbecues, marathons and fun days.
“We also help furnish the apartments of lone soldiers and move in furniture – everything from a fridge or washing machine to a bed or couch that people have donated to help them out,” Baskin tells the Post.
The center also provides soldiers with assistance right before they enter the battlefield, bringing clean socks, underwear, food and shampoo, among other items, and words of encouragement. At this time, volunteers are bringing goods to lone soldiers stationed both along the Gaza Strip border and in the North.
“Lone soldiers are an inspiration to all of us,” concludes Govrin. “They bring a very strong and timeless message with them – that the Jewish state is our home and will be defended, even by those who didn’t grow up here.”