What is the costliest issue facing Israel today? A number of topics come to mind, though there is one that is almost always ignored – transitioning soldiers from the army to civilian life. This is a problem that Aba Claman and his wife, Pamela, have dedicated their lives to solving. Their two organizations Thank Israeli Soldiers and MOMENTUM are changing the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and helping to propel the future of the State of Israel.
Born in Swift Currents, Saskatchewan, to one of the few Jewish families in the Canadian town of 7,000 people, Aba Claman heard stories about Israel as a child. “My dad used to tell us that the roofs of Israel are made of chocolate, and the roads of candy,” he jokes. The family made aliyah shortly before Claman’s bar mitzvah, which he had in Israel. But after nine months, they returned to North America, this time settling in Los Angeles.
“My dad used to tell us that the roofs of Israel are made of chocolate, and the roads of candy.”Aba Calman
Claman was a supreme athlete, playing football first string as a sophomore at UCLA, when the team was ranked number one in the United States and played in the Rose Bowl. When Claman was 19, his father passed away, and he was left to take care of his nine siblings – a task for which he felt responsible as the oldest child. From there, he went to Harvard Law School and ultimately excelled in business in the aerospace industry.
As he was achieving so much success, he found himself missing something – he wasn’t feeling fulfilled. “I was very disconnected from my Judaism at the time. One day, I read the book Roots by Alex Haley about the slave trade, and I felt jealous that they had roots but I didn’t,” he recounts.
“I was very disconnected from my Judaism at the time. One day, I read the book Roots by Alex Haley about the slave trade, and I felt jealous that they had roots but I didn’t.”Aba Calman
From there, a friend brought him to Jewish classes, where he started uncovering his roots. “At Harvard, they taught us that law came from England, but I later learned that it came from the Torah,” Claman says.
As he continued studying, he came to understand that he had a religious responsibility to “try to be the best you can be.” With that in mind, he found someone else on that same path to self-perfection, his now-wife, Pamela, who was living in Israel at the time. Together they started a life in the Old City, leading him to where he is today.
Founding Thank Israeli Soldiers
CLAMAN REMEMBERS walking back from the Western Wall on a cold night during the Second Intifada. It was Rosh Hashanah, and it was also his birthday. He saw a soldier standing outside in the cold without a jacket or anywhere to go for a holiday meal. He returned home and told his wife about this sad state of affairs: “We can’t be having a meal while they are guarding us.” That was the start of Thank Israeli Soldiers.
The organization began simply by handing out food and drinks to soldiers around the Old City. It soon expanded to large barbecues across the country for soldiers. Claman would drive around setting up barbecues, delivering hundreds of thousands of packages, and thanking the soldiers for all they do. As this was happening, he realized that the soldiers weren’t feeling appreciated: “I asked two soldiers who were leaving the army how they felt. They said that they felt ‘lost.’ I asked them why, and they said they don’t know what to do next,” Claman says. He saw that while the country was doing so much in innovation, tech and defense, they were failing to ensure that soldiers were prepared for the future.
Claman partnered with an ex-soldier from Shayetet 13, Israel’s “Navy Seals,” to create MOMENTUM, an organization that helps young soldiers who are leaving the army to transition into civilian life. “Transition is the key to their success and the success of the future of the country,” he says. To that end, there are three key focus points in the program:
- The first is that the soldiers should understand that their service gave them exceptional skills. Often soldiers feel that what they learned in the army doesn’t transfer to real life. The executive director of MOMENTUM, Avi Cirt, says that “while on the surface, shooting a gun doesn’t seem transferable to the workforce, the lessons from shooting actually are, such as being precise and focused. There are many skills like this… In short, they gave a lot but also gained a lot.”
- The second point is to right the wrong of Israeli high schoolers lacking vision for life beyond the army. Unlike in most countries, Israelis go into the army right after high school, not college. As a result, they only think about the army. Cirt says, “It leaves them in a black hole of citizenship. How do they pay for buses? Get insurance? A job? We have to make sure they have a sense of what is going on.”
- The third focus point is that soldiers should feel that when they complete their military service, they are cared for. In their words, that “They served us; now we serve them.” This idea is the driving factor for the programs.
THE PROGRAM started with 200 soldiers who served in non-combat roles, but the army soon saw the impact it was having on the soldiers’ success and preparedness post-army. In 2017, the mandate switched and MOMENTUM was asked to take on the transition of combat soldiers into civilian life. This is its focus today.
An important aspect of their success is that all programming is “organic,” meaning it is conducted within units, and not by taking different soldiers from different parts of the army. “These soldiers have been through everything together, so they trust each other,” Cirt explains. Another component is that for most of the programming, they travel directly to the base rather than having soldiers meet them.
From the Golan Heights to Eilat, MOMENTUM staff travel and conduct their sessions with units. A final crucial feature is that all programming takes place while they are still in service, not after. “Once they are out of service, we have lost them,” Claman says.
The sessions began over three days, but as the army got more involved, it grew to the current five-day program. These five-day programs are different from the base visits, as the soldiers travel all over the country with their unit to reflect and plan for the future. This army initiative, aptly named Back to the Future, which started in 2019, is run by MOMENTUM and aims to connect the soldiers’ past with their future.
Focused for now on the approximately 15,000 front-line combat soldiers who finish their service every year, the five-day outdoor program is led by two facilitators. One is from the mental health sphere and one from the growth-planning sphere, where they help bring closure to their service. For the soldiers, this is usually the first time in their service that they can sit back and relax.
During the program, they begin with reflections on their service – where things went wrong and what is bothering them. Soldiers are also screened to see if they may develop PTSD after their service, in which case they are provided with therapy sessions. The second half looks toward the future. Soldiers are asked to plan out their next two years. This is critical, as it helps soldiers recognize the costs associated with post-army travel, living expenses, work and university. They are also taught skills such as making a CV, job hunting and interviewing.
LAST YEAR, some 5,000 soldiers went through the program, with 6,000 planned for this year. Ideally in the coming years, all eligible soldiers will go through the MOMENTUM program. Mostly funded by the army, the organization has more than 200 volunteers who donate their time to help the soldiers. In all, it has amounted to over one million hours donated by volunteers. The program is offered to soldiers two months before they complete their service.
Another problem is that many combat soldiers feel they aren’t qualified for hi-tech positions, as they didn’t serve in technical units. To dispel that idea, MOMENTUM works with over 100 organizations, including one that trains soldiers in tech skills after their service. To date, they have sent more than 800 soldiers to technical training.
MOMENTUM also has a robust digital presence, reaching soldiers on social media to educate them about the programs they offer, all at no cost. Much of their campaigning work is with parents to show them that the army cares about their children. This includes a recently developed online service that gives all soldiers, combat or not, access to their programming. Their office staffs 11 people full time, alongside more than 200 seasonal facilitators.
The organization is helping to end the army’s old attitude that “our job ends when they finish service” and to teach soldiers that “they are their commander now.” Many officers, roughly 4,000, complete their service every year without any post-service tools. Cirt points out that “They are the next leaders in Israel. If we invest in them, we invest in future leaders and the future of the country.”
Claman sees the soldiers as “my brothers and sisters.” He feels deeply that he has a responsibility to give back to the soldiers that give so much for the country. He and Pamela host individuals and soldiers every week for Shabbat dinner. Thousands have passed through their doors, including top commanders and leaders of the military. Claman starts each meal with the question “Do you feel safe?” Of course, the answer is yes, and he explains that “while we are sitting here enjoying a meal, there are drones in the sky, soldiers at the borders, boats patrolling the coast, all to protect us.” It is because of this that Claman feels grateful every single day.
Cirt points out that for many people, it is a lot of talking; but for Claman, he “walks the walk.” Cirt continues, “The things Aba does is beyond comprehension. Hundreds of times he has driven across the country at a moment’s notice to deliver something to a soldier. Every time he walks around, he thanks soldiers and lets them know how much he appreciates them, and he really means it.”
Moreover, for Claman it is important that soldiers know that not only do Israelis appreciate their work but Jews from outside of Israel do as well. He set up a soldier center not far from the Kotel that caters to thousands of soldiers every month, from Kabbalat Shabbat to fresh burekas and rugelach on an average day. He is sure to point out that “They serve me, so I need to serve them.”
His service has not gone unnoticed. This past month, he and Pamela were awarded the Bonei Zion award, given by Nefesh B’Nefesh and philanthropist Sylvan Adams to olim (new immigrants) who have made a strong impact on Israel.
For Claman, these issues are more than just personal, they are practical. “The average time between ending service and starting university is three and a half years. That means there are seven years between high school and higher education for Israelis. Considering the average salary over a lifetime is NIS 150,000 per year, this is more than NIS 500,000 in lost income per individual. It amounts to billions in lost potential.” He continues, “If 30% of them start university in the first year instead of the third, we would pay off the program forever.” It goes to show how much impact a program can have.
The root of Claman’s story and giving comes from the Torah. He points to a dialogue God has with himself about Abraham, rejoicing in the fact that Abraham will teach his offspring kindness and righteousness. “Kindness is being there for someone exactly when they need it most.” That is what Claman is doing – serving soldiers in the most unfathomable ways. He adds to this that at the center of it all is unity. “We are all a part of this nation, one big family.” ❖