Celebrating Thanksgiving Day with lone soldiers

Meet the brave young immigrants defending the nation, and the center that assists them

HITORERUT CITY councilman Elad Malka (photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
HITORERUT CITY councilman Elad Malka
(photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
IDF soldiers and US Marines joined together for turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings on Thanksgiving Day, November 28 at the annual Lone Soldier dinner, hosted by Jerusalem’s Lone Soldier Center, founded in 2009 in memory of Michael Levin. Lone soldiers, mostly from the US and other English-speaking countries, mingled and enjoyed a live band, a full-course Thanksgiving meal and speeches from elected officials and supporters.
The center offers assistance to the approximately 7,000 soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces who are immigrants or for other reasons have no family support.
Among the US Marines attending the event was Gunnery Sergeant Juan Mendezflorez, who has been stationed at the US Embassy in Jerusalem for almost a year.
Like the Israeli lone soldiers, he and his men do not have the benefit of family in the country.
“It’s difficult, but they understand the mission,” he said of his fellow Marines, whom he said formed a kind of family while stationed abroad.
In normal circumstances, an IDF soldier comes home approximately every other week and can take vacation days for holidays. Weary soldiers can do their laundry at their parents’ home if need be or perhaps get a hot bowl of chicken soup when sick.
The Lone Soldier Center provides support for soldiers who cannot come home.
Mendezflorez, who was previously stationed in Vienna, has served with the US Marines for 15 years. He said his men have received several Thanksgiving invitations from Americans living in Israel, stating, “We get love from not just the embassy community, but from the local population as well.” He said the Lone Soldier Thanksgiving dinner was a rare social interaction and of late they have been starting a dialogue. “Two weeks ago they joined one of our fitness tests and we had a blast,” he told In Jerusalem.
Mendezflorez stood on stage and thanked the LSC, shaking the hand of CEO Oren Hason.
“At the end of the day, I serve the US military and we have to be neutral,” he said, but added, “If you learn why the host nation does something, then you can understand why things are happening.”
Some lone soldiers are new immigrants – olim – or in the process of making aliyah. About half of the lone soldiers are Israeli-born. Some may be orphans or come from broken homes. Others may come from families who oppose army service due to religious or ideological reasons and have disowned them.
Michael Levin, in whose memory the center is named, was a Jewish-American who died in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which Hezbollah rained missiles down upon Israel’s North. Levin’s dream was to create a center for immigrant soldiers like himself.
Aryeh Lightstone, senior adviser to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, spoke at the event and introduced the US Marines. Speaking to In Jerusalem at the event, Lightstone said lone soldiers help strengthen Israel and, in turn, help strengthen the US.
“I am in awe,” he said of both the US and Israeli soldiers, “I never had the courage to do what they do on a daily basis. They are all heroes.”
He said the relationship between the two countries and between soldiers of both militaries is beyond politics.
“Being pro-Israel is an American value,” he stated. At the event, Lightstone told the crowd that because of soldiers standing on the border, the average American and Israeli family “are sitting home at dinner tonight in comfort.”
Among the lone soldiers who spoke to In Jerusalem was Y., who has been part of an infantry brigade for the past 15 months. Born in the UK, Y. had a solid Jewish upbringing, but army service was not on the radar. However, after his older sister moved to Israel and joined the IDF, he was inspired to do the same and his family back in England accepted his decision.
“IT’S SOMETHING I wanted to do as a kid but didn’t think it was possible,” he said. “I wanted to do my part for this amazing country.” The LSC helped him meet people of similar background and navigate the induction process. In addition to his family back in Great Britain, he now has an extended network of close friends in Israel.
Not every soldier flies fighter jets, but every soldier does their share in protecting the nation. A case in point is American-born Renee, who a week before Thanksgiving was released from the IDF, where she was assigned to the Air Force.
“I came here on Taglit-birthright four years ago,” she told In Jerusalem, “and fell in love with the culture.”
She was inspired by a cousin who joined the army several years earlier. Renee said the LSC helped her switch jobs in the army to become a photographer and then enlist in the Air Force, where she worked in security. She hopes to study photography and filmmaking at an Israeli university now that her service is completed. A resident of the Beit Hachayal (soldier’s residence) center in Jerusalem, she would often attend Shabbat meals and other events through the LSC. Although Renee did not fly on daring missions, she assisted the air force on the ground.
“I did not have the most prestigious job, but I met a lot of great people and had great experiences and that’s what made my service worth it.”
Senior adviser and parent liaison Mike M. spoke about his role.
“I was a lone soldier from 1981 to 1984 and served during the First Lebanon War. When I was injured, nobody came to visit me.”
With the Center since 2012, Mike makes sure that today’s lone soldiers are looked after.
“The most important thing we do, before, during and after service, is provide a feeling that they are at home and they are family,” Mike said. “I have two biological daughters,” but over 1,000 children, he said, referring to the lone soldiers. “My phone is never off.”
He said some soldiers arrive with little education, due to their troubled upbringing, but have gone on to become successful doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Because much of his work is done over the phone, there were soldiers at the Thanksgiving event he never met before, but nevertheless they approached him to shake his hand and give him a hug.
The center assists soldiers before, during and after their service. This includes helping with enlistment and after completing army duty, helping apply to college or join the workforce.
DANIEL HAILS from Los Angeles and served as a squad commander in the combat engineering unit. He officially made aliyah in the middle of his army service, which began in 2017. He praised the lone soldier center for being there for him during times he got home late from the army base.
“I knew I wouldn’t have food for Shabbat, but they would have Shabbat meals you could just drop in on,” he explained. The center also helped him integrate into Israeli society with such issues as reading a rental contract or signing Hebrew documents, which are challenging enough to a new immigrant, let alone one who is an enlisted soldier. Daniel intends to stay in Israel and attend engineering school.
“They make our service easier, but I feel regardless of whether the LSC existed or not, I still would have joined.” Born in the US, Daniel’s parents fled Iran during the revolution in 1979. They found it difficult when their son announced he wanted to move to Israel, but eventually saw that he felt fulfilled in his decision.
“I love America, I identified as an American, but as a Jew I felt different,” he stated. “Now I feel like I am part of something. It’s a Zionist dream. If I have to give, I may as well stick my hands in the mud and give. Now I feel like I have earned my place in society.”