By Lizzie Noach’s count, there are as many as 10 different organizations that support Israel’s 7,000 lone soldiers.
However, the approximately 280 lone bnot sherut (National Service volunteers) serving all across Israel get far less support. Despite the fact that, like their lone soldier peers, these young people leave their homes in the Diaspora to be of service in Israel, they earn significantly less than lone soldiers and many live in less-than-ideal circumstances.
The Michael Levine Base (themichaellevinbase.org.il), run by co-directors Bonnie Rosenbaum and Lizzie Noach, is one of only two organizations that specifically serve the needs of lone National Service volunteers. The other, known as Ori, is run by Nefesh b’Nefesh. The Ori program was named for Ori Ansbacher, a National Service volunteer from Tekoa who was murdered in a terrorist attack in 2019.
“Until we existed, there wasn’t a place for lone bnot sherut to come and hang out,” Noach shared. She reported that, within The Michael Levine Base’s first few days of operation in February of 2020, 70 lone National Service volunteers registered, which indicated to Noach and her colleagues that there was a significant unmet need.
Between lockdowns, the base offers social events where lone National Service volunteers and lone soldiers can socialize and network with one another. Some events are just for the National Service volunteers, who are almost exclusively female and generally come from religious homes.
In a normal year, lone National Service volunteers might get invited out for Shabbat meals, but with corona, they have to make Shabbat alone. The base helps by providing takeout meals for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. Last year, many of the volunteers intended to go home for Passover, or their parents were planning to come to Israel. When the government imposed a lockdown during the holiday, the base gave them everything they needed to make a Seder for themselves.
“[These National Service volunteers] are young people and, at the end of the day, when they turn around, Mom and Dad aren’t here. They need help,” Noach shared. For those who can benefit, The Base also provides subsidized mental health support.
The Israeli bnot sherut organizations “place them in apartments and provide a work placement,” Noach explained. The vast majority of regular National Service volunteers are Israeli, fluent in Hebrew and familiar with Israeli culture. The young women the base serves are generally brand-new immigrants who, on top of their National Service, also have the same challenges every new immigrant faces.
“These girls are here by themselves,” Noach emphasized.
More than half of the Lone National Service volunteers are English speakers, but this year, The Michael Levine Base staff noticed an unusually large group of French speakers, so they started a WhatsApp group just for them, using French-speaking volunteers.
“We try to support them in a way that doesn’t segregate them,” Noach commented.
The base is so committed to providing support services to the lone National Service volunteers that they have a dedicated staff member just to serve that population. A fluent English speaker who was born and raised in Israel, Shira Zeev is the base’s bnot sherut coordinator.
“I must say that although, as a native Israeli, I was not a lone bat sherut during my own service and did not face the challenges of aliyah, seeing all these girls who chose to come here and serve the county is truly touching,” Zeev commented.
“I think that one of the most challenging parts of being a lone bat sherut is that they tend to feel [ungrounded]. They don’t have a permanent home with loved ones to rely on. I feel like we at the base succeed when we make these girls feel – as much as possible – that they are not alone. It is most gratifying when the girls feel comfortable sharing and opening up to us. I know that they feel more at home and that not everything is on their shoulders,” she shared.
Zeev builds personal connections with the young women, doing home visits and visiting them at their work assignments.
“These girls don’t have anyone else to check in on them,” Noach reported.
While the base’s staff is committed to serving lone National Service volunteers, they are also very careful to coordinate their support with Israel’s official National Service organizations.
“We stay in touch with [the official coordinators],” Noach commented. “As much as possible work together on behalf of the lone bnot sherut. We sit with them together. When they want to have a seminar with the girls, they use the base as a place to meet. We don’t want to replicate services or step on anyone’s toes. We always ask, ‘How can we help?’ We want to make it a collaboration.”
By definition, parents of lone National Service volunteers live outside of Israel and they also turn to the base for support.
“They hear their kids grumbling but they don’t know where to turn for help figuring out if it’s a real problem or not,” Noach said.
In November, the base started hosting webinars for the parents of lone National Service volunteers.
How does National Service differ from being a lone soldier?
According to Noach, since lone National Service volunteers aren’t assigned to a military base like lone soldiers, they go to their apartments every night. Perhaps they don’t get along with the people they live with. They might be lonely or starved for social interaction, especially when all normal avenues of socialization are closed.
“Lone soldiers get much more support,” she said. “Lone soldiers have the opportunity to have an adoptive family. People don’t know about the option to adopt a lone bat sherut.
“That’s why the [lone National Service volunteers] are so appreciative when we do events that include them. At The Michael Levine Base, they feel 100% that this is a place for them.”
Additionally, non-Hebrew-speaking lone soldiers are sent to Machva Alon, an IDF ulpan, before they are assigned to a unit. Lone National Service volunteers don’t have that option. Even if they have a working knowledge of Hebrew before they come, they still have to refine their Hebrew on the job.
What more can be done?
“The community of lone bnot sherut numbers approximately 280 girls and counting, but sensitivity in the broader Israeli society is still lacking,” Zeev commented. “My wish is that awareness would rise and people would realize that there might be a lone bat sherut in their immediate surrounding – serving in hospitals, kindergartens, different public offices and more – and hopefully be more apt to notice and appreciate them, inviting them over for a Shabbat meal or just being kind, patient and welcoming.”
Noach feels that The Michael Levine Base can help by pushing for a discussion in the Knesset about the rights of lone National Service volunteers. If they got paid as much as lone soldiers and if their living conditions could be improved, many of the problems the base deals with on a daily basis would not exist. As an example, Noach cited the very straightforward example of a washing machine that breaks down because it’s being used constantly by 26 young women who all live in one apartment.
“There has to be a forum to discuss these issues,” Noach explained.
The base is funded through a combination of a grant from the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation and private fundraising. They are currently running a Chinese auction with shopping, food and personal services prize packages donated by supporters.
“We just celebrated our first-year anniversary. If we weren’t needed as an organization, we wouldn’t have survived during corona. The fact that we survived shows we’re meeting a real need,” Noach concluded.