Cornerstone laid for Israel's first-ever lone soldiers home

Cornerstone laid for Be

lone soldiers 248.88 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
lone soldiers 248.88
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Relatives of a fallen IDF officer on Wednesday laid the cornerstone for Israel's first-ever "soldiers' home" to cater specifically to lone soldiers. Organizers say the facility, to be built in Ra'anana, will provide a warm home for soldiers without family in Israel, as well as disadvantaged soldiers from Israel who are estranged from their relatives or have no family to support them. Benji's House ("Habayit Shel Benji") is the brainchild of the family of Benji Hillman, an IDF major and company commander in the elite Egoz reconnaissance unit, who fell in battle during the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, only three weeks after marrying his longtime girlfriend, Ayala. Benji's family, who immigrated to Israel from the UK in 1983, came up with the idea to build Benji's House during the shiva mourning period, when as they sat at the family home, lone soldier after lone soldier told them of Benji's constant efforts to make sure they were taken care of, even though they were far away from their families. In August 2006, Hillman's family and close friends set up the Benji Hillman Foundation, to raise funds for the construction of the home and for educational programs for lone soldiers. Since then, funds for the $3 million project have come primarily from donors, many of them abroad, who were touched by the story of Benji's selfless care for the soldiers under his command. The project has reached 85% of its fund-raising goal. Unlike most "soldiers' houses" in Israel, Benji's House will provide more than a place to sleep, with food and laundry services as part of its proposed offerings. In addition to accommodating up to 50 soldiers, the project will provide host families in Ra'anana, educational and vocational training, and a computer and call center where soldiers can keep in touch with family members abroad. The house will also have a full-time house mother to look after the soldiers. The city of Ra'anana donated the land for the site, in a pleasant, quiet area of west Ra'anana, surrounded by gleaming upper-middle-class apartment buildings. In a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony, Ra'anana Mayor Nachum Hofree spoke of the sacrifice of lone soldiers, who serve in the IDF without the support system many native Israelis take for granted. "We owe them a great deal and we hope this house will help repay some of this debt," Hofree said in his speech. Former IDF chief of General Staff and Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon told the crowd that though he never met Hilman, for the fallen soldier "heroism was a way of life." He added that the source of Hilman's heroism was the upbringing he received at home. Ya'alon also spoke of the peace process and described Hilman as one of the soldiers of his generation "who never gave in to the illusions, and always knew that wanting peace doesn't mean you don't have to be prepared to struggle." Ya'alon added that Hilman was "among those who are not afraid of the hard road." After Ya'alon's speech, relatives of Hilman, including his widow Ayala, sat with Hofree and signed a charter for Benji's home. Hofree then took the scroll and buried it at the bottom of the hole dug for the cornerstone, before scooping cement on top. Ya'alon stepped forward and scooped on some cement, as did a procession of Hillman's relatives. Ben Cates, an Ottowa, Canada native working at the event, said his own experience as a lone soldier showed him the importance of a project like Benji's House. Cates said "for lone soldiers, you really only have two options; or you live on a kibbutz, or you live with a host family. Some of these kibbutzim are very isolated and host families don't work out for everyone." Cates said that during his time as a soldier there were many weekends where he hardly had time to get home and buy groceries before the stores closed and on a number of occasions, if not for the help of friends, he wouldn't have had anything to eat over the weekend. "It's an extremely important project," Cates added. During his speech at the ceremony, Benji's father Daniel said he had mixed emotions as he looked out upon the crowd. "On one hand, it is very sad to be here. At the same time, there is great happiness and satisfaction that the blessed work Benji carried out in his life will live on."