Enlisting help from the Diaspora

Four 'lone soldiers' provide each other support during voluntary army service.

idf coming home 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
idf coming home 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
For Ranan Tennenbaum, it was the shooting at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav in March 2008 that impacted him most. Avi Prager remembers the Second Lebanon War as a turning point in his mind. Simon Bentley recalls experiencing anti-Semitism in his neighborhood in London and wanting to come to a place where he would feel comfortable as a Jew. But Noam Tokayer knew far before his three friends that he wanted to move to Israel and join the IDF. He distinctly remembers, one Saturday night in seventh grade, watching on CNN as Magen David Adom and police officers responded to a terrorist attack on Rehov Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem. It was more than five years before the army would even consider taking him, but he already had made up his mind that he wanted to fight for the Jewish state. "I remember thinking to myself, Here I am sitting in Teaneck, New Jersey, watching on TV and I can't do anything about it," said Tokayer, who is now 20. Propelled by those feelings of helplessness and the Zionist ideals hey grew up on, these four men, two from England, two from the US, began 14 months of voluntary service in the IDF's Home Front Command in March. They enlisted through the Mahal program, which is a framework for non-Israelis to serve in the IDF, usually for a shorter period than that required of Israeli citizens. Approximately 800 non-Israelis have joined the IDF so far this year, although it is expected that hundreds more will enlist before the end of 2009. The number of Diaspora Jews joining the IDF has increased dramatically over the past few years, from 500 in 2006 to 1,800 last year. The paths of these four men to the army followed the same trajectory. All of them grew up in Zionist homes and were active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement. In August 2007, after finishing high school, they arrived together at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem. Their previous convictions were strengthened in their first year at Hakotel. They were encouraged by other Americans from the yeshiva who had done the same thing, and had a close connection to their Israeli counterparts who had no choice but to enlist. "How am I going to go back to America while my friends here are out fighting for what I believe in?" Tennenbaum, 19, remembers thinking. "It doesn't seem fair." But they still had some hurdles to climb, chief among them - getting their parents to agree to their enlisting. "I think my mom's exact quote was 'I'll shoot you first before I let you go to the army,'" Tennenbaum said of the first time he brought up the idea when he was in high school. When he got serious about enlisting, Tennenbaum, who grew up near Chicago, took a friend's suggestion and put down in writing his motivations, including the strong Zionist values that his parents had instilled in him from a young age. "They raised us in this way to believe in these types of ideals, so in a way it's their own stupid parenting that backfired on them," Tennenbaum said sarcastically. But it's parenting that they now often miss. The Israelis in their unit sometimes comment about how lucky they are to be "lone soldiers," the term for those who don't have family in Israel. Lone soldiers receive special benefits like money to pay for housing and extra days off when their family is in town. But that doesn't make up for being thousands of kilometers away from the people they care about. "I would trade all of it just to have my family here," Tokayer said. When their unit gets a weekend off, usually every two weeks, their Israeli friends return to their parents' homes to see their girlfriends, get their laundry washed, and eat home-cooked meals. These four go to an apartment they share in Jerusalem, where there is a line to use the washing machine and meals are "fend for yourself." But over the past two years, from yeshiva to the army, they have been each other's family, providing both physical and emotional support and much-needed comic relief. As we sit in an air-conditioned office at Tzrifin army base near Rishon Lezion, they laugh and joke with each other, grateful for an hour out of the sun and also the opportunity to speak in English, for which they are usually scolded by their commanders. Still, they dot their sentences with Hebrew words: army terms, popular slang, and phrases for which there are just no good English equivalents. "Give me a shluk (a sip of water)," Tennenbaum said, mocking his Israeli comrades. "A shluk? You drank half the bottle!" While they joke about the bits and pieces of Israeli culture they have begun to assimilate, they have learned harder lessons as well, struggling to deal with the bureaucracy of Israeli society in general and the army specifically. "The army is a microcosm of Israeli society as a whole," said Prager, who grew up in London. "You might find that, in Israel, the motto is that the customer is always wrong. It's very similar in the army - it's incredible how much red tape there is." But the hardest bureaucratic hurdle has yet to hit them. According to a law passed in the Knesset last year, non-Israelis who participate in Mahal can't make aliya when they finish. Instead, they must either complete the full three years of army service or leave the country for two years before returning and receiving the benefits of new immigrants. These four men feel they are being deserted after voluntarily serving a country they love. "It makes you feel a little underappreciated," Tokayer said. Prager said he will probably return to England for university and then come back to Israel after the two years are up. But Bentley plans to finish out his service. For now they are focused on the shorter term. In just over a week they will finish advanced training and begin their active duty in the West Bank. Despite the long journey they took to get here, the difficulties of being a lone soldier, and the nine months of service still ahead of them, they haven't lost their motivation or the ideals that brought them here in the first place. "Judea and Samaria is considered 'disputed territory' and everyone in England is shouting about it," Prager said. "But I firmly believe that that is Israeli territory, that it needs to be protected from the Arabs, and that it needs to be a safe place for people to live in. So I'm really looking forward to being able to serve in that area."