My wife, Ida, and I made aliyah in 2016, and have lived in Ra’anana since 2017. I had always been interested in the group of people known as “Lone Soldiers,” and wondered how I could become involved in working with them.
A Lone Soldier is defined as one whose nuclear family does not live in Israel or who is an Israeli lacking any contact with his or her family. Many come from Israeli families that are socio-economically disadvantaged.
There are currently 1,250 lone combat soldiers living in Israel who have chosen to serve the country and who risk their lives despite their challenging personal circumstances.
As a general matter, the ratio between Israeli to foreign-born Lone Soldiers is 50/50, and they come from dozens of countries. Fortunately, Ra’anana is home to what I consider a model for the caring of Lone Soldiers.
The ratio of Israelis to soldiers from abroad at Habayit shel Benji (literally, Benji’s House, run by the Benji Hillman Foundation) is roughly 25%-30% Israelis, and 70%-75% from over 20 countries abroad both male and female.
Habayit shel Benji (known as the Bayit) was built by the family of Major Benji Hillman who fell in battle during the Second Lebanon War. The goal is to make Lone Soldiers feel at home, and provide them with guidance and anything else they need during and after their military service.
The Bayit houses 87 lone combat soldiers, offering each one a private room, three hot meals a day, laundry services, social events, life guidance and much more. The goal is to make a Lone Soldier feel at home, and to provide them with everything a person living with his or her family would receive.
Since opening in 2013, the Bayit has provided a home for over 400 Lone Soldiers. There were two expansions (one in 2016, and the other in 2019) almost doubling housing capacity in just four years. With its excellent reputation, the Bayit is in very high demand and has a very long waiting list. Soldiers can sometimes wait many months before there is a vacancy.
In addition to providing housing facilities, the Bayit also provides guidance to those finishing their service. Over 2,500 Lone Soldiers have been assisted. It is expected that over 500 will be obtaining guidance in the coming year.
There are over 600 volunteers at the Bayit, providing guidance, washing clothes, front desk, kitchen and various experts to advise Lone Soldiers as to specific matters.
About four years ago I started volunteering at the Bayit as a part-time receptionist. Wanting to get more involved I asked to become a melave (accompanier), really a person who helps Lone Soldiers achieve their goals of life in Israel after their period of service. There are 150 of these people, only about 20% of whom are non-native Israelis.
At the beginning I was given a test, namely, could I navigate through the Bayit’s huge trove of information in Hebrew designed to provide resources for advising soldiers. Somehow passing that test, which requires a score of 80%, I started being assigned Lone Soldiers. Since beginning I have had about eight soldiers assigned to me, native Israelis as well as from Europe, North America and Russia.
The initial assignment starts with a phone call from the Bayit staff, who will discuss a potential candidate and ask if I am interested. I have learned not to ask questions during the initial talk as inevitably my question gets answered. This is because the Bayit intake staff meets with the Lone Soldier for some two to three hours before deciding if that person is a candidate.
If I say that I am willing to meet with the Lone Soldier, I will then get an email consisting of at least 10 long document-size pages on the person. The categories enumerated include education, housing, finances, work and bureaucracy (citizenship, insurance and like matters). Each one of these five areas has four headings:
The present situation of the Lone SoldierTheir stated goals in each areaRecommendations of the BayitResources that the Bayit can provide
The resources of the Bayit are amazing. Specialized volunteers – such as a person with a background in Intelligence meeting with one of my soldiers who expressed an interest in working in foreign affairs; or an accountant who is very involved in sourcing funds for medical projects meeting another soldier who expressed an interest in finances – as well as numerous experts in education and careers.
Generally, if I have needed someone, the Bayit got me that person. The staff is very dedicated. It is very comforting to know that one has such backup when you are advising a person as to what to do with their lives.
One resource in particular that I have found helpful is the draft budget. There are two draft budgets, one for a person planning to go for some form of continued education, and one for a person planning to go straight into the workforce.
Even though these Lone Soldiers have gone through extensive training as soldiers, they are still very young adults who are unsophisticated as to financial matters. I have found that working with the Lone Soldier on his or her own personal budget has been very helpful as it concentrates their thinking. I have also found that those Lone Soldiers from a haredi background (whose families often cut off all ties) are extremely unsophisticated in financial matters, and that their level of education is so poor that they have to go to at least one year of preparatory, make up studies before they can even consider studying at a college or university.
Of the eight soldiers with whom I have worked, six have stayed in Israel and are pursuing careers in nursing, as doctors, in foreign affairs, in teaching and in other areas. The Bayit has been immensely helpful to them. Working with these Lone Soldiers has been and continues to be a wonderful experience.
As a result of its growing success, the Bayit has had to look to expand its facilities and is seeking to build a second building. Donations are being sought and can be made through its website https://benjihillman.org/.
It can truly be said that the Hillman and Rurka families have turned an extreme tragedy into a wonderful resource.