When the executive head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael on May 14, 1948, to be known as the State of Israel, the Jewish population numbered about 670,000.
Immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the armies from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria and expeditionary forces from Iraq attacked the fledgling state, in order to drive the Jews into the sea.
The Arab armies managed to occupy parts of what was to be Israel, as well as the eastern part of Jerusalem. Despite that, the war was a Jewish victory, and the state grew and developed.
All that was possible because contrary to the accusation that Jews are cowards, brought about by the erroneous belief that they meekly went to their deaths during the Holocaust, our young men and women – many untrained – took to arms and with minimal equipment but resourcefulness and creativity defeated the Arab attackers. An appreciable number of the fighters had survived the Holocaust and were highly motivated. But it was a story of David and Goliath.
The main weapon the Israelis had were just six mortar tubes known as the Davidka. They were not accurate, but their main effect was an extremely loud explosion that gave the impression of a major gun and actually scared the Arabs, who evacuated many of their positions.
Eventually volunteers from abroad arrived to augment the brave but by now tired Israelis. Many of them were experienced and had served in the allied armies of World War II. This Israeli fighting force defeated the Arabs, including the Jordanian Legion, trained by the British.
From an early underground militia grew the widely respected Israel Defense Forces (IDF).The spirit of 1948 and the pride in the Jewish state and its highly trained military now permeates Jewish youth all over the world. Inspired by the Zionist dream, thousands make aliyah, immigrate to Israel and immediately join the IDF. Of the estimated 177,000 soldiers in active service today, 7,000, or 4%, have arrived without their families.
They are known as “lone soldiers” and come from over 60 countries, speak dozens of languages, and are very highly thought of, respected and cared for. An estimated 35% are from the United States. Several organizations exist solely to care for their welfare and several centers have been established exclusively to meet the social and supportive needs of lone soldiers both during and after their service, with the motto, “Service to those who serve.”
Thousands have already completed their military service and are now in civilian life but are still part of the IDF reserves, liable to be called back for a brief period of training exercises.
Despite their designation as lone soldiers, they are not alone. They get invited for Shabbat dinners, and many families had one or two as their guests for the Seder evening.
In fact, President Isaac Herzog, his wife, Michal, and their three sons were joined for their Seder at the President’s Residence by Sgt. Glen Chaves, a lone soldier from Costa Rica serving in the IDF’s Kfir Brigade, and 21-year-old Cpl. Iara Lerner-Tuchinsky, a lone soldier who made aliyah from Argentina two years ago and serves in a canine unit in the Israel Air Force.
The first organization established exclusively to take care of lone soldiers is the Michael Levin Center, named after the 22-year-old American Israeli soldier of the Paratroopers Brigade who was killed in action during the Second Lebanon War. Levin made aliyah from Philadelphia in 2002.
Every year on a day at the beginning of the month of Iyar, the nation comes to a halt at 8 pm when the sirens sound for one minute to signal the beginning of Remembrance Day, the national day on which the nation remembers the soldiers killed in action and the victims of terrorism since the establishment of the state. On this May 4 we mourned 23,929 fallen.
This year, the Michael Levin Center staged a moving memorial event in Jerusalem’s Kikar Hamusika (Music Square), where we heard about the lives and ambitions of Michael Levin and the other lone soldiers who lost their lives in the service of our country, as well as speeches from Natan Sharansky and Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata.
Talented lone soldiers played and sang appropriate music, while the audience, which included bereaved, families was totally silent and deep in thought.
The Michael Levin Center
To find out what services the Michael Levin Center provides, I visited their central premises at 3 Strauss Street in Jerusalem and asked Tziki Aud, who founded the center in 2009, if he was proud of his achievement.
“Yes I am, although in the beginning, we didn’t know it was going to be so influential.”Tziki Aud
“Yes I am, although in the beginning, we didn’t know it was going to be so influential,” he said. “But it became very big, and we have three branches in the country.”
Hagay Swed, the soldier adviser, described his job. “If they decide to join the IDF, it means advising the person even while still abroad about all the necessary information to make aliyah, about the units they wish to join, the benefits and rights available to them, and dealing with bureaucracy before, during and after the army,” said Swed.
“If they decide to join the IDF, it means advising the person even while still abroad about all the necessary information to make aliyah, about the units they wish to join, the benefits and rights available to them, and dealing with bureaucracy before, during and after the army.”Hagay Swed
According to Aud, 10,000 lone soldiers have passed through the Michael Levin Center since its establishment, and they stay in contact with them long after they completed their army service. The center now maintains a contact list of some 5,000 lone soldiers.
Swed said the center helps with the difficulties of coping with bureaucracy, through their experienced volunteers who speak many languages. They also help with learning Hebrew. The center has washing and drying machines for the use of soldiers, comfortable rooms in which to hang out, and more.
While the center does not provide overnight accommodations for lone soldiers who have the weekend off, “the army provides hostels for soldiers in every large city in the country, where lone soldiers can stay free of charge,” said Swed. “We have, however, permanent housing with 120 beds in five different houses in Jerusalem, where each lone soldier has his own room with air conditioning, bathroom and television.”
Some of the houses are for mixed sexes, while others are segregated for men and women to cater to the Torah observant. All houses keep Shabbat and maintain kosher facilities in their public areas. Lone soldiers receive a grant from the army, to pay for their rent etc. They also do not have to pay municipal tax. When some were not aware of the electricity bills because they could not read them, they returned home on Friday to a dark room. They approached Tziki who contacted his connections and light was restored over Shabbat. The lesson was learned, and they paid the following day.
Unlike Israeli soldiers whose parents can visit them on the base from time to time, it is the staff from the Michael Levine Center who carry out that pleasurable task, acting as their substitute family and bringing “goodies” that they would not normally receive.
“It is what Michael Levin wished for” when it was only still his dream to have such a center, said Aud. “He wanted that no lone soldier will be ignored, that they have a place to sit together. I knew Michael before he was in the army. His idea was that after his discharge he would procure money, and I would sit in a room looking after the soldiers and arrange all kinds of activities, such as, communal Shabbat meals.”
Aud said that there is no government grant, and that the center is all privately funded. They also have a very good relationship with the parents of Michael Levin, who visited the center after Independence Day and met again with Aud before their return to the US.
Because many lone soldiers are reluctant to worry their parents to hear about their military experiences, the center invites parents to contact them for information about their sons or daughters.
Aud said with a smile that during the 13 years of the center’s existence, he has been to multiple weddings of former lone soldiers who met at the center’s events. The center is proud that they even have “grandchildren.”
The doors of the Michael Levin Center are always open, except of course at night. Lone soldiers take advantage of this and come to hang out, talk with their friends and get advice if needed.
“I grew up in the Bronx, New York, and made aliyah in 2018,” said Yehuda Powers, who was visiting the center. “I got my degree first at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and then I was drafted in December 2021.
“I like coming to the center because a lot of my lone soldier friends come here, and I also receive a lot of advice from Hagay and Tiki, and everybody is very helpful. Then there are also the other services. I get some of my groceries here.”
Michael Levin Base
Another organization that cares for these young men and women is the Michael Levine Base, which began operating in February 2020. Its extensive premises are at 10 Hedekel Street in central Jerusalem.
Richard Corman, an experienced administrator of Zionist-oriented organizations, explained why he started another organization for lone soldiers when there is already one named in memory of Michael Levin.
“There is the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation in the United States, on which Michael’s parents serve,” Corman said. “They encouraged us to start another organization in Israel with the name of Michael Levin in the title to perpetuate his memory.
“They encouraged us to start another organization in Israel with the name of Michael Levin in the title to perpetuate his memory.”Richard Corman
Corman said there was a distinct advantage in operating several such centers in relatively close proximity.“
Like on a college campus where you have a number of organizations to serve the Jewish student body, we should also have many establishments to serve lone soldiers, because no one organization can look after 7,000 young men and women,” said Corman. “The Michael Levin Base also serves lone National Service volunteers. These are mainly girls who wish to serve the Israeli state in hospital settings, special needs or educational facilities, but not in the military, in most cases for religious reasons.”
Services for lone soldiers at the Michael Levine Base range from counseling for a variety of reasons, pre-draft advice, support during their service, and help to integrate into civilian life upon discharge.
“We become their community, their home away from home, so that they have a support mechanism, not only with colleagues but also from professionals,” Corman explained. “Social workers and psychologists volunteer to talk with soldiers who suffer from homesickness, loneliness or depression, and in some cases even to prevent thoughts of suicide.”
Two years after opening, the Levine Base is serving 1,400 young men and women. The senior counselor of the base holds a monthly webinar with the parents to advise them on how their son or daughter is doing, as well as to answer the parents’ questions.
Lone soldiers and National Service women come from all over the world and are being helped with their language problems by multilingual volunteers and staff. French has become an important language because of the increasing number of young men and women from France.
At the Michael Levin Base, there are storerooms containing toiletry items and even clothing to which lone soldiers can help themselves for a five-shekel donation per item or free if they can’t afford it. The latest addition to the base are two Torah scrolls dressed in beautiful mantles, one of which incorporates Michael Levin’s tallit bag.“Our business plan calls for funding from three main sources: foundations, donors and groups,” Corman said. “Following corona, it is now hoped that these groups will visit the base, sponsor some events, and generally offer financial support. We have funding from the Michael Levin Foundation in the United States, as well as from other foundations and mostly from private donations.”
The work of the base is very much appreciated by lone soldiers and National Service women. A group of lone soldiers in a nearby eatery spoke highly of the facilities that they lovingly refer to as the base.
Former lone soldier Nechama Kaufman, from London, served for a year and a half.
“I joined the army because of my teacher Ari Fuld,” she said. That’s a sad story. In September 2018 Fuld was stabbed in the back by an Arab terrorist, yet while mortally wounded in a heroic act Fuld drew his pistol and disabled the assailant.
“The base for me is a home from home, a family away from my family,” she said.“They were with me even before I joined the army, and helped to figure out if a combat unit was correct for me. They helped me with any emotional support that I needed, and I felt that I have a connection even after my service. That is why I am here right now. Whenever I need help advice or support, the base is here for me.”
Lissy Noach, co-director of the Michael Levin Base, worked for many years in fundraising and was looking to become involved in some really good cause.
“I started to work with lone soldiers, fell in love with the task of doing something that every day is helping, and I have been working with lone soldiers now for seven years.”
Noach has met hundreds of lone soldiers, and says the one trait they have in common is “a very Zionist side – these are people who make a conscious decision to be here. They don’t have to be here, and they are really giving up a lot to do it. That’s the reason to support and honor them. As a result of their choice, they leave their families behind, they put their studies and their life on hold. It’s difficult to sustain their life without family, but we try to give the support to help them to stay.”
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and YAHAD (United for Israel’s Soldiers), as well as the LIBI Fund, provide support for lone soldiers separated from their families – with their motto: “Their job is to look after Israel; ours is to look after them.”
They provide funding for lone soldiers to fly “home” to their countries of origin once a year, find housing, and organize fun outings. Every soldier whose parents live abroad is entitled to funding for a home visit.
Combined with the LIBI Fund, they give serving lone soldiers the support and extras that the army cannot afford to provide, and thus demonstrate in practical ways the gratitude felt for their service to Israel. Many make huge sacrifices by volunteering for the IDF.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that promotes aliyah from North America, also has a Lone Soldiers Program.
Also noteworthy is the contribution made by the excellent Piccolo kosher dairy restaurant in Jerusalem’s Kikar Hamusika. It provides totally free an extensive self-service lunch for more than 40 lone soldiers every Friday. ■
The writer was himself a lone soldier serving four years in the British Army during World War II. He came to England from Germany in 1939, unaccompanied by any family. Today he lives in Jerusalem, and at 98 holds Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest working journalist and radio broadcaster.