Jake Tokayer, from Boca Raton, Florida, spent a recent Shabbat covered in dust and sweat as he patrolled Israel’s northern border. His IDF tank unit may get out next weekend – but unlike most of his comrades-in-arms, no family awaits him.
Tokayer, 22, is one of more than 6,300 lone soldiers lacking parents in the country: immigrants, volunteers, orphans and youths estranged from their families. No hot meal awaits them on a Friday night, and there’s no one to do their laundry.
Three months remain of Tokayer’s two-year stint in the Mahal (a Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from abroad”) framework. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he sighs. “It’s been pretty tough. I don’t sleep a lot and we work hard on the border. At one point I got injured in training and that was hard to overcome – but it’s an honor and a privilege to be here.” “I came alone as a Zionist Jew because I felt responsible for my people in Israel and had to do something. I came to Israel to serve – that was the idea.”
Even before his military service began, Tokayer moved into a Jerusalem apartment operated by The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit organization that helps these soldiers get through the toughest time of their lives.
The LSC is named after a 22-year-old immigrant from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was killed in August 2006 by Hezbollah fighters while serving with the 890th Paratroopers Brigade during the Second Lebanon War. Although he had no family in the country, thousands of strangers heard his story in the media and turned up for his funeral, an event that inspired the organization’s creation.
Levin lived in home of Tziki Aud, a former Jewish Agency Immigration Department official who has been hosting “countless” lone soldiers in his home for more than 30 years. “I never counted them – some of them adopted me rather than the other way around. Some lived with us for an extended period. Part of my desire to look after them is because my father was a Holocaust survivor.” He remembers Levin with special affection. “Michael was a clown – he loved life, loved to barbecue. He could get home at 3 a.m., go up on the roof and cook himself a meal before going to sleep. Although his military service was very hard, he was always smiling. He was small and wiry, but very fit and a very good soldier. The other soldiers loved him.
“Michael always spoke about lone soldiers needing a place of their own – somewhere to grab a beer and watch the Super Bowl. He intended to set up such a project following his army service.”
Aud established the LSC together with former lone soldier Josh Flaster and other friends of Levin. “Volunteers began appearing. We found a basement in Jerusalem and more people came, the budget grew and so did the donations. A similar group formed in Tel Aviv joined us. The AACI [Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel] offered us a place two or three times a week in Tel Aviv in the afternoons. As more Russian and French speakers joined, the concept grew.” Now the LSC operates nine apartment homes offering low-rent housing to about 100 soldiers in Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, as well as social clubs catering for about 1,000 soldiers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba.
“We provide their basic necessities, logistical and emotional support,” says Michal Berman, the organization’s CEO. “The social clubs are a place for them to hang out and meet each other. They come for social events such as parties, Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving meals and baseball games in [Jerusalem’s] Sacker park.” Beyond the social-psychological aspects, soldiers’ needs can often be prosaic. “They need basic things like clean underwear, a toaster, somebody to look after them when they are sick,” Berman points out. “We have hundreds of volunteers who cook and do their laundry for them – many of them former lone soldiers or others immigrants.” The organization’s staff also advise them on how to navigate Israel’s infamous bureaucracy and attend their military ceremonies, taking the place of their parents who cannot be there. “They say this means the world to them,” says Berman.
Moshe Kwiat, 28, from Silver Spring, Maryland, made aliyah in 2000 and was inducted two years later. “I lived in a rented apartment in Jerusalem at first with other immigrant soldiers. It was really difficult – I was 19 and there was a lot I didn’t know to do, like how to pay the bills. The Lone Soldiers Center helped us with all sorts of practical things, such as furniture and Friday night dinners. Initially I didn’t have many friends here and no close family, so it was a good way to meet others like me.” Kwiat served for four years in the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit, finishing as an officer.
“Now I volunteer on a regular basis for the Lone Soldier Center, mainly helping out with events. There’s always something to do. Before the corona I ran a moadon [clubhouse] for the soldiers to hang out and have a beer. I received a lot of help from them when I was a soldier, and felt that I want to give back. I want to help the next generation of lone soldiers get through this tough time.” “The LSC for me is a community that has always been there to help me throughout my entire service,” says Tokayer.
“We were getting home about once a month during [the first] corona [wave]. Now it’s every two or three weeks. I have my own room, a kitchen, bathroom... it makes me feel normal when I have my own space. People move in and out all the time. I’ve made a lot of friends – most of them fellow Olim, naturally. I knew hardly any Hebrew when I joined the army. Now my Hebrew is good – although I’m still as American as you can get.” But there’s one Israeli custom he’s adopted. “Like most former soldiers, I’m going to take a year off to travel before returning to Israel to study,” he says.
Only financial restraints are preventing the opening of more facilities and programs, says Berman, prompting the LSC to launch a global fundraising campaign over the High Holy Days.