Soldiers in a strange land

What makes young Diaspora Jews leave their homes and families behind to serve in the IDF?

IDF soldiers march in the Judean Desert 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
IDF soldiers march in the Judean Desert 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Every year, hundreds of young Jews from around the world bid their families and friends goodbye, and head off to enlist. Not in their own nation’s army, but in a war-torn country where most are unfamiliar with the language, the culture, the climate, yet are connected by roots and shared history going back thousands of years.
These are the Israel Defense Forces’ “lone soldiers” – determined to serve the Jewish state, but almost alone in a country where family is held sacred. At any given time, there are some 5,000 of them in the IDF, according to the Lone Soldier Center; more than a third are from the US, and the rest are mainly European, with a smattering of Latin Americans, South Africans and Australians thrown in.
One of these lone soldiers is 22-year-old Rebecca Gerger, originally from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her light blond shoulderlength hair and her deep blue eyes fit the description of an all-American girl. But despite appearances, Gerger also has a tough side to her and is completing her voluntary service in the south of the country along the border with Egypt, in the Caracal frontline infantry battalion that is composed of both female and male soldiers.
“For people to be fighters, you need to want to be doing what you’re doing. Not everyone is willing to be a fighter,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. Gerger only gets a weekend of leave every 16 days, and on those days she goes to her host family on Kibbutz Maagan Michael, on the coast south of Haifa, with whom she has developed a strong relationship.
“Israelis have a tendency to take people in as if they are their own family. They’ve taken me in as a daughter. They send me packages to the army, like every other kid gets.”
Gerger did not know much about Israel growing up, but that changed when she visited for the first time at the age of 16. After high school, she wanted to experience more of the country and enrolled in a gap year program.
Returning home when her year was up, Gerger couldn’t get Israel out of her mind.
After several months of reflection, she made aliya in January 2010, with the goal of joining the IDF.
Like her, between 100 and 200 American citizens decide to leave their homes and volunteer in Israel each year. Once in the army, they are called “lone soldiers”, individuals serving in the IDF without family in the country to support them.
But the lone soldiers are not completely alone. On Tel Aviv’s bustling Allenby Street, the Lone Soldier Center occupies a small office in an old building. Center staffer Idan Ianovici was a lone soldier himself – moving from Queens in 2001, at the age of 18. Eleven years on, he is helping others who make the same decision he did. He says the center, funded by donations, has four employees and 150 volunteers and assists the 3,500 lone soldiers who have approached the center for help.
Mika Fox of New York is another such soldier. In September 2011, at the age of 17, she told her family that after high school, she was moving to Israel to join the IDF. A dedicated ballerina since she was three years old, Fox, tall with a slim figure, is hardly a GI Jane. Her dark blond hair flows down her back in a shiny wavy movement. Born to an American father and an Israeli mother, Fox speaks fluent Hebrew and had visited Israel every year. Her American father and Israeli-born mother say they never pushed Fox to join the IDF. “We don’t preach. It’s not part of our lives, we’re not glamorizing military service,” her father Don tells The Report in an interview in New York. “Her passion and commitment to Israel is really coming from her,” says her mother, Tali.
Don says that what really worries him is his daughter’s prolonged absence, not the potential dangers she may face. He attributes his lack of fear for his daughter’s safety to the fact that serving in the IDF is very different to serving in the US army: “Military service is not a part of life here in the US, so when an American thinks that these American kids are volunteering for the Israeli army, they don’t realize most Israelis in the army are living in cities, and it’s a day job. This is not what we think of as military service in the United States.”
Tali is also unworried; as an Israeli, she has been there before her daughter, and knows how fulfilling the experience of military service can be. “I’m excited for her to go through this, even the bad days. I trust that she will enjoy it and appreciate the challenges.”
A majority of the Americans who come to Israel to join the IDF have grown up in a Zionist and Jewish environment, attending Jewish summer camps or studying at a Jewish school. Some European lone soldiers have experienced anti-Semitism and this galvanized them to volunteer for the IDF. “They all come with high motivation, more than the average Israeli,” Ianovici points out to The Report. Most specifically request combat units, he adds.
The problems start when the soldiers have leave, he says. As a soldier, support from family and friends is almost a vital need. For those alone in Israel, the absence of support can be discouraging. For that reason, Ianovici asserts, the Lone Soldier Center’s volunteers make sure to attend army ceremonies and help with any problems that crop up, be they military or personal.
“At IDF ceremonies, everybody is waving hello to people in the audience, except for the lone soldiers. One of our volunteers told me, ‘I always waved my hand, I didn’t have anybody to wave to, but I wanted to be like all my friends so I waved as well’.”
The goal is to provide the soldiers with a home away from home.
“A soldier, when he’s wearing his uniform, is just like all of his Israeli buddies. They run the same, they eat the same, they do the same things, but then on the bus home, that’s when the differences start,” Ianovici says. While native soldiers go home to their mothers, lone soldiers have to worry about laundry, food, and bills: The weekend isn’t much of a break for them.
Ron Koren always knew that he would end up in the IDF and thought he was prepared for what the army could throw at him.
Yet doing guard duty on a rainy winter’s night, Koren’s military career almost came to an abrupt end. His morale plunging, he called his best friend back in the US, who, instead of offering him words of consolation, cut the conversation short to go to a party. Sitting alone in that lookout tower, M16 rifle clutched in freezing fingers, Koren told himself, “Tomorrow I’m leaving, I’m going to go home. I don’t want to do this anymore.” But by the next morning, he had changed his mind.
Koren was 17 when he arrived to Israel with the goal of enlisting in the IDF. He was born and raised in Fair Heaven, New Jersey.
Both his parents are Israeli but had moved to the United States long before his birth.
Growing up, Israeli culture occupied a significant part in Koren’s life. His parents spoke Hebrew between themselves in the home and, every summer, the family would travel to Israel for vacation. Koren had never been pushed to join the IDF but military service is a concept that runs in his family. Both his parents had been soldiers and even fought in some of the country’s wars.
“It’s not an easy shift to make. Culture shock is definitely the word,” he relates to The Report, describing the transition from his middle-class American upbringing to the rigors of army life. But, he adds, “this is something I always knew I was going to do.”
Koren served as an artillery commander in the IDF for three years from 2004 to 2007.
He was on active duty during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He recalls being horrified at the sight of injured soldiers and damaged army vehicles covered in blood, coming back from the front lines to the Lebanese border where his unit was posted.
For Gerger, acclimatizing was tough at first; she sometimes still finds it challenging, not only because of her shaky Hebrew, but also because of what she has given up to be here.
Her native Israeli comrades are respectful, but curious as to why she chose to volunteer, and to leave her family behind. “To every Israeli soldier I think the most important thing is when you go home to see your mom. She does your laundry, you eat her food and don’t think about [the army].”
Gerger’s family, although supportive, were not at all initially delighted with her decision.
While her father, an active advocate of Israel in the US, was enthusiastic, her mother, who had never visited Israel, found the idea quite worrying. But, says Gerger, that initial reticence turned to support once she realized how important it was to her daughter.
So with all the odds seemingly stacked against them, why do they keep coming? It varies from soldier to soldier, Ianovici says, and often the decision to enlist in the IDF is for personal reasons.
But all have one thing in common: They want to do something for the State of Israel. “I can tell you that Zionism is still alive and kicking.
They are the real Zionists of the 21st century,” he says with conviction. “When I came here, I came here to save Israel. A lot of them feel this way too. You have to see them, the fire in their eyes.”
Gerger’s desire to join the IDF is indeed tied to the responsibility she feels toward Israel: “If you don’t do anything for this country, no one will,” she states. “This country fights for its existence.”
But Mika Fox sees it more as a give and take relationship. “In the beginning, I wanted to help my country that I feel so connected to, and give back to it. But I realized that it will actually be Israel helping me.” She believes that her two years in the Israeli army is what she needs to gain the broader, more global perspective she feels is lacking, after growing up in Manhattan and attending a private school.
For Israel, there are benefits to investing time and money in these recruits. According to the Interior Ministry, some 80 percent of lone soldiers stay in Israel once their service has ended; those who return home are often strong advocates for Israel.
Gerger completes her military service in October. She is staying in the country, a decision she is proud of. She now aims to attend medical school in Israel.
Fox, however, plans to return to the US to complete her studies, but is certain that her IDF experience will make her a better spokeswoman for Israel.
And even though he recently left for a professional opportunity in New York, Koren’s heart is still in Israel. Asked which country he now more closely identifies with, he stares at the ceiling for a brief moment of contemplation, and declares: “I feel Israeli.”