Anglo lone soldiers talk of ‘daily grind’ in the IDF

"From the outside, you have an image of the IDF and then you come and see the reality," says soldier.

Lone soldiers at Zikim base 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Lone soldiers at Zikim base 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
“We don’t really feel the holidays here... what day is it anyway?” Jonathan Milgram said in a mess hall at the Zikim base near the Gaza border on Monday.
The 21-year-old Boston, Massachusetts, native is one of several young Anglo “lone soldiers” – those without parents in the country – in the Nahal brigade stationed at the 931 Battalion’s base, one of the last stops before the Gaza Strip.
He and several other English- speaking soldiers in the battalion spoke to The Jerusalem Post on the seventh night of Hanukka, and though a group of ultra- Orthodox Jews had just delivered sufganiyot to the gates of the base, the holiday seemed far from the soldiers’ minds.
Instead, they talked about life as English speakers new to Israel, getting their trial-by-fire introduction to Israeli society by way of an IDF combat unit and the unique experience of being volunteer soldiers in a conscript army.
Along the way, like soldiers in any army on the planet, they griped about the day-today grind of being soldiers in an army that doesn’t seem to match the glorious image they had in their minds.
Jonathan Hasson, a talkative 24-year-old Londoner, said, “I don’t think the army is what any of us expected. I don’t think I really thought about it, coming from outside of Israel you kind of have an image of the IDF... you kind of have this idea as the IDF as this powerful army and then you come here and see the reality, the daily grind of the army.”
Hasson, like others in the group, said the daydream about joining a valiant fighting force of Jewish war heroes was met instead by “seeing a bunch of 18-year-old kids, half of whom don’t want to be there, eating bamba their mom sent them from home, playing guitars, and that’s what the army is on the inside.”
For his part, Milgram, the only religious soldier in the group, cracked that he “didn’t think it would involve so much sewing, cleaning and washing dishes.” Melbourne, Australia, native Ryan Shandler, 24, said the Israeli soldiers he has encountered during his service “are not proud, they spend guard duty trying to figure out how to injure themselves to get time off at home and there’s never enough stuff to go around. I thought it’d be like Jewish camaraderie and everybody fighting together, and it’s not.”
Shandler, who made aliya before enlisting in the army, did say he is grateful for the experience, saying that enduring army service has made him an Israeli, and also perfected his Hebrew.
Like any new Anglo immigrants to Israel, the soldiers talked about the bonds they have formed with other English speakers, and how that linguistic brotherhood of sorts has helped them through the army.
“You make it through the day by complaining about things in English. It’s definitely a bond among us, we’re all very good friends, we hang out and talk a lot and depend on each other a lot,” said Queens native Lucas Siminovsky, 20, who moments earlier caught himself using a bit of British slang, a byproduct of his friendship with Hasson, and fellow Englishman Michael Hoffman, 20, who grew up on the outskirts of London.
For Shandler, his friends from the army “have become like my family, and I’ve made a family here.” The other lone soldiers teased him for the moment of honest sentimentality, before agreeing with his words.
Siminovsky did admit however, that like any Anglo immigrant, the lone soldiers find themselves often painted as frierim– or suckers – to their Israeli brothers-in-arms, who joined the army by compulsion, not choice.
“When a truck comes and needs to be unloaded, there are five American kids and nobody else unloading,” he said.
When asked why he joined the IDF, Seth Becker, 21, of Redlands, California, said he always wanted to be a soldier, but first considered joining the Marines or US army.
When he learned through a friend about joining the IDF, he decided it was the best option.
“I’m Jewish, I want to come fight for my people,” Becker added, to which Hasson ventured “Gaza is safer than Afghanistan.”
The answers they gave for why they enlisted varied widely. For those like Shandler or Milgram who made aliya, joining the army was a byproduct, not the purpose of moving to Israel. For Becker or Hasson, enlisting in the IDF seemed part of a desire for a formative experience in their young lives, one they say they’ll be proud of and look back on fondly for the rest of their lives.
“I have the next 40 years of my life to sit behind a desk,” said Hasson, before the onetime University of Virginia law student added “on a dayto- day basis you don’t really have those big ideas about why we’re here... Occasionally, you get some completely surreal experience that reminds you that you’re in a Jewish army.”
In particular, he mentioned making kiddush over the hood of a Humvee while he and several fellow soldiers stood in full battle gear.
First Sergeant Adam Casspi, 23, the unit’s commander, who made aliya with his family at age 16 from Palm City, Florida, said for him the IDF represents how “we didn’t have Jewish fighters for a long time and we weren’t able even to pick up a weapon. I used to think about it more when I first started the army and now I think about it less, but we’re sort of starting a new tradition for the Jews.”
Raleigh, North Carolina, native Daniel Rosenberg, 24, studied at the Interdisciplinary Center before joining the IDF and said that before he enlisted “I thought Israel was just the beach in Herzliya.”
Like the other lone soldiers in the mess hall, the former Appalachian state mountaineer said that when it’s all said and done, he’ll be proud of having served in the IDF.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in and I’ll look back at it with good memories. And I do feel that we’re all taking part in protecting the Jewish country.”
He did admit waking up for the 3 a.m. guard duties “makes you wonder what the hell was I thinking.”
“Somebody has to do it though, might as well be us,” Rosenberg added.