From a life in Maryland to a life devoted to lone soldiers

They were affiliated with the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, but became an official nonprofit organization, appropriately named Lone Soldiers’ Home in Beit Shemesh.

Wendy Serlin (photo credit: SHIFRA FRIEDMAN)
Wendy Serlin
(photo credit: SHIFRA FRIEDMAN)
How does a mother of five and grandmother of two, who made aliyah from Maryland, end up founding a home for lone soldiers in Beit Shemesh?
Wendy Serlin, 61, grew up in a religious-Zionist home in Cleveland. After high school she did a gap year in Israel with the Bnei Akiva youth movement that greatly impacted her future. “There were 100 of us from all over the US, and my group went to Kibbutz Yavne,” explains Wendy. “I was 18 years old and knew that I would eventually live in Israel.”
Serlin moved to New York for college, where she received her BA in political science from Barnard College and her master’s in social work from Hunter College. She chose to go into community work, where she became immersed in the Jewish nonprofit world.
She met her husband, Phil, while he was studying at Yeshiva University, and they married in 1987. This was followed by a move to Silver Spring, Maryland, and a five-year plan to make aliyah.
In 1992, with a three-year-old daughter and a three-month-old son, the Serlins made aliyah. They lived in an absorption center in Ra’anana, and then bought a home in Beit Shemesh. Serlin worked for Tehilla, an aliyah organization for religious olim. “I loved this job, arranging pilot trips for prospective new immigrants, organizing events and helping people to navigate their new life in Israel,” recalls Serlin.
Her husband went on to become the CEO of BioLineRx, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on oncology and immunology.
In 1998, Serlin’s world turned upside down. Her parents, who had made aliyah, both became ill. Serlin gave birth to twins, bringing the total number of children to five. “All of this was so overwhelming I needed to quit my job,” she says.
From then on, Serlin worked with different nonprofits on a project basis.
In 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Serlin’s son was serving in Gaza, and she was hooked in, day and night, to what was happening. When she heard about the two lone soldiers who were killed, she could not stop thinking about the sacrifice they made to fight for Israel and the fact that they had no family in the country to support them.
“The heart of the whole country went out to these boys and their families,” says Serlin. “Thousands of people went to their funerals, and lone soldiers were on everyone’s mind.”
WHILE SITTING with her friend, Gayle Shimoff, a few weeks later, the two mothers spoke about doing something meaningful for lone soldiers. They discussed a number of ideas, until they decided to open a home for lone soldiers in Beit Shemesh.
“We felt that, between us, we could garner enough support to do this,” recalls Serlin.
They handpicked a board of five people and established a lone soldiers’ home.
“It was not easy at first, but we were determined,” says Serlin. “We rented a great house that served eight soldiers, then added on to the roof to serve another four. We then hired a young couple to be the house counselors, and they lived in an adjoining apartment.”
The home is for lone soldiers from English-speaking countries who commit to living there for at least one year and to invest in building a community.
“We want these guys to be family to one another, to have each other’s back and to be part of an entity that is bigger than themselves,” she says.
The home offers each soldier permanent accommodations, Friday night meals with families from the community, Shabbat lunch in which everyone who is on leave participates, a kitchen, laundry room and people who care about them and their well-being. The goal is to create a family atmosphere and for the young men to know that they have a home.
“We go to their army ceremonies, take them to and from the train station, and try to do everything we can to ease the burden of responsibilities when they are home and the difficulties of being a soldier,” says Serlin.
The home is run entirely on donations, mostly from people in the community. Everyone involved volunteers, including the “amazing” board members whom Serlin says she cannot praise enough. The house counselors are the only paid personnel.
They were affiliated with the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, but on November 1, 2018, they became an official nonprofit organization, appropriately named Lone Soldiers’ Home in Beit Shemesh.
Their latest funky fund-raising project is called Lone Soldiers’ Beer – Our Draft is Your Draft. It is the result of a Saturday night activity at the end of 2018, in which the board members and the soldiers teamed up to bond and to create their own beer to sell. They made the beer at Buster’s, a local microbrewery.
“We wanted it to reflect the soldiers’ character, so it is strong, fun and full of zest,” laughs Serlin. “And we like to refer to it as our “Israel Pale Ale.”
Serlin has involved the entire community in the Lone Soldiers’ Home, from youth movements helping to put up the sukkah each year, to host families, and volunteers who help celebrate soldiers’ birthdays. Serlin says that she is busy all the time, but her dream continues.
“I want to open up a soldiers’ home for lone women soldiers,” she says. “They should also have this support. I am now turning my energy toward this.
“I feel truly blessed that I am able to do this and help these young soldiers who are so valuable to our country.”