Alone, in uniform, together

Thousands of young Jews from across the globe arrive each to volunteer for army service, creating new families from scratch.

IDF lone soldiers 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
IDF lone soldiers 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s Friday evening in Jerusalem and just a few minutes walk from the Gilad Schalit protest tent – set up by his family and friends outside the Prime Minister’s Residence – the Jerusalem Great Synagogue is hosting its monthly Shabbat dinner in honor of some 250 young immigrants.
What is ironic about this gathering and its proximity to the camp set up to remind the public of the soldier kidnapped in 2006 is that those enjoying a celebratory Shabbat meal belong to a unique group: lone soldiers, young Jews here without their families, who have volunteered to serve in the army.
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“I was serving in the US Marines,” one of the soldiers tells me, describing how when the 2008/9 conflict erupted in Gaza he suddenly realized his military contribution should be to the Jewish state and not to the country where he was born and raised.
“I feel at home here,” explains the 21- year-old, who currently serves in a combat unit. “I don’t know what I will do afterward but I know that I made the right choice.”
As he returns to sit with his army buddies, another soldier, a Russian-born Jew who has been serving in a combat unit for just over a year, tells of how he rejected his Muslim roots in favor of Judaism and how his Zionism is so strong he even has plans to sign up for another few years.
“My father is Muslim and we lived in Morocco until I was six, but my mother is [Russian] Jewish and I only found out a few years ago,” says Y. who has changed his Muslim name to a more Jewish-sounding one and is now estranged from his father.
He says that after participating in a one-year Jewish Agency Masa program he had no qualms about joining the army and has not looked back since.
“I still have a lot of Zionism left in me and I love being a soldier,” he says proudly.
The Zionistic chatter during this monthly Friday-night gathering is truly heartwarming and the clear dedication from the soldiers and from those who are hosting them is obvious to anyone who might venture into the synagogue’s downstairs hall.
However, the question remains: who are these lone soldiers and why do they leave their loved ones, move to a faraway land and dedicate themselves to serving in its army?
Those present clearly represent a wide range of nationalities and religious affiliations. All are here to avoid the loneliness that can present itself on a Friday night in Jerusalem, and all are clearly enjoying themselves as they exchange “war” stories and eat a hearty meal.
“We have young people here from all religious backgrounds and from all different countries,” says Asher Schapiro, chairman of the synagogue’s board who is responsible for creating this singular gathering. “After a week or two in the army, the soldiers do not want to go to someone’s house and have to answer a load of questions, they just want to let their hair down and relax; this is what they are doing here.”
“There have even been some shidduchim,” chimes in Cantor Chaim Adler, who is among the honored guests joining the soldiers for their meal each month.
Also present and bringing some dazzle to the event is Moses Levi, a.k.a notorious rapper Shyne, the former Puff Daddy protégé who legally changed his name and embraced his Jewish roots. Levi is currently studying at a haredi yeshiva and his presence at the meal creates a buzz among the soldiers, many of whom are familiar with his music and his colorful story.
Schapiro explains that while the meal is primarily for soldiers, members and friends of the Great Synagogue who donate thousands of dollars to each event are happy to include lone students who are here without their families too.
According to Tziki Aud, chief adviser to lone soldiers at the Michael Levin Memorial Center for Lone Soldiers, which helps to organize the monthly Shabbat meal, there are roughly 5,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF.
Says Aud, who helped found the center after the young soldier’s death in 2006, half of the lone soldiers are Israeli born but do not have a strong family network for a variety of reasons and the other half are volunteers or new immigrants who come here without their families from a wide range of countries.
“A call-up for lone soldiers is a very sad call-up. It’s not like other drafts where the soldiers have their families with them; these soldiers join the army alone. One of our programs is to be there with them when they are drafted,” says Aud. He and his wife were the adoptive family of Levin, a young American-born soldier who was killed in combat during the Second Lebanon War.
He is philosophical about why these young people chose to leave their native countries and join the army, but says that the bottom line is Zionism.
“Whether they stay here or not after they finish the army, that is a different issue; Israel is a difficult country to live in and it’s hard for someone without the language to find ways to support himself,” he says.
“The Russian-speaking soldiers usually know they will stay here from the minute they arrive, but those from the West come here for all different reasons,” says Aud. “It could be for a romantic reasons or because they want to see some action or simply because they want to be part of the Jewish people, and it’s all based in Zionism.”
Aud, a former Jewish Agency emissary, adds: “If we look at the people that came in the 19th century or the start of the 20th century, they came here to build a utopia or an alternative type of society, they came here to cultivate their homeland; whatever the reason, it is all Zionism. Zionism is everything and if they come here to fight, or go to war or endanger their lives for the State of Israel, then that is Zionism too.”
However, Aud, who has been working with lone soldiers for more than 20 years, says that the young people coming today are very different from those who came 20 or 30 years ago.
“Those who came in the past were typically products of a youth movement and they were interested in what was happening around them within the country,” he observes. “Today, 75 percent of those who come as lone soldiers are Birthright alumni; some do not even go home at all after their trip. For many, the 10-day Birthright trip is all they need to decide they want to do the army; while some might do one more program like Masa before they sign up, there are some who come here and go straight to the army because it is the cheapest program for them.”
Asked if that is a problem, that the young soldiers are not fully aware of the dangers or do not understand that the army is not just another fun Birthright-type program, Aud is pragmatic.
“We are trying to get a budget so that we can run at least a weekend seminar for the lone soldiers before they go to the army,” he says. “We do try to explain to them that the army is not just another adventure in life, that it is something serious.”
Despite that lack of awareness, Aud maintains that the number of lone soldiers coming here from the West is higher than ever before.
“The more hatred there is toward Israel abroad and anti-Semitism toward Jews, the more these young people are coming,” he says, highlighting that roughly 60 percent are high-school graduates and the rest come after university.
Aud also points out: “They come and usually volunteer in combat units, it’s what they want. Most of the native, Israeli-born soldiers call them crazy; they do not understand why anyone would want to come and volunteer for the army.”
Not only do the sabra soldiers not understand why they come, they also do not realize how hard it is being a lone soldier, says Aud.
“For most soldiers when they arrive home from the army, they throw their backpack next to the washing machine and on Sunday morning the little elves have washed and folded all the clothes, but for the lone soldiers it’s different.
They come home on Friday, they have to go and buy food for the weekend, then prepare it; they have to make sure they know where a washing machine is and make sure there is time for them to clean their clothes. It’s not easy.”
While on a social level, gaining recognition and respect from fellow soldiers is not easy, Aud also outlines some of the difficulties Western lone soldiers face within the military framework.
Often, he says, their acceptance “depends on how the commanders treat them. If the commander does not believe they understand the Israeli mentality or does not see them as part of the country, the other soldiers will treat them poorly.”
“I think the army has striven to understand immigrant soldiers from Russia and the Caucasus, as well as those from Ethiopia, but it is not really learning to how to deal with those who come from America,” he says, adding that he is in the process of lobbying the army to improve its work with ex-haredi soldiers and after that he will work on the connection between the army and soldiers from the West.
Those responsible for lone soldiers in the IDF did not find the time to respond to requests for information.
Despite these challenges, those gathered at the monthly Shabbat dinner are proud of their accomplishments and relish in their status as an IDF soldier.
“We usually leave before the end,” says Schapiro smiling. “The soldiers stay on and hang out as long as they want. For many of them it’s their main opportunity to socialize with each other. It’s the only chance they get to spend time with their ‘lone soldier’ family.”