‘Lone’ but not alone

What motivates immigrants and volunteers to join the IDF?

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah Dinner for Lone Soldiers  (photo credit: Courtesy AJC)
Thanksgiving and Hanukkah Dinner for Lone Soldiers
(photo credit: Courtesy AJC)
With more than 30,000 people showing up for the funeral of California native Max Steinberg and 20,000 for that of Texas-born Sean Carmeli, it has become clear that people are now hearing the story of soldiers fighting for the country they love, despite its not being the country in which they were born.
As the accounts of these lone soldiers – who have no family in Israel – are shared throughout the world, more and more people have expressed interest in becoming lone soldiers themselves.
“We get a lot of calls and a lot of requests from people who want to join,” says Dar Iwler, director of the Lone Soldier Tel Aviv Region. “They ask about ways [the center] can help them with this situation and what [the conflict] means as potential soldiers.”
This increase has been sudden and unexpected, he says. “It has been a crazy time.”
According to Iwler, many potential lone soldiers don’t quite know what should be expected in joining the IDF.
“A hundred and twenty new people… recently just came [to Israel] and they want to go into the battle,” he explains. “You don’t just come and join. It’s a process.”
Still, says Iwler, the many soldiersto- be do have an enthusiasm for the journey upon which they are about to embark. “They come here with sweat and a lot of passion.”
The Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv provides services for many of the soldiers who do come to Israel. From entertainment and emotional support to clothing and food donations, the center creates a proxy family for soldiers far from home. Need for these services has increased tenfold since the current conflict began.
“We answer all the [soldiers’] requests. We guide them. Every soldier gets an hour of [advising], or they call and ask for help,” says Iwler. “When people need socks and underwear, we have tons of socks and underwear. Now that we are doing an operation, we have more than 200 soldiers under our umbrella in the Tel Aviv region, and we check on them to show that somebody is thinking about them.”
Among these services are Shabbat dinners where lone soldiers can share stories with one another and with fellow Israelis. Though these Shabbat dinners are not held every Friday night, the center helps soldiers find families to host them for meals. These lone soldiers are unable to speak to the press for security reasons, but their stories have made the rounds through these types of events.
Says Michael Friedman, a volunteer at the Tel Aviv center and himself a former lone soldier, emotional support has been paramount during this time.
“Twice a week, we have people come in at night to talk in comfort sessions. People can discuss anything with a 24-hour support line during the crisis,” he says.
The center also assists in assuaging the fears of parents who live far away from their children.
“We receive calls from worried parents,” says Iwler. “Mostly what we to do is make them calm down and [tell them] that everything is okay, that whoever is in the South have their phones shut down and they don’t need to panic.”
The center has largely relied on donations of time and goods from Israelis to provide a full support system for the soldiers.
“Israelis ask to adopt lone soldiers. They ask, ‘What can I do? Can I collect stuff?’” says Iwler. “We have a moving company staffed by volunteers. People donate their furniture and money. It’s very touching.”
“People are constantly calling, saying they’re going to the South and to bases, asking to bring stuff to the soldiers,” Friedman adds.
A lone soldier released from the IDF five months ago, Friedman says he identifies with the lone soldiers who are currently serving.
After going on a Taglit-Birthright trip six years ago and then returning to Israel for a Masa program, Friedman made aliya in the hopes of becoming a combat soldier.
“I made aliya and was put into the army, and I have no family here,” Friedman says.
Because of his experience starting anew in Israel, Friedman has made it his mission to help other lone soldiers.
“It’s very challenging, very disturbing, very hard to see other lone soldiers,” he says.
Like Friedman, Florida-born Jared White, a co-founder of the Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv, was a lone soldier.
A commander in the paratroopers who served in 2005, White felt a need for services that weren’t there for soldiers serving far from home, so he decided to continue helping soldiers after his military duty was finished.
“When we started the center, we wanted to help more. We wanted to feel that we were doing something. We knew that they still needed help. We just knew we had to help,” White explains.
Though many think of Americans as the most prevalent type of lone soldier, IDF lone soldiers come from around the globe.
“There are more than 5,900 lone soldiers in the army from everywhere – France, Russia, Peru, Hong Kong, all over,” says White.
The experience of the lone soldier is often a shared one, despite their different nationalities, White believes.
“It depends more on where you come from, your background, not necessarily where you come from geographically,” says Whit, who, like many lone soldiers, had an adoptive family to take the place of what Israeli soldiers have. “Israelis have family to help them. With us, the food’s all gone stale, they need to do laundry, and on top of all that, you can’t even think about processing what you’ve been going through. It’s very difficult,” he explains.
ANY MAN who makes aliya from 18 to 25 years of age must serve in the IDF, with the shortest amount of time being six months and the longest 30 months; for women, the age range is 17 to 20. A new immigrant begins the process of receiving lone soldier status six months before enlistment, when they are notified to meet with an army social worker, who will provide the appropriate documents.
Once lone soldiers receive this status, they are eligible for financial support, housing assistance and extra vacation time, including one free flight to their home country to visit their families for 30 days during their period of service.
Lone soldiers in non-combat units receive NIS 866 a month, while combat soldiers receive NIS 1,230; combat soldiers with seven months of advanced training receive NIS 1,618 a month.
In the past, the Lone Soldiers Program focused only on those who had made aliya from North America and England. But two years ago, the program was expanded to include lone soldiers from all over the world, and today assists those from 58 countries – including Morocco, Kenya, India, Estonia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
The largest contingents of lone soldiers come from North America and Russian-speaking countries.
In total, there are 2,800 lone soldiers who have come from abroad to serve in the IDF, out of 6,000 who were also granted the status due to family estrangements and other issues.
Noya Govrin, director of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program, agrees that soldiers leaving home have a shared experience.
“These lone soldiers left their friends, their families, their loved ones and their homes to make aliya and are now defending their country,” says Govrin. “This situation has broken down all boundaries. It doesn’t matter where they were born, whether it be the US, France, Peru, Mexico or Ukraine. They are all Israelis fighting to defend their people, their country, Israel. Zionism is not just a term for these brave young men and women, it’s a way of life.”
Current lone soldiers have struggled with the recent deaths of fellow lone soldiers, says White. When Max Steinberg was killed, “It hit the family hard. When you lose someone who you know or who has a similar background, it’s difficult. We’re having a tough time. It’s a tough period.”
Shoshi Spilman, also a former lone soldier, is co-head of the advisory team at the Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv.
A Canadian student studying at the Hebrew University, she decided to move to Israel six years ago. She says she was “open to new ideas and adventures from the moment [she] got to Israel, and for some reason that wasn’t ideological; [she] loved it here.”
It was a program at the Hebrew University that convinced her to join the army a year later. On joining the IDF, Spilman says that the reasons for becoming a soldier are often personal.
“The army doesn’t need so many extra people. It’s not because you have to, it’s because you want it. You would like to be in the army. You’re choosing to give a contribution in this particular format. I would say that every lone soldier becomes acclimatized to Israeli society,” she asserts.
This integration into Israeli society is credited largely to the many services the lone soldier centers provide.
“Lone soldiers get 30 days a year included in the service to visit their parents abroad. There are different living accommodations the army can provide them, or they receive money from the army – twice as much pay as the Israeli soldier,” says Spilman.
Lone soldiers can choose to live on kibbutzim throughout the country, in small apartments provided by the IDF, or in independently rented apartments subsidized by the army. Still, they receive hardly enough to cover living expenses, let alone Shabbat meals, laundry expenses and more, which is where the Lone Soldier Center steps in.
It is because of the close ties the Lone Soldier Center provided for Spilman that she feels so much empathy for the soldiers that are serving now.
“For all the 43 soldiers killed in this operation, every name strikes a note. And I cry for every single one of them. But there is something different for lone soldiers. As much as I’m told that when a lone soldier dies parents have to fly to Israel, that’s something that a regular soldier can’t understand and something he’ll never have to experience. It is different. It hits closer to home,” she says.
Despite the difficulties of this time, most have not been deterred from coming to serve in the IDF. While not all lone soldiers make aliya, most of those who were planning to move to Israel have not changed their plans.
“We definitely are not experiencing a decrease in aliya,” affirms Govrin.
“On the contrary, we have received numerous requests from olim to expedite their aliya process, as well as requests to advance their aliya dates so they can arrive in Israel and join the Israeli nation during these challenging times.”
Perhaps the outpouring of support from the Israeli and global community for lone soldiers sets a precedent for providing more assistance to the increasing number of lone soldiers set to arrive in Israel.
“If 1 percent of people who came to the funeral [of Max Steinberg] were here to help before the situation, it would be much better,” says Iwler.
With increasing awareness of soldiers like Steinberg, more and more preemptive and prewar support is expected to be given to members of the “Israeli family” far from their homes.
Additional reporting by Anav Silverman.