Lone soldiers need our help - opinion

Lone soldiers in the IDF contend with finding housing, managing their finances, and navigating bureaucracy.

 SOLDIERS LISTEN to the accounts of a Holocaust survivor which often frames their army service within the context of Jewish history.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
SOLDIERS LISTEN to the accounts of a Holocaust survivor which often frames their army service within the context of Jewish history.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Life in the army is not easy. But for 7,000 IDF soldiers without family support, the difficulties multiply. In addition to the stark rigors of army life, these “lone soldiers” contend with finding housing, managing their finances, and navigating bureaucracy. Now, GroWings, an organization founded in 2018 for lone soldiers, by lone soldiers, strives to ease these extra burdens and create a supportive lone soldier community.

GroWings is building a comprehensive network of support for lone soldiers, from pre- through post-service. But the organization started with a much more modest dream. Its seed germinated during my own time as a lone soldier in the Yahalom special forces unit, where I used robots to search terror tunnels for bombs and other dangerous threats. Among the many differences between me and my non-lone soldier comrades, one stuck with me as something that should be changed: They had visited Poland and I had not.

This may seem peripheral, but I felt I was missing something profoundly important. I had enlisted into the IDF full of Zionist idealism, born of my upbringing, and fanned during a high school semester in Israel with Masa Israel Journey. But in the daily slog of drilling and marches, it was easy to lose sight of the values that drove me. Through talking to my fellow soldiers, I learned that their high school Poland trip had helped root them.

It had framed their army service within the context of Jewish history, of great-grandparents who had died longing for this land we now protect. It had taught them about Jewish perseverance and survival and impressed upon them the importance of their service to the continued existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

I realized that all lone soldiers should have that experience before beginning their service. After my release, I began working to make it happen, along with my friends from home and fellow lone soldiers Yuval Hadari and Roy Milstein.

 The Thanksgiving dinner for American IDF lone soldiers, hosted by AJC Jersualem (credit: AJC JERUSALEM) The Thanksgiving dinner for American IDF lone soldiers, hosted by AJC Jersualem (credit: AJC JERUSALEM)

Our plan was larger than simply taking pre-draft soldiers on a Masa journey to Poland. We would partner each new soldier with a mentor, a post-service lone soldier, who would accompany them on the trip and guide them throughout their service and beyond. The pairs would participate in a series of seminars to prepare them for what they were about to see. Then, the difficult trip would infuse the new soldiers with purpose and integrate them and their mentors into a supportive community – an element critical to my army success.

After much arranging and fundraising, we formed a partnership with the Jewish Agency’s Wings program. We assembled an initial cohort of 18 pre-draft lone soldiers and six mentors and ran two introductory seminars. And then, coronavirus struck. We had to cancel the trip. What could we do for the fledgling soldiers who had trusted us enough to come this far?

We resolved to help this group of enlistees – and others – in any way we could. And opportunities abounded.

WE IMMERSED ourselves in:

Arranging housing. Many lone soldiers have trouble finding a place to live. Through connections from my real estate company, the Concierge Group Real Estate, and a close partnership with the organization, Bayit Brigade, we were able to help lone soldiers find affordable housing options throughout central Israel. We built a network of agents, movers and furniture donors, and supplemented the IDF’s rent subsidy.

Navigating bureaucracy. Lone soldiers confront numerous bureaucratic hurdles, before, during and after their army service. While about 45% of lone soldiers come from the Diaspora as volunteers or new olim, about 50% are Israelis who are orphaned or come from difficult backgrounds. Some soldiers in unique circumstances need assistance in getting their lone soldier status recognized so they can get the benefits they deserve and need; with determination, persistence and many phone calls, we were able to guide them toward solutions.

Transitioning to civilian life. Lone soldiers often struggle with acclimating to civilian society following their army service. In April, an IDF veteran with PTSD from serving in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge immolated himself in front of the Defense Ministry’s Rehabilitation Division in Petah Tikva to bring attention to the lack of resources given to post-service soldiers, especially those who are wounded or disabled. But even soldiers who finish their service whole, in body and spirit, have trouble adjusting. When I was released from the army, I had completed my aliyah, but I had never lived as a civilian in Israel.

And many released soldiers never even formally made aliyah. Until they complete this arduous process, they cannot legally work in the country. To address this, we founded the Aliyah Concierge, an extension of our work in real estate and support for lone soldiers. This organization, staffed mainly by Masa Israel Journey alumni who know firsthand the challenges of moving to a new country, helps released lone soldiers and other olim navigate the process of making aliyah and integrating into their new lives as citizens.

Through these efforts, we were able to reach about 150 lone soldiers. But we yearned to do more. Our newest initiative is an app that is being developed that offers a single portal where lone soldiers can communicate with each other and build a community through shared resources and networking.

Lone soldiers voluntarily risk their lives for Israel and the Jewish people, so they deserve our full support. GroWings is devoted to providing lone soldiers with a smooth and integrated process, creating a network of comradeship and community while showing them how much we value their sacrifice and commitment. Our mission revolves around overcoming uncertainties, creating opportunities and reconnecting the wheel of support, for lone soldiers by lone soldiers.

The writer is a Masa alum and co-founder and executive director of GroWings.