Lone soldiers immigrating to Israel to serve this country deserve a support system from their arrival until their transition into civilian life, Hila Soleimani, project manager of the Wings program recently told The Jerusalem Post.
Wings was established in 2005 by the Merage Foundation Israel and the Jewish Agency, in collaboration with the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, Chaim Saban, and other organizations. The program aims to provide young, new immigrants who make Aliyah on their own, a holistic framework to integrate into Israeli society. From preparation for enlistment in the IDF, throughout service, and following discharge, participants receive career guidance, emotional support, and financial coaching.
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"We first meet the participants at the absorption centers and kibbutzim before their army service and we help prepare them for the IDF and what it means to be a lone soldier, helping them deal with the army and placement in different units," Soleimani said.
"Youth who arrive in Israel, before they enlist don't know the culture and the language and they need to adjust to this as well as to the culture of the IDF," she added. "So already before they enlist, they need to receive a lot of information in their mother tongue - and Wings provides them this information as a first step."
Once they go to the army, they are transferred to the care of the IDF.
Then, three months before the end of their army service, which typically lasts three years, the Wings program in collaboration with the IDF begins preparing the soldiers for a transition into civilian life.
As part of the program, lone soldiers meet with advisors, who accompany them during this transition.
"We walk with them hand in hand into civilian life and help them map out their lives for the next 2-3 years," Soleimani said.
From a financial advisor who helps with rental agreements, cell phone plans, and opening a bank account to an occupational psychologist who helps with academic studies and career placement the Wings program aims to facilitate this transition.
Additionally, following their discharge and integration into Israeli society the Wings community spread across the country provides a social circle along with enhancement workshops across a wide range of fields.
This year alone, Soleimani said, there were over 1,200 lone soldier olim who joined the program.
"We really aim to provide an envelope for the lone soldier olim, to hug them, grow with them and provide them with Wings every year," said Soleimani. "We want to be there for the youth at the most challenging times and especially during their transition into civilian life."
Indeed, the program has been such a success that in 2016 the Knesset provided Wings with a mandate to create the Lone Soldiers Forum, which brings together civil society NGOs, government offices, and relevant IDF officials to assist lone soldiers serving in the IDF.
Additionally, after nearly two decades, the program just recently inaugurated a new center at The Jewish Agency’s “Beit Brodetsky” for young olim in Ramat Aviv, with offices and classrooms to hold workshops and advisory meetings with the lone soldiers.
"I established Wings about 17 years ago when I managed the social service at the Jewish Agency with an understanding that the lone immigrant soldiers, who sacrifice their souls in the IDF and contribute significantly to its success do not have any support system before and after their service," said Mira Keidar, founder of Wings currently serves as the director of Resources for Coping and Mobilization in the program.
"Their personal skills are particularly high, but the preoccupation with daily survival hinders them and prevents the realization of their abilities. Happily, David Merage was involved with all his heart from the very beginning and the program was established, operating very professionally and providing a solution while also supporting many thousands," she added.
The Wings program was made possible by The Jewish Agency and the Merage Foundation, a private family foundation, established by businessman and venture philanthropists David and Laura Merage from Denver, Colorado. David and Laura, both natives of Tehran, Iran immigrated to the United States in their teens.
In 1977, David Merage and his brother, Paul, founded Chef America, Inc. best known for developing the household staple, Hot Pockets, which they sold to Nestle in 2002.
They began their philanthropic activity in Israel by giving back to new immigrants making Aliyah.
“The Merage Foundation decided to invest in this important field of lone soldiers or young immigrants to Israel because David Merage saw himself as an immigrant," Nicole Hod Stroh, executive director of the Merage Foundation Israel recently told The Post.
"He speaks of that struggle and the difficulty to immigrate as a young person, and he felt very connected to the importance of this amazing sacrifice that young people all over the world are making to come to Israel and serve in the IDF,” she said.
According to Hod Stroh, an immigrant from Colombia herself, the Wings program aims to not only assist lone soldiers serving in the IDF but also to help channel their unique abilities and talents by providing them with the best possible tools to not only integrate but to succeed and enhance Israeli society.
“Wings represents the DNA of our organization - these are extraordinary people, they are diamonds coming to Israel, and we aim to strive for excellence and to help them fulfill their full potential to continue to give back to Israeli society – our support is very minded in what we can do to help others succeed in integration,” she said.
Jewish Agency CEO Amira Ahronoviz concurred and said that Wings is one of the “most impactful Jewish Agency programs.”
"Wings deeply influences the experience of young olim who come to build their future in Israel and serve in the IDF. Wings is truly a game-changer for these lone soldiers, and I am so grateful to our partners at the Merage Foundation for helping build this essential support system," she said.
Ariel Goldberg, a graduate of the Wings program, credits this unique initiative with assisting him in his transition from military to civilian life, and in helping him get started on his career path.
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Born and raised in Siberia, Russia, Goldberg began studying in a Jewish School in Samara at the age of 15. It was during this time that he was exposed to Jewish History and Hebrew studies.
“One day I was invited to go on a trip to Poland for the March of the Living,” he recalled. “It was a very emotional trip, and, in those moments, you understand why we need the State of Israel. So, after returning home I came to my parents and said I want to make Aliyah to Israel.”
At just 18 years old Goldberg made Aliyah through the Jewish Agency program Selah, an academic and Hebrew preparation program for young olim for the former Soviet Union. After completing the program, he enlisted in the IDF working with the Iron Dome defense system.
“It was an amazing feeling – people from surrounding towns and kibbutzim came to thank us and it was one of the most, if not the most, meaningful times in my life,” he said.
A few months before his release from the army, Goldberg was introduced to the Wings program.
It began as a five-day workshop about everything that new immigrants and lone soldiers need to know,” he said. “I met with a professional advisor, underwent diagnostic testing to help me to decide what academic studies I should pursue.”
The Wings program also assisted Goldberg in gathering information and applying for a scholarship to study political science and diplomacy at Reichman University.
“For me it was most important because I was a new immigrant, and many new immigrants don’t know about all the opportunities available in every aspect of life here in Israel, so this program helped me a lot.”
Following his studies, Goldberg secured a position at the Israeli Embassy in Uzbekistan as the assistant to the Ambassador and to the Consul.
“Wings knows how to find the ability, skills, and potential from the soldiers and immigrants and to bring it into civilian life – it is the most important thing that lone soldiers need,” he said.
Today, he serves as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Penn State University Hillel in the United States.
“Even though I officially completed the program, I don’t feel as though I am done with the program,” he said. “When I was in the program, Hila [Soleimani] invited me to Shabbat dinners with and holidays at her home with her parents – her dad was also a lone soldier, and it is amazing when you are released from the army, when someone sends you messages to ask how you are and invites you to Shabbat dinner and it makes you feel like you are not alone.”
He added that to this day he remains in touch with friends and his advisors from the Wings program.
Tony Rachler, the Deputy Chief of Administration and Accountant for the Israeli Embassy in Panama and a graduate of the Wings program shared a similar sentiment.
Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Rachler decided to make Aliyah to Israel at just 16 years old, through the Jewish Agency program Naaleh.
“I wanted to serve in the IDF, have meaningful service and so I served in Golani, and I participated in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and in Operation Protective Edge in 2014,” he said. “My unit lost three soldiers, one of whom was a very close friend – it was challenging and left a trauma in my soul, though this is a part of the service.”
Following his army service Rachler knew that he would want to continue serving the State of Israel but did not yet know in what capacity.
“When I was about to be discharged from the army, the Wings program took lone soldiers to a discharge course and they organized meetings with businesses and consultants,” he said. “I was really interested in this – how to integrate into life after the army.”
Rachler was assigned two counselors, and together they built a program on how to best integrate into civilian life.
“I took tests, had numerous meetings, they helped me with admissions to University and so much more,” he said. “After the army, nobody teaches you how to open a bank account, what is paying rent, paying city tax, dealing with the tax authority. Wings really helps you with integrating and becoming a citizen of Israel and helps you to understand civilian life.”
Following his release from the IDF, he completed a Mechina program at Bar Ilan University in Political Science followed by studies in Government Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University, then known as IDC Herzliya.
“I took the traditional post-army trip to Central America and felt that all I did during my time there was Hasbara – I talked about Israel as the Startup Nation and about Israel’s right to exist,” he recalled. “And then at University I was also involved in a lot of hasbara efforts, I felt it was important for me to contribute.”
Ultimately, Rachler felt that a career in diplomatic service was the best way to both learn about Israeli foreign relations and continue with his lifelong passion for service to the State of Israel – a notion that was reinforced in the psychological and career guidance tests he took as part of the Wings program.
“Hasbara is extremely important – Israel needs to be everywhere in the world so that we can tell the truth about this country – the truth that is not presented in the media,” he said. “This is what I will do until my dying day – defending Israel in every way.”
Rachler also credits Wings with setting him off on his career path following his IDF service.
“Wings wants you to be at the top, to study at the best universities, to study what most appeals to you – a person who can take this program seriously can reach where I am today or can reach unlimited heights,” he said. “It has a very important weight to integrate new olim into Israeli society and to contribute to their success.”
He added: “A person that has a dream needs to defend it and believe in it and never give up and try to achieve it in any way possible. I want as many lone soldiers as possible to get to know this program and realize its importance – it can really change your life by 180 degrees in Israel.”
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This article was written in cooperation with The Merage Foundation Israel