Givat Olga, Israel — On a recent steamy Mediterranean day, a few hundred young Israeli soldiers, outfitted in their khaki dress uniforms, sat down for dinner in an air-conditioned hall at a small military rest-and-recreation center here. While some spoke in Hebrew, many held their conversations in English or Russian or Spanish, the languages of their homelands.
The privates and sergeants are “lone soldiers,” the army’s term for members of the Israel Defense Forces who have no family in Israel. They make aliyah and are drafted, or come to Israel specifically to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, out of religious or nationalistic fervor. Their fervor is evident on their shoulders.
Under many of the men’s epaulettes are tucked maroon berets, a prestigious sign of paratrooper units. And on the women’s sleeves are symbols of similar elite units.
A disproportionate percentage of lone soldiers — about 40 percent, according to army statistics — choose to enroll in front-line combat units like the paratroopers, which undergo more grueling training in peacetime and face greater risks during war.
Which is why they came to Israel.
“I believe in Zionism. I believe in the necessity of having an army,” says Shimon Gordon, a 22-year-old native of New City and recent graduate of the University of Albany. He is among some 300 lone soldiers invited to a two-day gathering at this center on the coast near Hadera, staying in modest rooms on the grounds and enjoying the view of waves crashing on a strip of beach.
The gathering — one of several recent signs of an increased interest in the plight of lone soldiers — is sponsored by the Michael Levin Memorial Fund for Israel, named for the Philadelphia native who died from a Hezbollah sniper’s bullet in southern Lebanon three years ago this month. He was 22, the only American-born soldier to die in that summer’s fighting.
The biennial gathering is supported by the Israeli Army, which arranged transportation
for the soldiers. Ordinarily, Gordon says, he’d be in his barracks cleaning his gear.
The two days feature lectures, swimming, entertainment, a vendors’ fair of Israeli universities and Israeli employers, and the screening of a video, “A Hero in Heaven,” about Levin’s life and death. The soldiers say the gathering is a welcome break. Jennifer Mendelsohn, a 21-year-old native of Toronto, says she’d otherwise be back on base analyzing intelligence maps. Levi Mogilevsky, also 21 and from Toronto, says he’d be out on a shooting range.
The memorial fund (aheroinheaven.com) was established by Michael’s parents, Harriet and Mark Levin, as part of a variety of activities on behalf of lone soldiers.
The country’s lone soldiers — more than 5,000, from more than 20 native lands — face the same intensive training and combat duties as Sabra soldiers, but lack the support system of family members who have also served in the army, who open their homes for days off on Shabbat and holidays, who help take care of such mundane chores as laundry and banking, who use their contacts to line up post-army jobs.
“Day to day I don’t feel it’s so tough,” Mendelsohn says. It’s tougher on holidays, she says. “You’re not sitting with your family.”
More than 400 lone soldiers from the United States are enrolled in the Israeli Army, some coming just to serve without settling permanently in Israel, according to the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s office. Some come under the auspices of Garin Tzabar (Hebrew for “Sabra Seeds”), a program of the Friends of Israel Scouts, funded by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which offers group orientation about army service to future soldiers before they arrive.
The IDF offers special financial benefits to lone soldiers, including bimonthly days off to take care of personal matters, early leave on Fridays, exemption from municipal taxes, help with moving and an annual Passover seder for lone soldiers that attracts 400.
“I don’t think any other army in the world does things like this,” says Peninah Rost, 23, a lone soldier from Highland Park, N.J..
The Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Absorption and such organizations as Toronto-based Heseg also offer assistance. Kibbutz families “adopt” lone soldiers, and Hesder yeshivot, which combine Torah learning with army service, take lone soldiers under their wings.
Military service is never easy. It’s even tougher when you’re a foreigner, not yet comfortable in Hebrew or in Israeli social customs, the soldiers say. Some Israeli-born soldiers understand the plight of the chayalim bodedim (Hebrew for “lone soldiers”); some don’t.
Israeli-born soldiers often question the motivation, if not the sanity, of soldiers from overseas who trade a comfortable life in the West for Spartan accommodations and grueling marches, says stand-up comic Joel Chasnoff (joelchasnoff.com), a native of Evanston, Ill., now 35, who served as a tank gunner in the Armored Corps after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.
Secular soldiers “really don’t get it,” he says. “Why would you throw away a year of your life [or more] if you don’t have to?” they ask, Chasnoff says. For many, he says, three years of army service starting at 18
is merely astandard part of Israeli life, not a holy obligation or sign of solidarity with the Jewish people. “The religious guys,” who in growing numbers are becoming officers and members of elite units “get it,” he says — they share his fervor.
Often, groups of lone soldiers become each other’s surrogate family, online or in person. “You’re your own family,” Mogilevsky says.
All the help from the army and adjunct organizations “makes a tremendous difference,” says Gabriel Perlim, a 23-year-old native of Brazil who serves at the Israeli Navy’s base in Haifa. “You face many different challenges that other soldiers don’t face.” He chose to join the Navy, a smaller, more-personalized branch than the general army, to ease his way into service, he says.
Helping lone soldiers is good for Israel, both improving its image, easing the stress of aliyah, and lessening the concerns of soldiers’ families back home, says Tziki Aud, a former Jewish Agency new immigrant official who is a longtime supporter of lone soldiers. “The more they do for the welfare of the soldiers, the better soldiers they have,” he says.
Although soldiers from about a dozen countries were invited to the recent Givat Olga gathering, it was geared to soldiers from North America in combat units.
“We wanted to help soldiers like Michael” — lone soldiers who serve in front-line units, Mark Levin says. “These guys have it the hardest. Even though Michael’s passing was the pivotal event that brought us together,” Mark Levin told the lone soldiers, “it is not his story alone that we are here to honor.”
Michael’s grave in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national military cemetery, festooned with notes and pictures and Philadelphia Phillies baseball caps, is probably one of the most-visited, a stop for most Birthright Israel tours from the U.S.
A visitor the other day asked a middle-aged Israeli man, who was visiting his son’s grave in the cemetery, where Michael’s resting place is.
“The American?” the Israeli asked. He pointed to Michael’s grave.
On the day last week before the Levins held a gravesite memorial service, a drop-in center named for Michael was dedicated in central Jerusalem. The center offers a home away from home, complete with computer terminals, refreshments and mentoring from former lone soldiers.
A wall of memorial panels about Michael’s exploits was unveiled recently at Ammunition Hill in northeast Jerusalem, site of a bloody battle in the 1967 Six-Day War. Soldiers tell of rooms named for Michael on bases throughout the country.
Aud, who runs the new center (jtz.org.il), says Michael’s death, which was front-page news in both the Israeli and U.S. media, brought increased attention to lone soldiers, whose numbers have risen in recent decades, particularly after the Soviet Union collapsed and young members of Jewish families began to make aliyah by themselves.
“The whole system [of army support for lone soldiers] has improved” over the last two decades, says Adam Harmon, an American-born volunteer in the IDF beginning in the 1990s, who wrote about his experiences in a special operations unit in “Lonely Soldier: The Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army” (Presidio Press, 2006). “One of the strengths of the IDF is its ability to adapt, to change its organizational structure, to support its soldiers.”
The recent Givat Olga gathering had an intergenerational aspect. In the crowd were older officers and Avigdor Kahalani, a hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The Israeli police, seeking motivated recruits, made a strong pitch at the vendors’ fair. Between sessions, the soldiers schmoozed and exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
“A lot of networking” took place, Mark Levin says. “It’s a big part” of the two days.
For those two days, soldiers without family in Israel were creating their own extended family.