By Gary Vitkin
Lone Soldiers – Israel’s unsung heroes. With an end to Operation “Protective Edge” barely in sight, it may surprise many to hear that in mid-August, the Israeli Scouts Movement “Tzofim” will welcome 350 new Olim Chadishim (new immigrants) from around the world to Israel. These Olim will be joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as part of the Tzofim’s unique program for lone soldiers, Garin Tzabar.
There has been a surge in news lately about lone soldiers. By now, it is common knowledge that recently over 30,000 Israelis, despite falling rockets and air raid sirens, turned up in solidarity to show their respects for Sergeant Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from America, at his funeral in Haifa.
Major media outlets around the world are buzzing with reports on the phenomenon of lone soldiers: those brave young souls who leave their homes and families around the world to serve in the IDF. This heightened interest comes on the heels of three lone soldiers (two US citizens and one French citizen), who fell just last week in battle fighting for the IDF in Gaza during Operation “Protective Edge”.
Many have begun to ask questions: Who are these lone soldiers? How many of them serve in the army? What motivates them to move to Israel? Why do they want to volunteer in the IDF and serve a country far from the one where their family resides?
Few, however, have offered any insight as to what support systems are in place for these lone soldiers, who voluntarily serve and are prepared to selflessly lay down their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, the Jewish homeland and for Jewish hope. Who brings these soldiers to Israel and how are they looked after?
Enter Garin Tzabar (literally meaning “Israeli native core or seed”).
Garin Tzabar is a unique Israeli Scouts program established in order to provide a support system for lone soldiers. It is the largest immigrant program in Israel for serving in the IDF, surprisingly unbeknownst to most Israelis, with more than 2,500 soldiers since its inception 23 years ago.
Founded in 1991 and run by Tzofim – Israel Scouts movement, Garin Tzabar is supported in part by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, The Prime Minister of Israel’s office, The Ministry of Defense, The Jewish Agency For Israel, Masa Israel Journey, Nefesh B’Nefesh, Kibbutzes and Religious Kibbutz Movements.
Garin Tzabar members are Jewish, living in the Diaspora, mostly American, and choose to move to Israel and serve in the IDF. Upon their arrival in Israel, the group is adopted by the Israel Scouts and placed in a hosting frameworks: kibbutzes and cities, which quickly becomes their home away from home throughout the duration of their army service.
Each of the 350 new soldiers who will be arriving to Israel in two weeks’ time will belong to a group (a “garin”) of approximately 20 soldiers who live together at a kibbutz or city. There are more than 30 participating kibbutzes in the program. The soldiers will have adoptive Israeli families, they will learn Hebrew, and they will experience every step of their military service together as a social unit of mutual support and camaraderie.
“There are currently more than 30 active Garin groups of lone soldiers, many of them taking part in the current military operation to protect the people and land of Israel”, said Gal Ben Shimol, Executive Director at Tzofim – Israel Scouts. “The program has proven to be very popular, however our resources are limited.”
“We create a group framework of guidance and support for young Jews living abroad who choose to spend a significant time in Israel and to serve in the IDF. This is our mission. It’s simple, and effective.” Ben Shimol affirmed.
Sam Heller, (28), from Vancouver, who recently returned to Canada after serving in the IDF for 24 months through Garin Tzabar (Nahal Infantry Brigade, Battalion 50), said “I always knew I wanted to do my part for the State of Israel. Whereas for some people, it’s enough to show their support for Israel by writing out checks, for me, I knew I had to go a step further.”
Heller went to Israel on a high school program with Habonim Dror (a Socialist-Zionist Jewish Youth Movement) when he was 16. “I related strongly to the Zionist ideals of taking on responsibility for the Jewish people. But I wasn’t in any position to support myself and do it alone. I found that Tzofim’s Garin Tzabar program created a safe and comfortable environment for a thorough preparation process for joining the army, both prior to my arrival in Israel and during my military service there.” Heller put his college degree, which he was mid-way through completing, on hold when he made the decision at the age of 23 to go through with his dream of joining the IDF. “I was the oldest in my Garin Tzabar year. I’m back at college now, continuing from where I left off, surrounded by people who are all younger than me. All my friends who finished college have begun proper careers. In that sense, I feel at a slight disadvantage, but on the other hand, I don’t regret my decision for a second. I served my people and my country, and there’s no better feeling than that. I know the experience I gained, the lifelong friends I made, and the life skills I learned can’t ever be beaten by anything I’ll get out of college. My only wish is that I could be back in Israel right now, joining my brothers on the frontline. It hurts to be here, so far away from where my heart and mind are currently.’
While it’s hard to believe for some, there are actually many who echo Heller’s sentiments. There are about 300 lone soldiers supported by Garin Tzabar every year. 52% of these are men, 48% women, and the soldiers hail from 17 countries around the world. Tzofim offers much needed assistance in the absorption process of both the individual and the group, prior and during the military service. But, as Ben Shimol laments, despite the growing popularity of the program and the high demand, more funds are needed.
How can Israel and the Jewish world offer more assistance to these lone soldiers? Elad Sanderovich, Executive Director of Friends of Israel Scouts, Inc. said, “It’s reassuring to see that at times of crisis, such as now, when Israel needs support more than ever, the Jewish world has a tendency to show solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people by digging deep into its pockets. In light of the current situation, there has been a steady growth of support that has poured in to Tzofim’s important project of Garin Tzabar and we hope this continues.”
When 30,000 strangers turn up to one lone soldier’s funeral, it makes one wonder about the correctness of the term Lone Soldier. As Heller surmised, “Really, there’s no such thing. I never once felt alone in Israel. I would have, had it not been for Garin Tzabar. At first I used to say I have a brother in Canada and I have new brothers in Israel. But now, looking back, and when I think about the attendance to the funerals of our brothers last week, I have more than just my Garin brothers in Israel; I have an entire Israeli family.”
Gary Vitkin is Executive Director at Tzofim Tzabar Olami.
For more information about Garin Tzabar and the support of lone soldiers, contact Elad Sanderovich [email protected]
photos courtesy Tzofim