Far From Home and Far From Alone: New Lone Soldiers Join Tzofim Garin Tzabar Program

New Garin Tzabar participants adopted by Kibbutz Maoz Chaim. (Left to Right) Valeria Hidalgo, Rom Lerner, Daniella Rafel, Yona Lazar and Gitai Gazala.
New Garin Tzabar participants adopted by Kibbutz Maoz Chaim. (Left to Right) Valeria Hidalgo, Rom Lerner, Daniella Rafel, Yona Lazar and Gitai Gazala.

Winter’s cohort of young, selfless and fresh-faced heroes have arrived to Israel.

The last week of 2014 saw 68 new lone soldiers from all over the world – spanning widely from the USA, France, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, UK, Belgium, Spain, Finland and Kenya – warmly welcomed to Israel in a special ceremony, which took place in Tel Aviv.

This group follows their predecessors of the summer 2014 session, in which 350 Olim Chadashim from around the world joined ranks.

The Olim Chadashim (new immigrants) will be joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as part of the Tzofim (Israel Scouts) unique program for lone soldiers, Garin Tzabar – the largest immigrant program in Israel for serving in the IDF, with more than 2,500 Garin Tzabar soldiers since its inception 23 years ago.

Lone soldiers are driven by a seeming love for Israel and an unwavering commitment to the Jewish people, as they come from abroad, leaving their families behind in order to voluntarily serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. About 400 lone soldiers are reportedly supported by Garin Tzabar every year. 52% of these are male, 48% female, and the soldiers hail from 20 countries around the world.

Tzofim offers the necessary assistance in the absorption process of both the individual and the group, prior to and during the military service. Each of the soldiers belongs to a group (a “garin”) of approximately 20. Garin Tzabar participants, mostly American, with a significant number from Europe – particularly from France – are “adopted” by the Israel Scouts and placed in one of four hosting kibbutzim: Kibbutz Yavne (for the religious ‘Garin’), Neve Eitan, Maoz Chaim and Ein HaShlosha. These hosting kibbutzim become the soldiers’ home away from home throughout the duration of their army service. The soldiers have adoptive Israeli families, they learn Hebrew and they experience every step of their military service together as a social unit of mutual support and camaraderie.

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, Kibbutzim and Religious Kibbutz Movements.

Gary Vitkin, Executive Director at Tzofim Tzabar Olami said, “No matter what goes on in Israel or around the Jewish world, the Garin Tzabar program has proven to be very popular year in, year out, and is growing from strength to strength. The group framework of guidance and support that we provide for lone soldiers is unique and effective. Our biggest challenge is to only ensure that we have enough resources to provide for all our young soldiers.” Ido Lotan, Tzofim’s Director of International Relations, agreed, “It’s reassuring to see that at times of crisis, the Jewish world has a tendency to show solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people through generous support. There’s been a steady growth for Tzofim’s worthy project, Garin Tzabar. Israel as well as the Diaspora can learn a lot from these young Jewish heroes.”

A Glimpse at Some of Garin Tzabar’s Lone Soldiers

Shaked Menashe, 23, from Finland, is a soldier in the Givati Brigade. He has been a lone soldier in the Garin Tzabar program for one year. Following in his footsteps is his younger brother, Dekel Menashe, 19, who has just arrived with the Winter cohort. “Our friends and family think what we’re doing is dangerous, especially after knowing I was stationed right at the border near Gaza during the recent Operation Protective Edge last summer. But I know they’re just worried about me, and they don’t really understand what it’s like here.” Says Shaked, who was born and raised in Israel to an Israeli father and Finnish mother, until the family moved to Finland 11 years ago. “I’ve always felt strongly about wanting to serve in the Israeli army and protecting those who protected me. It’s my way of giving back.”

Travis Yon was born and raised in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and moved to Duluth, Minnesota after he finished high school. After graduating from Indiana University, where he studied Jewish Studies and Hebrew, Travis says he wanted to join Garin Tzabar when he knew he wanted to make Aliyah. Having recovered from cancer not once, but twice, Travis chose to volunteer as a medic in the army. Echoing Shaked’s sentiments, Travis said, “As a part of making Aliyah, I wanted to serve in the IDF in order to give back to the country that has given me the best experiences of my life.”

Daniella Rafel, from Perth, Australia, graduated high school in 2011 and in 2012 took a gap year in Israel on a MASA program. In 2013 she did a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University studying Hebrew, Middle Eastern Studies and Jewish studies. “I don’t have any family and friends in Israel,” said Daniella, “so I joined Garin Tzabar because I love the idea of being with 20 other people my age who have also left their homes to make Aliyah and join the army and being able to experience that all together.”

Valeria Hidalgo, from San Jose, Costa Rica, went to a Jewish school and studied law at the University of Costa Rica for a year. “My lifelong dream has been to make Alyiah,” said Valeria. “During the gap year I took in 2013 with my youth movement, Hanoar Hatzioni, I realized that to really become a part of Israeli society the army was the best way in. The more I thought about it, the more serving Israel and doing a contribution however small to my country, became a priority for me.” Valeria, whose father is not Jewish, said that she received a lot of support from her friends and family about her decision to voluntarily serve, and some of her best friends plan to move to Israel in 2015.

Shiri Shamir, 22, from Woodmere, New York, graduated from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in International Relations with a minor in Economics. “Garin Tzabar not only accelerates the drafting process from up to 1 year, to just 3 months,” said Shiri, “it provides a family and community that will be there for you long after you finish your service. There’s really nothing like having a group of like-minded people to lean on and depend on as we all go through this wonderful and yet challenging period of our lives together. With Garin Tzabar we’re not alone.”

Probably the most indicative and revealing feature of Garin Tzabar is quite simply: Israel’s lone soldiers are far from ever feeling alone.

For more information about Garin Tzabar and the support of lone soldiers, contact Noa Hakim garinco@zofim.org.il