Lone Soldiers: Anything But Alone

Soldiers to be; photo by Shahar Azran.

by Laura Ben-David

Arya, a lone soldier in the IDF, grew up knowing that “Israel was a special and important place.” Even as a young teen, Arya knew that just knowing about Israel wasn’t enough. The 26-year-old native of Encino, California, grew up in a family with deeply Zionistic roots, which imbued him with strong feelings for Israel from the time he was very young. By the time he was 14, Arya knew that he was going to one day make aliya and join the IDF. If Israelis were defending Israel, then he, as a Jew, should be doing so as well. And he did exactly that.

Maya Liss, originally from LA, wanted to dedicate her life to advocating for Israel and the Jewish people. “I felt that in order truly advocate for Israel, I had to be Israeli,” says Maya, now 24. “And I can’t think of a better way to start my life as an Israeli than to serve in the IDF.”

Nadav Weinberg, 26, observed the difficult events of the Second Intifada from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Then just 16, he had Israeli cousins fighting in combat units. “It didn’t feel right that my cousins were serving; yet, because I happened to be from the US, I wouldn’t be obligated to serve my people when I came of age.”

Arya, Maya and Nadav are among the thousands of selfless and idealistic young people who make aliya to Israel on their own each year, and enlist in the IDF. There are currently 2,700 of these lone soldiers serving in the IDF. These young people come from all over the world, including North America, Russia, the Ukraine, France, and most other countries with a Jewish population. While these “lone soldiers” have left their homes and families, they are anything but “alone.” They are embraced by communities, adoptive families, army buddies, and by incredible organizations such as the Lone Soldiers Program (LSP), a partnership forged between Nefesh B’Nefesh (full disclosure: I’m NBN’s social media coordinator) and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) to support lone soldiers who have made aliya from anywhere in the world.

An incredible byproduct of the idealism of these soldiers is the effect they are having on Israelis. Nimi, 29, grew up in Israel always knowing he was going to go into the army. He remembers a time when he would see lone soldiers, wondering if he would have done the same had he been in their place. “I so appreciate what these lone soldiers bring to the country,” Nimi relates. “They have a pure sense of Zionism. As an Israeli, I learned so much from these soldiers about Judaism, tradition and history; not about the historical facts, but about our deep connection to it. These lone soldiers serve as reminders of our relationship with Israel. Like newlyweds that remind an old couple about love, lone soldiers inject a renewed sense of love, commitment and Zionism into ordinary Israelis.”

Being a lone soldier isn’t easy. It means living in a new country and struggling with a new language and a different culture. It means coming home thoroughly drained and having no mother or father to hug and welcome you back; no warm, home-cooked meal waiting for you on the kitchen table; just an empty fridge and a bag of meager items that you managed to pick up on the way. Twenty-one year-old Hayim, originally from Baltimore, Maryland, adds that being a lone soldier means “you can be exhausted, sore, even depressed like any other soldier, but never for a second regretting the decision to serve your homeland. And though you may feel that you’re by yourself at times, you’re never really alone.”

It may not be a luxury stint, but thankfully these soldiers are very rich in the love they receive. As Nadav points out, “People may not realize it, but when you are awake at 3 a.m. doing guard duty, by yourself, there is a certain amount of isolation that a lone soldier feels more than any other soldier. But I had my adoptive family on the kibbutz, I had the support of NBN, I had the garin [a group from Garin Tzabar, an organization that facilitates and helps groups of people who are specifically moving to Israel and joining the army], and I had my army team.”

Among other supportive gestures, there are groups and organizations that provide holiday meals and care packages to soldiers, particularly to lone soldiers. “I remember I was in basic training during Passover,” Maya recalls. “It was one of the most meaningful holidays I have ever had. I also remember after, when it was nearing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and I was still in the army, it was a very hard time for me. I had been away from my family for a long time and I had a very hard time making holiday plans in Israel. I remember it feeling very lonely. Then I got a holiday care package and it felt so good to know that I was thought of. That package with the little card on it really meant so much.”

Twenty-year-old Maysen, originally from Edmonton, Canada, agrees. “Being a lone soldier around the holidays is hard. It’s always difficult to be away from family on big holidays. But there are so many organizations and people who realize that and make it their job to ensure that no lone soldier is truly ‘alone’ for the holidays. I’ve already received emails and messages from NBN, the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers and every Israeli family I know, inviting me to share Rosh Hashanah with them. On every holiday the lone soldiers receive packages from LSP full of treats (both practical and fun to get). My favorite part of the packages is the letters written by Hebrew day-school students in the States and Canada.”

Yoav Schaefer, a 24-year-old from Santa Barbara, California, describes his reasoning for making aliya and becoming a lone soldier from both a practical and philosophical perspective. “Our generation has the unprecedented privilege of living in a world where a Jewish nation-state is a reality; I came because of a desire to play an active role in the greatest collective Jewish project of modern Jewish history: the building of that state. I wanted, with my own two hands, to tangibly make a difference and feel the fulfillment. I [also] saw the army as a learning experience: to learn Hebrew, to meet Israelis and cultivate an understanding of Israeli society, to come to know myself — mentally, physically and ideologically — and to challenge myself as well.”

Of course one of the most difficult challenges facing these soldiers is the distance placed between themselves and their actual families. “As difficult as it is at times, I don’t regret it at all,” insists Arya. “I have missed the births of four cousins, four major family and friends’ weddings, and a cousin’s bar mitzvah. I have missed numerous Shabbat dinners and other holidays. But I have gained so much more. When I took my oath at my induction ceremony, standing in front of the Kotel and singing ‘Hatikva,’ I had the biggest smile on my face. I don’t know how many people can say they have fulfilled their dreams. But I know that I’ve fulfilled at least one.”

Inspired by her Aliyah experience, Laura began writing and never stopped. She is the author of the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken about Israel and Aliyah all over the United States and Israel. You can find Laura’s writing at Moving Up: The Aliyah Blog.

This piece originally appeared on The Times Of Israel.