Israel’s Lone Soldiers Benefit from Levin Memorial Center Programs
You wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a crowd. The buzz cut and clean shaven face succeeds in creating a sense of uniformed anonymity. If you were privy to observe military training or even a discreet mission, you wouldn’t be able to discern who they were. They receive the same training, and are held to the same high standards as everyone else. You wouldn’t even be able to spot them amidst a crowd of soldiers waiting for the bus or train in many of the major cities around Israel.
But spend a minute or two conversing in Hebrew with these brave warriors and the gig is up. You will notice in an instant that even the best faked Israeli accent is a little off. Their mannerisms and gesticulations are a tad different from that of a native Hebrew speaker. Their enthusiasm for the task they have been handed is just a little sharper than the rest. You may also notice a deer in the headlights look emanating from the tired worn out eyes of these protectors of Jewish life. A look that says, “Am I really here? Is this really happening? And when do I get a weekend off for a bit of R and R?”
I speak of the lone soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces. A lone soldier is defined as a soldier of the IDF whose immediate family does not reside in Israel. So when a lone soldier gets weekend leave, he or she becomes just that, alone. These soldiers have forsaken cushy jobs, masters and PhD aspirations, the easy lifestyle, and close proximity to friends and family, to fulfill their desire of serving in the IDF.
“I came here out of a sense of responsibility,” says First Sergeant Shaun of the Paratroopers Brigade. “An understanding that the IDF is tasked with protecting world Jewry, and a belief that Israelis cannot and should not go about this on their own. We are all in this together.”
These bold souls are armed with an exceptional motivation to serve in the IDF. An infectious morale at worst, and an astounding zeal at best. Three years ago you were hard pressed to find a lone soldier. Today the numbers have exploded, with 5,108 lone soldiers currently serving in the IDF. Of this number, sixty percent hail from English-speaking countries. They are a force to be reckoned with. They serve in the most elite combat units, and are often recognized by their units as outstanding and exemplary soldiers.
There is a willingness to do whatever it takes, but the life of a lone soldier is a trying one. The path is incredibly challenging, full of trials and tribulations. For this reason many programs have cropped up to help support the life of a lone soldier, while he or she is not on base. One such program is called Garin Tzabar. Garin Tzabar has taken it upon themselves to create groups of housing and mini-communities within kibbutzes for lone soldiers. A place where during time off they can always be assured to find a friend to relax with. Someone to have Shabbat with, and a close-knit community of lone soldiers to fall back on during hard times. Five yeas ago Garin Tzabar consisted of two such communities, located on two Kibbutzes in Israel. As of next year they will be opening their 13th community. They are located on kibbutzes all over the north of the country, and are now running two programs for religious soldiers. An amazing testament to the growth the lone soldier program has seen in the last few years.
Life is still hard for a soldier living in Israel without his family. From navigating the bureaucracy, to finding a place to live. Having enough money to furnish an apartment, or knowing that you have enough time on Friday to prepare for Shabbat. Simple day-to-day activities such as paying bills, and making sure there is food in the fridge become difficult tasks. Responsibilities that were once taken for granted back home, now cloud a lone soldiers thoughts, distracting him or her from the important job of protecting the borders of Israel.
With these predicaments in mind, decades of close personal work with lone soldiers, and an innate understanding of how to use the system to help, Tziki Aud founded the Michael Levin Memorial Center. It all spawned from the realization that lone soldiers really did need assistance.
Lone Soldiers began calling me for help,” says Tziki over a cup of coffee. “At first it was just one or two soldiers who called me with problems. So I thought they were isolated incidents amidst a system that worked well. But the word got out that there was someone who would go to bat for lone soldiers. The next week I spoke to ten or twenty soldiers with issues. This one didn’t have a bed to sleep in. Another was having problems navigating the bureaucracy. The week after I was getting fifty to sixty call from soldiers in need. That’s when I realized there was a great necessity to create a program to help these soldiers manage life in Israel from induction to fruition.”
And so began the lone soldier center in memory of Michael Levin. A vision Michael had expressed in many conversations with Tziki.
Michael was a native of Philadelphia, where he was very active in his Jewish community. After high school Michael spent a gap year in Israel as a participant in USY’s program called Nativ. In 2003 Michael actualized his Zionist dreams, and made Aliyah to Israel. After spending a year improving his Hebrew skills, Michael was accepted to the 2004 draft of the Paratroopers.
In the summer of 2006 the Second Lebanon War broke out. Michael cut his one month leave (allotted to lone soldiers to visit their family outside Israel) short and quickly returned to Israel to serve with his unit. On August 1, 2006, First Sgt. Michael Levin was killed in combat on the outskirts of Al-Tishibe. Michael died defending the country that he loved with all his heart.
The Michael Levin Center operates on the visions and beliefs of Michael. A center whose mission statement says it all: “We are here to support lone soldiers in the IDF. These brave individuals come to defend the Jewish homeland. We are here for them, so they will no longer be alone.”
And they have done just that. Tziki has created a community for lone soldiers — a place to go if they need anything at all. A place where lone soldiers know that they are not alone. The program has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception, and will continue to do so as long as the need is present. There is a seemingly all-inclusive approach being used. It seeks to assist lone soldiers from the time of their arrival, while they serve in the army, and acclimation into society after their release from the army.
The center’s initiatives include a lone soldier veteran network to mentor and support those about to be drafted. They conduct pre-army information sessions, and hold Shabbat dinners for lone soldiers. The Michael Levin Memorial Center also helps find lone soldiers an apartment to live in, or matches people up to be roommates, along with a myriad of other programs. If you can think of a problem facing lone soldiers, the center will work to find a solution.
All this is due to the tireless efforts of Tziki and his support staff. All former lone soldiers themselves, they have created a for-lone-soldiers-by-lone-soldiers organization. The support and programing comes from the very people who have already been through the system themselves. They understand exactly what challenges face lone soldiers today, and are working around the clock to make their lives a little better.
What an amazing article. Prior to reading this I had no idea what a lone soldier was. I really enjoyed reading this-it was incredibly informatice
I am proud to know Avi Gilboa who is a speaker for this wonderful organization. What a mitzvah this organization is doing! Rabbi Claire Ginsburg Goldstein of http://www.bearsfrombergenfield.com
Great article, Jules. The brave, dedicated and selfless chayalim bodedim – like you, First Sergeants Shaun and Michael – deserve our continued recognition, support and love. We are in your debt for defending our peoples' special country.