IDF troop swearing-in ceremony. Photo by IDF.
“If you will it, it is no dream,” Theodore Herzl wrote in his book The Old New Land in 1902. This phrase has inspired Jews from around the world to help make the Zionist endeavor a reality for more than a century.
This proud tradition continues to this day. Currently, 6,000 volunteers from abroad are serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Their official status is that of “lone soldiers,” because they leave their families behind and come to Israel alone.
The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin aims to build a community and be a family to these soldiers when they are in Israel.
In 2003, Michael Levin, Josh Flaster, and Ari Kalker sat around a table in Tel Aviv and shared fond memories of celebrating Shabbat at their Jewish summer camp in the U.S. They enjoyed telling about the delicious Shabbat dinners, and the special feeling that came over the camp as everyone sat around the table singing Shabbat songs.
They imagined that their life in Israel as IDF soldiers would be a lot like that. Instead, as foreign volunteers, they found themselves very isolated. Israel is a very family-oriented society, and Levin, Flaster and Kalker did not have their families with them. As a result, when they were on a leave, they found themselves eating cold pitas with humus in an empty apartment for Shabbat dinner.
Michael Levin was killed in action in 2006. The Center was founded in 2009. Through the Center’s work, Levin’s service and sacrifice are honored and memorialized, and his dream for lone soldiers to “never be alone” is realized.
The Lone Soldier Center has identified several needs that need to be met for lone soldiers to thrive in Israel. The Center is empowering civilians who were lone soldiers themselves to guide the future lone soldiers to success in Israel. These are the ways the Lone Soldier Center is reaching out to these soldiers:
- The most important mission of the center is to provide all lone soldiers with a welcoming community, which will care for them, guide them, and support them. The center has several offices, a website, and a Facebook page that serve as resources for lone soldiers.
- Shabbat dinners and holiday meals become festive occasions when hosted by the Center. Meals are held by in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. The Center has partnered with The Jerusalem Great Synagogue and The Tel Aviv International Synagogue to provide spaces for these meals. Volunteers lovingly organize these meals in order to create the celebratory occasions envisioned by Levin, Flaster and Kalker.
- Most lone soldiers arrive in Israel with few clothes and very little money. If they are not placed on a closed military base, they need to find an apartment with roommates. The Center helps match them up with other lone soldiers, and makes sure that they are signing a fair lease.Landlords in Israel are only required to provide a working cooking range, but not a refrigerator in an otherwise unfurnished apartment. The Center has a warehouse full of donated furniture and refrigerators that these soldiers may borrow. Volunteers drive the furniture to the apartments, and help carry the furniture inside.
- Basic Needs Package:
- Every drafting lone soldier receives a donated package of clothing, food, and equipment that they will need to start their new life in Israel.
- Volunteers make sure that the army complies with all of its own rules and respects all of the lone soldiers’ special rights. Amharic-speaking Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers assist other Ethiopian recruits with navigating the army. An attorney volunteers to help soldiers who are finishing their military service understand their rights as new immigrants.
- Not all lone soldiers come from abroad. Young people who choose to leave Haredi families to enlist in the IDF are also classified as lone soldiers. These young adults grew up immersed in a Yiddish environment, as part of an orthodox Jewish community that rejects the modern secular culture, receiving no preparation to succeed in modern Israel. The Center tutors them in Hebrew, and prepares them for their high school equivalency test, .
- Special Ceremonies and Social Events:
- When a lone soldier is drafted or graduates from a course, all of the other soldiers have their families there to celebrate with them. The Center sends a person to every significant celebration to rejoice over every accomplishment with every lone soldier.The Center also organizes special social events for lone soldiers to enjoy during their free time. This helps lone soldiers make friends and connect with other volunteers from around the world.
- Friends Chapters in North America:
- The Center is run by a small professional staff and 300 volunteers. This month, it will launch chaverim, “friends” chapters in 13 locations in North America:
- California: San Diego.
- Florida: Coco Beach, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
- Illinois: Highland Park.
- New York: Brooklyn, Long Island, Manhattan, Queens, Scarsdale and Westchester.
- New Jersey: Highland Park.
Through this exciting initiative, individuals in cities across the continent will have the opportunity to raise awareness of lone soldier needs and support for the Center’s programming in their communities, schools and synagogues.
The Center is a registered Israeli non-profit with 501(c) status. All money donated goes directly to benefit lone soldiers.
For more information, or to inquire about establishing a chapter in your area, please contact the Center’s director, Josh Flaster.