20 Lone Soldiers Make Aliyah, Fulfilling a Modern-Day Story of Hanukkah

Group of olim. Photo credit: Ben Kelmer, courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh.

Group of olim.
Photo credit: Ben Kelmer, courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Seventy-two new immigrants (olim) from North America landed in Israel on December 28, including 20 soon-to-be IDF (Israel Defense Forces) lone soldiers. Lone soldiers serve in the Israeli army without family support in Israel. [Read more…]

The Wings Program: Advocates for Lone Soldiers

<a href=The Wings Program for Lone Soldiers, run by the Merage Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, was represented last week in a caucus for lone soldiers in the Israeli Knesset. The caucus convened to discuss the issue of lone immigrant soldiers and their integration into Israeli society after their release from the IDF. [Read more…]

Let Haredim and Soldiers Swap Roles

— by David Benkof

Controversy over haredi military service roils Israeli society, but respect for each side’s concerns and values can help resolve it.

Photo credit: Paul Arps

Photo credit: Paul Arps.

Haredim believe Jews of all backgrounds are equally commanded to learn Torah. Israel could diffuse Torah study by allowing non-religious, non-essential soldiers to choose among several serious beit midrash programs for beginners with different traditional, non-coercive approaches to learning. Topics covered could include military ethics and the holiness of protecting the Jewish people and its land.

For every hour a soldier learns, a yeshiva student would lend his abilities to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an hour – checking an eruv, helping with kashrut and holiday observance, etc. Some haredi volunteers may prefer to relieve soldiers by repairing equipment, cleaning barracks, preparing meals, and performing clerical tasks. Haredi managers would supervise yeshiva students in all-male settings, with other accommodations when necessary. The program could coincide with bein hazmanim, when yeshivas are on break anyway.

Yeshiva students will help spread Torah learning, and promote halachic observance on military bases. They will also gain useful experience for entering the work force, and have a ready answer for accusations of refusing to help protect the country.

Non-religious soldiers will get time off after intensive training and duty, and some might find meaning and even inspiration in classical Jewish texts, especially those related to the military. Their morale will improve as responsibility for national defense becomes more equally distributed.

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces.

IDF service and Jewish learning will be maintained or grow, and a wrenching national debate will begin to subside as very different Israelis gain exposure to other lifestyles without compromising their values.

Because of mutual wariness, neither community is likely to embrace the proposal right away, but a pilot program involving those most open to adjusting could help work out the details and build trust.

Accusing haredim of being lazy, unpatriotic ingrates has not facilitated solutions. But reminding haredim that their learning is no more meritorious than that of their less-educated brethren may actually gain their attention.

The Torah praises the arrangement of two Israelite tribes: Issachar, who learned; and Zebulun, who provided for their needs. Halachically, an Issachar-Zebulun partnership offers each side the same heavenly reward. So far, only haredim have been Issachar. If Israelis switched roles on occasion, the entire nation would benefit from the twin virtues of duty and Torah.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Are Dirty Army Uniforms Appropriate for Prayer?

Tank soldiers holding Mincha service before going into battle during Second Lebanon War. (Courtesy of American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate)

Tank soldiers holding Mincha service
before going into battle during Second Lebanon War. (Courtesy of American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate)

— by Rabbi Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was very meticulous and stringent in every phase of Hilchot Tefillah, the laws of prayer. He often cited the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 5) that eight specific aspects of prayer should be adhered to while standing for Shemoneh Esrei (the central element in all Jewish prayer), the fourth of which is Tikun HaMalbushim, proper and dignified attire.
[Read more…]

A Home Away From Home for IDF Volunteers


IDF troop swearing-in ceremony. Photo by IDF.

— by Ronit Treatman

“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:

Community:
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.
Meals:
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.
Shelter:
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.
Advocacy:
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.
Tutoring:
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.

Knesset Speaker Lights Chanukah Candles with IDF Lone Soldiers

— by Rebecca Modell

Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein participated in a special Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony for the sixth night of Hanukkah, together with several Cabinet Ministers and Members of Knesset. The ceremony was also attended by 60 Lone Soldiers, arranged by Nefesh B’Nefesh, Friends of the IDF (FIDF), Tzofim Garin Tzabar, and Ha’aguda Lema’an Hachayal (The Association for the Welfare of Soldiers).

Photo Credit: Peter Halmagyi.

More after the jump.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said:

I’m happy and thrilled to be here to continue the tradition of lighting Chanukah candles in the Knesset. The lighting of the candles symbolizes the freedom of the people of Israel, and is especially relevant here in the Knesset because we have our own parliament, and despite all the disagreements that take place in it, we have the freedom to govern ourselves.

Five Lone Soldiers joined Edelstein as he lit the Chanukah candles. The soldiers, who are originally from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, France, Japan, and Uruguay made Aliyah to Israel to join the IDF with the support of Nefesh B’Nefesh and the FIDF.

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said at the ceremony,

We are honored to have the Knesset Speaker light the Chanukah candles with these Lone Soldiers, in this symbolic salute to all those who left their families and homes in order to make Aliyah and serve the Jewish State through the Nefesh B’Nefesh/FIDF Lone Soldiers program.

10-Year-Old-Me and 14-Year-Old Me Finally Joined the IDF


FIDF short film on joining the IDF

— by Becca Richman

After a little over a month, I finally laid down my broom and graduated from basic training. The way the army marks the end of this swirly month is with our swearing-in ceremony. My plugah (company) and I stood in a blob formation while the company commander read a few sentences for us to repeat. Then, one by one, we were called up to hold a tanakh (bible) and our gun, and swear to uphold our duties to the IDF.

The ceremony itself wasn’t anything special — the army has this funny way of throwing a bunch of random things together and expecting you to take it seriously just because it’s the army. This is the only explanation for the flashing light sticks scattered stunningly on the floor, the tree branches arranged in the shape of a Jewish star, or the old, cheesy music playing in the background. It all seemed very contrived to me, and as I stood at attention and watched my friends get called forward, I snickered to myself at the obvious symbolism that the commanders were forcing upon the occasion. And then my name was called.

Continued after the jump.
I took a deep breath and took a step up to my commander. He handed me my bible and my gun, and waited for me to say my part. All at once, eight years of dreams came flooding back to me. I saw myself at 10-years-old, standing at the Western Wall for the first time, feeling a holiness that I could not and still cannot explain, letting my most sincere words to God spill onto a ripped sheet of paper. I saw myself at 14, visiting my sister in Israel and finding that my longing to live here seemed to release me from my angst-filled and impatient adolescence.

I saw myself at 16, frustrated with the knowledge that two years of wanting may as well be an eternity, sitting at a computer until the wee hours of the morning and Googling programs to finally bring me home. I saw myself at 17, enjoying my summer program but angry that I had to be a tourist in the land where my heart was born. And I saw myself at 18, cleaning the same chairs for the fourth time, doing push-ups, tears streaming down my face because the language barrier seemed impossible to break.

A thought popped into my head and the sheer force of it was enough to literally make me take a step back: I realized that this moment was what I had been waiting for. All of that anticipation and longing and frustration that built up over eight years was just leading up to this very moment. It may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the icy chill slithering slowly up and down my spine told me that it was all worth it, that this moment was mine to remind me of the pain and the beauty of fulfilled dreams. It was as if 10-year-old me, 14-year-old me, 16-and 17-year-old me, and even basic-training me were all suddenly overcome with an inexplicable happiness that tugged at my heart and had me on the verge of tears. I clutched the bible and my gun, smiled, and finally let the tears dance down my face as I said, “Ken ha’mefaked! Yes, commander, I swear!”

Becca Richman is a lone soldier volunteer with the IDF. She is the creator of It’s Always Sunny in Beit She’an: The Becca Richman Diaries.

190 “Lone Soldiers” Graduate IDF Hebrew Course


Photos by Jared Bernstein Photography, courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh

About 190 “Lone Soldiers” — immigrants who have come to Israel without their families to serve in the Israeli army, finished a special Hebrew instruction course run by the IDF this week.  

The soldiers, about 100 of whom are headed to combat units, recently made Aliyah from 25 countries from around the world. The graduation ceremony took place on the Michve Alon base in northern Israel, and was attended by Major General Orna Barbivay, who heads the Personnel Directorate of the IDF. The Lone Soldiers were among 500 IDF soldiers finishing the course. The Hebrew Course in Michve Alon is required for all immigrant soldiers and varies from two weeks to three months in length depending on the soldier’s Hebrew proficiency.

More after the jump.
Dan Hirsch, 23, a Lone Soldier from Mexico, who is planning to serve in a special combat unit in the Navy, said:

It’s an amazing feeling to be here after dreaming about this moment for so long. I was very moved at the ceremony; listening to the Israeli National Anthem while wearing the IDF uniform means a lot to me. This is my generation’s turn to take charge.


The soldiers are supported by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF)/Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program. The program works in collaboration with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Tzofim youth movement “Garin” (kernel) Tzabar, and assists newly arrived soldiers with the transition into their new lives in Israel and national service by offering guidance, social support, care packages, adoptive families and financial aid, as well as assistance to parents of Lone Soldiers in the form of information and support.

Yaakov Rothstein, 19, from Colombia, who is planning to serve in a combat unit, said:

I know that I’m being described as a Lone Soldier, but the truth is that I’m not alone. I am surrounded by many amazing people, including Nefesh B’Nefesh staff who help me and make me feel at home. I’m the happiest person in the world, and am looking forward to doing my service for the Jewish people’s army.

An Ethiopian Jew’s Journey

— by Hannah Lee

I met Barak Avraham, known as Malaku in his native Amharic, during his 2-week tour of the United States on behalf of AMIT, which supports a network of 108 schools and programs in 29 cities in Israel. Avraham’s personal story is a marvelous case study of how AMIT schools turn around individual lives and whole towns. His trek began at age 9 when he walked, with his mother and four siblings, for three weeks from their village of Abu Zava to the city of Gondar in Ethiopia. Sleeping outdoors at night, they were at the peril of anti-Semites, who recognized them as Jews and strangers. (His non-Jewish father, already divorced, stayed at home.)

More after the jump.
Back in their village, his maternal family dreamed of going to Jerusalem, a place like Paradise where people wear white garments and they do not have to work. After waiting eight months, they were accepted for flight aboard the covert Operation Solomon, which airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in a 36-hour mission in May, 1991. Before boarding, Avraham’s mother buried their remaining Ethiopian money, birr, because she thought they would not need money in the Promised Land.

Avraham’s memories of his childhood in Ethiopa included Pesach, when they eagerly anticipated the gift of matzot delivered by shluchim (emissaries), homemade soccer balls fashioned from old socks and electrical wire, and a world without television or cars, just as life was lived 200 years before. The transition from a traditional society to a modern one was especially hard for the elders, such as his grandparents who arrived later. His family spent a year in an absorption center, merkaz klita, learning to adjust to Israeli ways, including eating with forks and knives. Ethiopian foods, such as teff and injera, are eaten with the right hand.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood and with a single mother, Avraham lost his way when he was in his “foolish teen years,” tipesh esrei, when he was expelled from one school after another. No one wanted him any longer. This was a painful period for his mother, who cried in shame and sadness. “I decided that I was going to change. That if my mother was going to cry because of me, it would be with pride, not from sorrow.” On the advice of a friend attending school at the AMIT Kfar Blatt Youth Village in Petach Tikva, he wrote a letter of appeal to the director, Amiran Cohen. A visionary educator, Cohen had him sign a pledge of changes he would make in his life.

Cohen, who became a special friend, and the support network of surrogate parents, teachers, and social workers helped Avraham focus his intelligence. He had always been told that he had “much potential.” Upon passing the bagrut, matriculation exams, he was accepted into an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served with distinction as an outstanding soldier. His mother cried with pride and joy at this completion ceremony.

The IDF taught him discipline and it broadened Avraham’s horizons. He listened as his army mates of different backgrounds from all over the country shared their dreams for the future. He knew then he had to get an education, which was assisted by an IMPACT scholarship from the Friends of the IDF. He was the valedictorian and the top Ethiopian student graduating with a degree in government diplomacy from The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Later, when he earned a master’s in public service, also from the IDC, he gave a speech before an audience of 4,000 and his mother cried again from joy.

Now 30, Avraham is an entrepreneur and founder of an Internet start-up company and manager of a teen community house in Petach Tikva. He is also coordinator of a new program at the AMIT Rambam Elementary School in Netanya. Rambam was a failing school. The Ministry of Education appealed to AMIT to rescue this school, and AMIT now plans to designate it a magnet school, an innovative model that brings together in one school the top-achieving students with the most needy ones. Avraham’s program includes football (soccer to Americans), mentoring, and parent support. Coming from the same poor neighborhood and background, Avraham gives the children confidence that they, too, can succeed.

Avraham’s newest dream is to join the Knesset in the next election. A Social Democrat, he parts ways with the older Ethiopians who tend to vote Likud, although “it’s capitalist,” and they’re poor but they vote for the country’s security needs. His mother, for one, cannot bear to hear anything bad against Israel. (The Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in January, has two Ethiopians in its cabinet.) Barak Avraham’s future was paved by the caring leaders and staff of the AMIT schools.

Gilad Shalit Visits 50 “Lone Soldiers”

Former kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit visited the Nefesh B’Nefesh offices in Jerusalem yesterday to meet with 50 Lone Soldier Olim from across the world. In an informal gathering, Gilad expressed his support and admiration for these brave young men and women who hail from countries including the USA, Canada, Australia, Costa Rica, Norway, Mexico, South Africa, France, Argentina, Brazil and Spain and are serving in various units such as Infantry, Intelligence, Paratroopers and Communications among others. “I admire each one of you for what you are doing for our country. Your decision to leave your families and friends and make Aliyah on your own and join the army is truly courageous and admirable. Although you are far from your own families, you are not alone — we are all one family and are here to support you and make you feel most welcome as Israeli citizens,” he said.

More after the jump.

“We are very excited to have Gilad Shalit with us, and are also very proud to be the home for Lone Soldiers serving in the IDF, taking care of all their needs in Israel and providing them with ongoing support. We thank the IDF for their partnership in this important project,” said Vice Chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Erez Halfon.

The FIDF/Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program, in collaboration with the Jewish Agency for Israel and KKL, assists newly arrived soldiers with their transition into their new lives in Israel and national service, by offering guidance, social and emotional support, quarterly care packages, adoptive families and financial aid, as well as assistance to parents of Lone Soldiers in the form of information and support.

Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh in cooperation with the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, is dedicated to revitalizing Aliyah from North America and the UK by removing or minimizing the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles of Aliyah. The support and comprehensive social services provided by Nefesh B’Nefesh to its 33,000 newcomers, has ensured that 97% of its Olim have remained in Israel.