Soldiering on

Some support for those going it alone in the defence of Israel

By Ilan Preskovsky

It’s hard to think of a more Israeli concept than that of the lone soldier: someone who comes from another country to serve their Homeland in the Israeli Defence Force and, as such, do not have any immediate family living in the country. These visiting volunteers or new immigrants have to deal with all that naturalised Israeli soldiers have to face in the military – not least of which being the immense psychological and emotional toll of potentially seeing battle – but with the added complication of not having the direct support of their family to get them through the tougher times.

Israeli society and its government have long recognised the tremendous sacrifices that lone soldiers make by fighting for a country that they have only recently immigrated to or in which they have no familial roots – let alone those brave few who haven’t made Aliyah, but have temporarily left their homes to fight for their Homeland. The government and the IDF itself, therefore, provides all sorts of benefits and support to lone soldiers, but it’s private organisations that offer the sort of personal touch that can be lost in even the most well-meaning governmental programmes.

There is no greater example of this than the Lone Soldier Center, which was specifically set up to “assist lone soldiers before, during, and after their army service”. Established in 2009 in memory of Michael Levin, z”l, a fallen lone soldier who lost his life during the Second Lebanon War, the Lone Soldier Center was created by a group of former lone soldiers who wanted to honour their friend by creating something that would be a source of the kind of comfort, warmth, and homeliness that a family would normally provide (as well as plenty of more practical assistance) to those whose families are, at best, thousands of miles away.

The Lone Soldier Center is a non-profit organisation with branches in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that is run by a small professional staff and hundreds of volunteers – almost all of whom are former lone soldiers themselves – who take a multi-pronged approach to their overall mission of helping lone soldiers.

On the more practical front, the Lone Soldier Center starts early with education and a pre-army training camp (mechina) for lone soldiers to catch them up, so to speak, to their Israeli counterparts who have been preparing for their IDF or national service from an early age. This includes: physical training, as well as courses on how the Israeli military works; a crash-course in Hebrew with an emphasis on terms they will encounter most during their service; and a more general understanding of how Israeli society works.

During their service, the Center helps lone soldiers by providing them with all their basic needs, both on-base and off (generously donated by members of the greater community), hosting Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, and even providing housing in good, friendly neighbourhoods. For any lone soldiers unfortunate enough to get injured during their service, they also offer assistance wherever they can, including helping pay for a ticket to return home if the need arises.

More than just helping in practical matters, though, the Center also offers tremendous levels of emotional and psychological support to their lone soldiers. Along with providing professional counselling to those who need it, they offer programmes such as communal dinners and social events, while their Jerusalem and Tel Aviv offices also act as central meeting points where lone soldiers can, along with getting food or doing their laundry, socialise with other lone soldiers. The social aspects of the programmes and services offered by the Lone Soldier Center are so effective that a number of marriages have resulted from it. The Center also boosts the morale of lone soldiers by visiting bases and attending their various ceremonies.

And, things don’t end when the soldiers complete their term of service, as the Lone Soldier Center continues to offer services to recently “released” lone soldiers, but with the added focus of helping those who will be remaining in Israel (and recent studies have shown that the vast majority of lone soldiers do exactly that) integrate into Israeli society and prepare them for university and/or the working world.

And, of course, many, many of the lone soldiers they helped “pay it forward” by later returning to the Center as volunteers themselves. It’s not exactly hard to see where their sense of gratitude comes from.

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