Letter from Jerusalem: Lone Soldiers
Why do they fight? Some may wonder why non-Israeli Jews enlist in the IDF, but for the soldiers themselves, defending the Jewish state is the ultimate call to duty.
The first time a soldier dons the olive green uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, there is a torrent of emotions—pride, happiness, terror, shock, excitement and invincibility. It’s a moving experience for everyone, including Israelis who have always known they would join the Army at age 18.
But for soldiers who grew up outside Israel, the uniform represents something beyond the standard call to duty: their dedication to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
“You walk around happy as hell, everybody sees you and knows you just went into the Army,” said Indiana native Ari Blatt, 21, remembering the first time he wore his uniform.
“You put it on and you look in the mirror and you just can’t believe it,” recalled Daniel Charter, 24, a Texan who served in the IDF and is now beginning university in Israel. “You’re shocked, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”
The answer to how each of these foreign fighters, known as hayalim bodedim, or lone soldiers, “got there” varies. The IDF classifies a lone soldier as one who is in Israel without parents during his or her time of service. There are currently more than 4,000 in the IDF from several countries. (The term hayal boded also applies to an additional 1,000 Israelis who are estranged from their families and receive the same benefits as foreign soldiers.)
Special benefits extended to hayalim bodedim include an increased stipend, money for housing, calling cards, a one-time grant to buy electrical appliances, two 30-day leaves to visit family abroad and financial help with airplane tickets. Grants and scholarships are also available for incidentals such as backpacks or furniture.
On the emotional side, commanders or platoon officers look out for their soldiers, even visiting them at home.
Tamir Meyer, 22, from Sweden, who served with a paratroopers unit, recalled when one of his commanders came to visit his kibbutz apartment with a gift of 35 rolls of toilet paper. (The gesture was thoughtful but ironic since the kibbutz provided toilet paper to all residents.)
Though various organizations—for instance, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Garin Tzabar (a division of Israel Scouts), the Ministry of Absorption and the social services branch of the Army—do reach out to this demographic, there is no official hayal boded supervisory program. Each soldier orchestrates his or her own Army experience, including trips to the draft board, medical testing, benefit claims and housing.
Garin Tzabar arranges for North American hayalim bodedim to live together on a kibbutz and then enter the Army as a group, although soldiers serve in different units. This year, more than 150 Americans joined the Army with the assistance of Garin Tzabar, living at the kibbutzim Yiftah, Izra’el, Gadot, Maoz Haim and Tirat Zvi.
Mirroring the IDF in general, female lone soldiers serve in many capacities, including as weapons instructors, boot- camp commanders and teachers. About half of Garin Tzabar participants this year are women.
Foreigners wishing to complete the military’s full term of two years for women and three years for men must first make aliya. However, foreign volunteers looking for shorter enlistments in a combat unit can take part in Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Overseas Volunteers). Participants in Machal serve a 15-month course in the Nahal infantry unit and receive all the hayal boded benefits without bcoming Israeli citizens.
According to Friends of the IDF, approximately 300 foreign lone soldiers hail from the United States. Typically from upper-middle-class backgrounds, they are among some of the most dedicated soldiers. Their reasons for joining up aren’t always clear even to them, though the young men and women cite motivations such as responsibility for the future of the Jewish people, wanting to serve their new country—and using the Army as a transition to adulthood.
“[Army service is] part of becoming Israeli and adapting to society,” said Yosef Gerstein, 23, from Florida, who served with the Shiryon armored-tank unit. “It’s the principle of defending your people, your land and your home.”
“I needed a growing experience to help me mature,” said Josh Martin, 22, of Massachusetts, who left American University after one year to participate in Machal.
These soldiers’ sacrifices aren’t lost on Israelis. “Americans make this huge step,” said Efrat Hermel-Saar, director of Garin Tzabar in New York. “They’re leaving everything. While their friends are going off to college, they are moving to the other side of the world to become a soldier.”
For Martin, one of the hardest moments was meeting friends visiting on birthright israel programs. “Seeing them continue with their lives in college while I was stuck in the Army really made me doubt my decision to join,” he said. But ultimately, the Army “was the best thing I could have done for myself and for Israel.”
American hayalim bodedim often find an eager audience for their Army stories in friends and family. They spend hours rehashing their experiences—ice-cold nights of guard duty spent squeezed into crowded Hummers, hikes over mountains carrying heavy gear, the difficulties of getting a good night’s sleep while storing live grenades in their vests. For Israelis, this is nothing out of the ordinary. For Americans, it is the television show 24 come to life.
When Israelis leave their base for Shabbat every other weekend, they might go home to someone who does their laundry and cooks their favorite food. Lone soldiers usually return to empty, sparsely decorated apartments shared with other lone soldiers. If hayalim bodedim get sick, fellow soldiers and friends step in as caregivers.
When Blatt, who serves in the elite Ya’alon unit of the Engineering Corps, was delirious with fever one winter, friends brought him food, medicine and a heater.
“We all take care of each other,” he said of the tight-knit community.
That camaraderie also extends to bringing goodies like beef jerky and Mountain Dew back from the States.
For day-to-day challenges, hayalim bodedim turn to their two “fathers,” Tziki Aud and Tzvika Levy. Aud, the director of the Information Center at the Jewish Agency, acts as a surrogate parent for soldiers. He assists with housing and paperwork and sometimes calls commanders directly to advocate for his charges. “Very often they can’t talk to their parents about the Army because their parents don’t understand,” Aud said. “They call me and talk to me because I was in the Army.” He also hosts scores of hayalim bodedim at his house on Shabbat and holidays. Aud even serves as a matchmaker: In August, he attended the wedding of two lone soldiers who met at his home.
Levy, a general in the reserves, estimates that he drives more than 3,000 miles each month visiting soldiers, attending their ceremonies, helping them find apartments and “giving them a warm hug,” he said. Though supported in part by the Army, Levy does this mostly as a volunteer, in addition to his full-time job as a kibbutz farmer.
Knowing there are people like Aud and Levy is especially helpful for parents thousands of miles away. “It’s a comfort to know there are people who take care of your kids when you’re not around,” said Daniel Charter’s mother, Teresa Charter.
Back in Israel, sabra soldiers often struggle to understand why foreigners would enlist. “They’re crazy! I never understood why they would leave their life at home and do something they didn’t have to,” said Hadas Agmon, 27, who taught Hebrew to new immigrants as part of the Army’s Hebrew-immersion program.
But it’s that extra drive—the knowledge that they’re only there because they choose to be there—that catapults hayalim bodedim to some of the most elite combat units. Forty-five percent serve in combat, combat-support or assistant combat-support roles, according to an IDF spokesperson.
“Olim fill an important role for the ideological backbone of the Army,” said Charter, who was a commander in the Golani Brigade. “Hayalim bodedim excel because they’re motivated, and it helps a unit so much to have one soldier or a couple soldiers who are motivated. Other soldiers would say to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m complaining because look at you, it’s much harder for you,’ and that would keep them going.”
Adam Harmon, originally from New Hampshire, served in a paratrooper unit in the early 1990s. He is the author of Lonely Soldier: The Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army (Presidio Press), an account of his experiences as a hayal boded, and a frequent commentator on the Israeli military for CNN and USA TODAY. He also provides input to the United States military about urban warfare practices. Despite the isolation Harmon sometimes felt due to language barriers, he said his unit embraced him with open arms.
He recalled one particular moment after he returned from a week’s vacation to attend his sister’s wedding: “When I came in everyone was resting in the tents, and they all stood up on their makeshift beds and applauded my return. This was at the beginning, only four months into my service, and even though I still had fairly limited communication, they knew I was a hard worker.”
Like all soldiers, hayalim bodedim drill, fight and, sometimes, make the ultimate sacrifice. Five foreigners were killed in the war with Lebanon in the summer of 2006: Ukrainian Yonatan Vlasyuk; Yoan Zarbiv, from France; Ethiopian Yasmou Yalau; Australian Assaf Namar; and American Michael Levin.
Levin’s death rocked the American Jewish community, where he was well-known through his involvement in the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Though only 118 pounds, Levin, who hailed from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, passed the gibush, trial, for a paratroopers unit. When the Second Lebanon War broke out, he was in the States on leave. He immediately returned to Israel and insisted on following his unit into Lebanon. He was killed in the Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab on August 1.
In response to his death, levin’s parents, Mark and Harriet Levin, created the Michael Levin Memorial Fund for Israel (www.michael levinmemorialfund.org) to raise money for hayalim bodedim; so far, the fund has purchased 43 ammunition vests for their son’s old unit.
To mark the first anniversary of his passing, the Levins organized a fair for over 300 hayalim bodedim in Tel Aviv last summer to present information about housing and options after the Army. The day also included speakers; food; informational booths; social workers and a screening of A Hero in Heaven, a moving documentary about Levin. “[The event] helped bring a lot of information to the foreground; the Army didn’t even realize some of the problems faced by hayalim bodedim,” Harriet Levin said.
Parents and lone soldiers alike stress that each Jew has a responsibility to give what they can to Israel. “I’m proud of him but I also worry about him all the time,” said Julie Blatt, Ari’s mother. “When he was doing training and I heard he slept in his boots and he had terrible blisters, there’s no mother wants to hear that. I cry a lot when I think about him going off, but I also know that this is what needs to be. He’s doing something that every Israeli child does, so why should he be different?”
Despite the hardships of military life, hayalim bodedim are proud to serve. “There are so many times when you want to give up, when you’re running and you say to yourself, I simply can’t take one more step,” said Meyer. “But at the end of the week when you get home, you know there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.”