According to the Lone Soldier Center: ‘As of January, 2010, there are over 5,000 “chayalim bodidim” or “lone soldiers” serving in the IDF.’
The Lone Soldier, someone who comes to Israel on his/her own to join the IDF, while their family lives abroad, is a phenomenon unique to Israel.* There is no one profile of a chayal boded as these young men and women span the entire religious spectrum; some are Israelis or have parents who are, but most have no formal connection to Israel; some have had an extensive Jewish education while others have come to appreciate their Jewish heritage as teens or young adults; many have come to serve despite their parents’ concerns or objections; and they come from around the globe. These chayalim who leave behind family, often an easy lifestyle, and friends who are in college, to serve in the Israel Defense Forces do so for ideological reasons – to protect and defend their country and their people. To their further credit, unlike their Israeli peers who have grown up knowing that they will one day serve and receive schooling geared toward future service, for Lone Soldiers the decision to serve is their own, made at a later age with no preparation; they do this in a country with a different language and a culture not their own. Perhaps the chayal to whom my daughter gave a rose a while back was a chayal boded.
Unlike the United States whose soldiers are generally sent to serve in foreign military arenas, Israeli soldiers are serving on their own land and usually get leave to go home for Shabbat once every two or three weeks. In fact, the Israeli soldiers’ ability to periodically return home to family was recognized as a factor in the July 2010 article on Israel National News’ website regarding a military study comparing United States and Israeli troops: Study: Post-Traumatic Stress Lowest in IDF. So, the life of lone soldiers who have the weekend off can be particularly lonely as they come back to an empty apartment on a Friday afternoon with no one to welcome them, feed them, or do their laundry. New-found friends who made aliyah from Toronto, Canada about a year ago have a son who was himself a lone soldier, having come to Israel to serve before his parents emigrated. Our friends told us that the hardest part for them was not that their son was in the military, but that they weren’t here for him, and related to us the kind of incident that tears at a parent’s heart strings. Their son had come back to his empty apartment on a weekend off and washed his only uniform. Not having a dryer he hung it outside to dry (quite common in Israel as most apartments have a line outside one of the windows). Unfortunately, however, it rained and the uniform was not dry when he had to return to his unit. “What did you do?” his mother asked him. “I put it on wet and went back,” was his reply.
On the reception area coffee table of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Yerushalayim offices, there is a pile of books. (Nefesh B’Nefesh offers much pre- and post-aliyah assistance to olim, both one-on-one and via seminars to facilitate absorption into Israeli society and culture.) Sitting there the other day, I picked up a book from the table: Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders from Around the World by Herb Keinon. If there’s a book worth buying, I think it’s this one. I read about courageous men and women, sharpshooters and paratroopers, many who made it and some who fell, and about Tzvika Levy, a leutenent colonel and now reservist who oversees the army’s “lone soldier” program and became the “father” of the lone soldiers. At a time when no one noticed them, Tzvika did. He arranges housing for them, Shabbat and holiday hospitality, helps them with all sorts of problems large and small, continues to assist those who remain in Israel after their military service has ended, and says kaddish for those who have fallen. His kaddish list is not short. I sat there with a tissue in hand, hoping nobody would notice my teary eyes.
Today’s IsraelNationalNews.com includes this article: Should IDF Service be Mandatory for All – or for None?
*Lone soldiers are also Israeli’s from dysfunctional families who have no place to call home.
Individuals who are considering serving as volunteers in the IDF will find the Mahal very helpful. “Mahal-IDF-Volunteers.org is the leading guide for all would-be overseas enlistees (non-Israelis and Israelis) prior to joining the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). It is not an official website of the State of Israel…” Also read their article Lone Soldiers.