Life of a Lone Soldier: Moshe Chaim

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Looks can be misleading; to a casual bystander Moshe seems like your typical kid, dressed in track suit bottoms and a mischievous smile. You would never have guessed that his story is anything but ordinary.

Now aged 22, Moshe grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood as the 12th child in a large family of 15 siblings. His father’s father was a Hasid who left Israel for ideological reasons following the establishment of the state, and his mother received a national religious education from her Holocaust survivor father, but eventually became Hareidi after recovering from an illness, and later married Moshes’ father.

Moshe grew up studying Torah in Yeshivat Beer Pittsburgh, but ever since the third grade he began to question the social norms his society promoted. He described his visits to Kiryat Ata, at his grandfather’s house, as having a great influence on his life, because it was during these opportunities that he was exposed to the world beyond the closed ultra-Orthodox society. When he reached sixth grade, he started arguing with his parents about religious politics that seemed absurd to him even then, like the religious justification for stone throwing at cars on Shabbat and violent protests, and thus he spent more and more time away from his parents’ home with his grandfather. The communication with his parents diminished until it eventually ceased altogether, and thus the gap between him and his childhood environment grew. At last, his grandfather paid for him to move into a religious boarding school, where he did not feel he was coerced into religious practices he objected to. But this relief was only temporary.

When he turned 15, his grandfather died, and he was forced to move back in with his parents, who demanded that he continue to study at a yeshiva. Under pressure he was forced to participate in a Hareidi demonstration – which led to his arrest and the opening of a criminal record – an event with implications on his life to this day.

Outwardly, he continued to wear black and white garb so as not to cause unnecessary tension with his parents, but deep inside he longed for something else.  He didn’t feel comfortable in the framework of the Haredi society, and when his parents stopped financing his clothing and transportation expenses, he left yeshiva and started washing dishes in restaurants in order to finance himself, and to stay away from home as much as possible.

During his free time he often found himself wandering around town. It was during one of these excursions that he discovered a pre-army preparation course named “Acharai” that trained weekly in the local Independence Park, and out of curiosity Moshe started to toy with the option of enlisting in the army. Moshe began to train with them, and thus he came to learn the stories of the legendary heroes of the IDF (and especially Lt. Colonel Emmanuel Moreno) who fell while defending the Jewish people. The courage and sacrifice of these figures made a deep impression on Moshe, and inspired his decision to enlist, despite the difficulty and the resistance of his environment.

Moshe tells of the time he had to get his father’s signature for a form approving his participation in a week-long training camp for the IDF, and managed to sign him only by saying that the form was for joining a gym.  Although Moshe doesn’t regret any of his past decisions, this continues to cause him guilty feelings until this day.

 “On my draft day I told my parents I was going on a long journey,” Moshe said, “It’s kind of a lie, but in another sense it’s not, because I really did begin a long journey – the army was my first step on my journey to freedom.”

Moshe joined “Makam Youth”, spent the first few months at “Chavat hashomer”, and then got his wish to serve as a combat soldier in the Nachshon Battalion of the Kfir Brigade. For Moshe, this was the beginning of the fulfillment of his wish to protect the Jewish people, and his first step towards integration in Israeli society. But many challenges still awaited him.

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When Moshe tells of his military service, one senses the impression that he was torn between his excitement regarding the operational aspect, but his disappointment and anger with the bureaucracy. He describes his military service as an important step in beginning a new life and will never regret it, but there were many difficult crises with which he had to deal, to the extent that he almost gave up.  Moshe said that the army still does not know how to meet the basic needs of Israeli lone soldiers.

“The IDF took seven months to recognize me as a lone soldier. This story is very common for individual soldiers and Israeli Haredim. From the very beginning, my commander knew my story and made efforts to promote the recognition of me as a lone soldier, but the echelon of the soldier’s economic welfare commanders had their own considerations. My commander would ask me where I would be sleeping on the weekend and I would tell him “I’ll be fine.” During this difficult period, I was homeless – I kept my gear on Saturday with friends while I looked for places to stay for the weekend… Or I would deliberately refuse an order in order to receive the punishment of staying on base for the weekend … It took a while before the officer realized simply why I did it and made the army acknowledge me as a lone soldier.”

Moshe provided some insight into the good, the bad and the complexities of navigating the military bureaucracy as a lone soldier.

“My economic welfare officer was amazing, she tried referring me to an organization to help me financially – after all, until being recognized as a lone soldier, the army provided me a salary of only 352 ₪ … No need to explain why you cannot live on that as a lone soldier. I later learned that the economic welfare officer was put on trial for referring me to a non-military organization. It is painful, but the army has no idea how to deal with the individual rights of soldiers with religious backgrounds. Putting it plain and simple, the army does not want the ultra-Orthodox. This might be changing, but it’s only thanks to organizations that work to promote this matter. The army knows how to help immigrant lone soldiers, because every commander knows their difficulties, and of course I appreciate their contribution, but why does the army ignore the difficulties of Israeli lone soldiers? In my experience, an immigrant lone soldier is helped immediately, while an Israeli lone soldier is scrutinized.  It shouldn’t be like that”.

“After being recognized as a lone soldier, I was taken to an apartment of the Aguda Lema’an Hahayal (Friends of the IDF) in Pisgat Zeev, and I got retroactive payment for these previous 7 months, but still, for 7 months until then I hadn’t received anything from the army, and instead used money saved up from work before the draft. I even slept at Independence Park 3 times, when they released us for the weekend by surprise and I felt uncomfortable calling friends at the last minute. It got to the point where I ran out of strength to continue in the middle of my advanced training.  I told myself that I would return to my parents’ home and escape from the army. “

But this may have been unrealistic. Moshe’s relationship with his parents had been deteriorating for quite some time.

“For the first half of my service, my parents did not even know I was in the army.We had stopped communicating well before I enlisted, even though we lived under the same roof.  We didn’t even greet each other good morning. I remember once I called my mother to talk to her, and she told me she was very busy and couldn’t speak to me. I found out later from my brother that she in fact had not been busy and had said that because she was not ready to talk to me.  The rabbi of the base tried to bridge the gap between my parents and me, but he wasn’t successful. I don’t want to go against my parents, but mentally I have to go against what my parents did to me. Till this day, we are still not in touch … However, in spite of everything, I respect them, and if I know they are in a time of need, I will help them. “

In retrospect, Moshe has mixed feelings when he looks back on his military service.

“Overall I look at my service as very experiential, fun, and demanding, despite what I went through. However, I have Haredi friends who would have wanted to join the army who told me, ‘We’d never enlist, because if the army cannot deal with you, how would it deal with a hundred of us?’  There were many stories of platoon commanders that did not understand me, and I felt the upper echelons in the army did not care about my needs as an Israeli lone soldier, but I realized that there are people who want to help lone soldiers, thanks to organizations like the Lone Soldier Center, from which I received significant support.”

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Towards the end of his service, he asked to take a course to complete his 12 years of schooling at “Michve Alon”, but received a negative response in the wake of low grades in his preliminary examinations, which reflected the very low secular education level among Haredim in Israel. At this point, Moshe made contact with the “Big Brother” organization, which turned him to Tziki Ud (chairman of the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin). Tziki fought ardently for him and finally managed to get him into the course, where he managed to complete his 12 years of schooling, allowing him to think about the next step in the path he chose – higher education – in preparation for a profession.

“I’ve always had a passion for sports, and I want to be a fitness instructor for soccer, that’s my dream”.

The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin was founded in 2009 by a group of former lone soldiers aware and concerned with the needs and struggles of the more than 5,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF. The Lone Soldier Center is the first and only organization solely dedicated to meeting all of the physical and social needs of lone soldiers.

About the Author
Zak Yitro is a Dublin-born, Jerusalem-based, world-aspiring freelance photographer, visual artist and public speaker.