Like most American college students, I have friends from high school who went into the United States military after graduation, and I’ve glimpsed what being a soldier exacts from you and what a different person it changes you into. It takes so much for people to enlist in the militaries of their own countries when it isn’t compulsory; when I consider the international lone soldiers of Israel, it’s difficult for me to envision the passion and sense of obligation it must require for them to join the service in a place that was not originally their home.
On Thursday evening, as a busy workday came to a close, I watched a presentation made at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin to a large group of Birthright visitors. Gabe Rozman, a Lone Soldier Center volunteer and a former lone soldier himself, described his decision to come all the way from Vermont to serve in the Israeli military and eventually build a life for himself here as a member of the olim community.
“Israel’s not just a country for Israelis,” he told the visitors, “It’s the Jewish state.” He mentioned that the history of the Jews as an oppressed people was part of the push for him, and also how he felt it was unfair to leave others fighting for a Jewish state without making his own contribution.
At a Lone Soldier Center event later that night, I had an opportunity to ask questions to the many lone soldiers and volunteers crowded into the office space for salsa and tacos. Several simply cited Zionism as their reason for traveling here from different countries to serve, and the more in-depth explanations I received included the importance of protecting the Jewish people and the feeling that it was simply the right thing to be here assisting Israel, as well as “hatikvah,” a sense of hope for the future of Judaism.
“Lone soldier” is an official classification in the Israeli Defense Forces, one you receive if you’ve come from another country to serve in the military, or if you’re Israeli-born but have been orphaned or shunned by an ultra-Orthodox community. The number of Israeli Lone Soldiers totaled 6,000 in 2014, and the Lone Soldier Center helps 2,500 of them annually. They provide meals, clothing, advising, furniture, and most importantly a community to young men and women who would have trouble obtaining these things otherwise. No other country in the world has the lone soldier classification for those who come from other nations; no other country needs it.
Both the Israeli- and foreign-born service members I spoke with stressed the importance of having the Lone Soldier Center around to bring together individuals adjusting to army life. Jeremie, the lone soldier from Paris who spoke briefly (through a translator) at the Birthright presentation, said that after becoming acquainted with the center, he “doesn’t feel like a lone soldier anymore.”
The ambiguities of the Israeli-Arab conflict aren’t lost on me, and I admit I was slightly nervous about how others at my New England college, where anti-Israel sentiment isn’t rabid but is still present, would react to my decision to take a seven-week internship in Jerusalem. But behind the politics, these are young men and women pursuing the well being of what they see as a homeland, a safe haven, and an extended family.
The IDF is composed of people from everywhere, from a multitude of backgrounds, and as the recent attacks in Paris show, defense is needed for Jews in places beyond Israel. No matter where the borders are drawn and where the IDF bases are located, the Jewish spirit will always be international. It takes its hits internationally. For most, there is little differentiation between the importance of protecting Jewish communities in Israel and protecting them elsewhere. Both actions are vital if we hope to foster Jewish tradition and community, the preservation of which dictated the need for an Israeli state in the first place.
So no, I’m not an expert on anything Israeli; but I do believe my impressions as a newcomer have their own value. I am proud to be a volunteer on the Lone Soldier Center team, and I realize that the mitzvot performed for and on behalf of the Jewish people don’t have to be “big picture” to make a difference. The organization receives so much gratitude for filling the daily needs of lone soldiers. And as I am learning, the lone soldiers form a small but important piece of the worldwide Jewish community, a family that will always be boundary-less, a family that will never want for people seeking to honor and protect it.