What it’s like to be a lone sol­dier

Cana­di­ans who en­list in the Is­raeli army face many chal­lenges. But the truth is, they’re never re­ally alone.

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Front Page - SHERI SHEFA sshefa@thecjn.ca

Whether it’s some­thing Is­raelis look for­ward to or dread, serv­ing in the Is­rael De­fence Forces is a rite of pas­sage that few Is­raeli cit­i­zens have a choice about.

But in Canada, where a love of the Holy Land is in­stilled in mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity, each year, dozens of Cana­dian Jewish youths choose to de­fer their post-sec­ondary education for an op­por­tu­nity to join their Is­raeli peers in de­fend­ing the Jewish state as lone sol­diers.

A lone sol­dier is de­fined as hav­ing no fam­ily in Is­rael to sup­port him or her, whether they’re a new im­mi­grant, a vol­un­teer from abroad, an or­phan or some­one from a bro­ken home.

Ac­cord­ing to the Lone Sol­dier Cen­ter in Mem­ory of Michael Levin, founded in 2009 to meet the needs of lone sol­diers, they num­ber more than 6,300.

Ne­fesh B’ne­fesh, an im­mi­gra­tion ab­sorp­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion that also of­fers a lone sol­dier pro­gram, re­ported that 2,500 sol­diers come from abroad to vol­un­teer. Garin Tz­abar, an­other or­ga­ni­za­tion run by Tzofim Tz­abar Olami that works with the Min­istry of Aliyah and Im­mi­grant Ab­sorp­tion, es­ti­mated that be­tween 50 and 70 Cana­di­ans are drafted by the IDF each year.

“I am a firm be­liever in ev­ery­one do­ing what they can to give to Is­rael. Not ev­ery­body can do­nate money, and not ev­ery­body has time to run or at­tend events. This is my way of giv­ing to Is­rael. I feel it,” said El­liot Wine, 23, who moved from Toronto to Is­rael at age 21 and en­listed in the IDF’S com­bat en­gi­neer­ing unit in late 2015.

“I grew up go­ing to a Zion­ist Jewish day school, and a Zion­ist syn­a­gogue weekly, and sup­port for Is­rael and the Jewish home­land was in­fused into my daily life. When I met an Is­raeli sol­dier for the first time at the age of 14, I was sold. I can’t tell you what his job or name was, nor where he was in the army. All I saw was the green uni­form, and I was hooked from then on.”

Ei­tan El­lis, 20, who en­listed in 2014 as a com­bat solider in the Golani bri­gade, said grow­ing up in a Zion­ist, mod­ern Ortho­dox home in Toronto, he felt that it didn’t seem fair that the de­fence of the Jewish state should rest solely on the shoul­ders of those who live there.

“I would al­ways go to shul with my par­ents, and at the end of the ser­vice, there would be a prayer for the State of Is­rael. I thought it was a nice thing, but some­thing al­ways both­ered me about that. Ev­ery­one al­ways says, ‘I love Is­rael, let’s say a prayer for them,’ but I never re­ally felt like that was enough,” El­lis said.

For 18-year-old Toron­to­nian Yonah Mor­ri­son, who was drafted into the IDF’S search and res­cue unit late last year, his par­tic­i­pa­tion in a Camp Ramah pro­gram called Ti­chon Ramah Yerusha­layim (TRY), which of­fers high school stu­dents an op­por­tu­nity to spend a se­mes­ter study­ing in Is­rael, was a big in­flu­ence on his de­ci­sion to join the Is­raeli army.

“Dur­ing that pro­gram, we ac­tu­ally spent a week at Gadna, which is a pre-army week of sim­u­lated ba­sic train­ing,” Mor­ri­son said, adding that the ex­pe­ri­ence along with his Zion­ist up­bring­ing so­lid­i­fied his be­lief that since Jews all over the world can ben­e­fit from the ex­is­tence of a Jewish home­land, they should do their part in ser­vice of the coun­try.

Tomer Elim­elech, 34, was drafted 10

years ago as a com­bat sol­dier in the Golani bri­gade. Al­though he couldn’t say whether his mo­ti­va­tion to join a decade ago is any dif­fer­ent from the mo­ti­va­tion of those who make that choice to­day, he imag­ines that most peo­ple vol­un­teer for the same rea­son.

“They want to serve. They want to be part of some­thing that is big­ger than them­selves,” Elim­elech said.

Joanna Sas­son, Mor­ri­son’s mother, said she re­calls when her son first started hint­ing about his am­bi­tion to join the Is­raeli army.

“I re­mem­ber when I vis­ited him [when he was par­tic­i­pat­ing in the TRY pro­gram]… He said to me, ‘I’m def­i­nitely go­ing to be back.’ When he said that to me, at the time, I think he was al­ready think­ing of a more long-term com­mit­ment to Is­rael, and I was think­ing, ‘Oh, maybe he’ll do a year of univer­sity there.’ I wasn’t there yet,” Sas­son said.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing taken aback the first night that he said, ‘I’ve de­cided to join the Is­raeli army,’” she said, adding that her re­ac­tion to the news would have been the same if he had told her he de­cided to take a gap year in Africa or any­thing that strayed from her ex­pec­ta­tion that he would go to univer­sity right af­ter high school.

“Com­pounded on that was the ner­vous­ness that I’m send­ing my kid to the Is­raeli army.”

Li­more El­lis, Ei­tan El­lis’ mother, had her own ap­pre­hen­sions about her sec­ond of four chil­dren en­list­ing in the army.

Asked about her re­ac­tion when her then17-year-old son told her he’d be serv­ing in the IDF, she said, “What? Where did we go wrong? We sent you to Jewish day school, we raised you in this lov­ing Jewish home, we taught you to love Is­rael, but – what?

Can’t you love Is­rael from afar and do some good over here?” she said, laugh­ing.

De­spite her reser­va­tions, Li­more un­der­stood that as her son ap­proached his 18th birthday, there was lit­tle she could do to stop him, so she opted in­stead to sup­port him.

“Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I think about it all the time, but we’re very for­tu­nate with technology. Ei­tan is very close to my hus­band and me. We speak al­most ev­ery day,” she said.

Wine said that al­though his par­ents have grown to ac­cept his de­ci­sion, hav­ing to come to terms with his fam­ily and friends’ “lack of 100 per cent ap­proval” was one of his big­gest chal­lenges.

“Not a sin­gle per­son has dis­owned me – yet – or told me they do not ap­prove of my de­ci­sion. How­ever, there are many that have stated they would pre­fer me on the west­ern side of the world where they are sure I can find an­other way to give to Is­rael,” Wine said.

Thanks to or­ga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide ser­vices that prom­ise to make the tran­si­tion to life as an Is­raeli sol­dier smoother, lone sol­diers en­joy some spe­cial perks, which give their par­ents some peace of mind.

“As a lone sol­dier I re­ceive cer­tain ben­e­fits from the IDF and the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment in or­der to help me live in Is­rael, in­clud­ing an ex­tra stipend, an ex­tra day off each month to run er­rands, and 30 days a year to leave Is­rael and spend time with my fam­ily,” Mor­ri­son ex­plained.

Garin Tz­abar also places groups of lone sol­diers in kib­butzim with host fam­i­lies, to en­sure they have a home away from home.

Still, with all the pro­grams and spe­cial perks in place for lone sol­diers, there are cer­tain chal­lenges even the best pro­grams can’t pre­pare them for.

“The most chal­leng­ing part for me is be­ing so far away from my fam­ily. I’m still able to call and Skype with my fam­ily when­ever I have free time, but it’s not the same as ac­tu­ally be­ing with them,” Mor­ri­son said.

For Elim­elech, ad­just­ing to Is­raeli cul­ture was a chal­lenge.

“You’re on your own, you’re away from your fam­ily, you’re with a bunch of Is- raelis, and no mat­ter how Zion­ist and pro-is­rael you are, it is a dif­fer­ent cul­ture… Some days were dif­fi­cult. I’m not go­ing to lie.”

El­lis said de­spite spend­ing time in an ul­pan pro­gram to learn con­ver­sa­tional He­brew be­fore en­list­ing, the lan­guage bar­rier was the tough­est thing to over­come.

“When I moved to Is­rael I knew vir­tu­ally no He­brew. I knew how to say, ‘How much does this cost? Where is the bath­room?’ And that was about it,” El­lis said.

“The first two months of my ser­vice was the hard­est time of my en­tire life. I heard all these sto­ries about mil­i­tary brother­hood, and that is all I wanted.”

He ex­plained that at the end of each day, the sol­diers had 45 min­utes to smoke, use their phones and so­cial­ize.

“I would sit there, in a corner, while the Is­raelis would sit around and talk about their girl­friends, their fam­i­lies and life back home. All I wanted to do was be a part of that,” El­lis said.

“It was a rough few months, but my He­brew got re­ally good, re­ally fast… Af­ter a while, ev­ery­thing sort of clicks.”

Wine said given the cir­cum­stances of life in the army, bond­ing is in­evitable, no mat­ter where you come from.

“When you eat, sleep, shower, lean on, and snug­gle with the same guys for a year, you build a bond as though you are true broth­ers,” Wine said.

On the other hand, some of his fel­low sol­diers might feel a lit­tle re­sent­ful about the perks en­joyed by lone sol­diers.

“I am en­ti­tled to cer­tain rights that reg­u­lar Is­raeli sol­diers are not en­ti­tled to… Some feel of­fended that I don’t have to work very hard to re­ceive them… It can be tough for a sol­dier who needs to help out at home, es­pe­cially when they only see home once ev­ery few weeks,” Wine said.

Mor­ri­son said he doesn’t feel like he’s treated any dif­fer­ently from the mem­bers of his unit based on his sta­tus as a lone sol­dier.

“They un­der­stand why lone sol­diers would get these added ben­e­fits… They’ve re­ally helped me in­te­grate into Is­raeli so­ci­ety, and by serv­ing be­side each other, we’ve grown into a fam­ily.”

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing to ad­just to the cul­ture shock of liv­ing and serv­ing in a Mid­dle Eastern coun­try, the sol­diers also had to come to terms with their per­spec­tives on the Is­raeli-pales­tinian con­flict, which in some cases, changed be­cause of their first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Is­rael as a coun­try is an ab­so­lute mess, po­lit­i­cally speak­ing… The con­flict it­self, I see com­pletely dif­fer­ently. I’ve served on vir­tu­ally ev­ery bor­der we have in Is­rael. I’ve seen ev­ery en­emy, I’ve been en­gaged in con­flicts with Ha­mas, with Hezbol­lah, even ISIS… I want to tell you that ev­ery­thing is per­fect and the army is an in­cred­i­ble place, but the truth of the mat­ter is that noth­ing is per­fect,” El­lis said.

We’re the most moral army in the world. El­liot Wine

“I’ve had nights in the West Bank when they sent us in at three in the morn­ing to ar­rest a ter­ror­ist, and we go in and we’re heav­ily armed and we break down the door and we grab peo­ple out of their homes, and we’re do­ing an amaz­ing thing. We’re ar­rest­ing a ter­ror­ist who is re­spon­si­ble for the death of Jewish lives. But then you turn around and you see his nine chil­dren, sit­ting there, cry­ing, with hate in their eyes, and it breaks my heart,” he said.

“We’re the most moral army in the world – we just threw a solider in jail for killing a ter­ror­ist – but all these con­flicts, it’s so com­pli­cated.”

Wine said that liv­ing in Canada made it much eas­ier to “blindly” sup­port Is­rael’s ac­tions.

“Once you be­come the ac­tion that is de­bated upon, or some­one who is scru­ti­nized daily, the politics sink in a lit­tle bit more,” Wine said.

He added that be­ing based in Ot­niel, a set­tle­ment south of He­bron, has al­lowed him to see what how each side in­ter­acts with the other.

“I will say that my ex­pe­ri­ence has ab­so­lutely not changed my po­lit­i­cal views. How­ever, it has made me a lot more open to other opin­ions on the mat­ter. We are taught and ex­pected to have a very high level of re­spect for ev­ery per­son we in­ter­act with,” said Wine.

For Elim­elech, his role in the three-week Op­er­a­tion Cast Lead in 2008 re­in­forced his be­lief about Is­rael and its se­cu­rity.

“We can’t rely on any­one, and we have to de­fend our­selves. Whether we like it or not, there is an en­emy out there. Un­til we do have peace, we have to be ready for this,” Elim­elech said.

Al­though each of the sol­diers spoke of the men­tal strength they needed to get through the tough times, they all agreed they had no re­grets.

“By serv­ing in the IDF, I’m con­tribut­ing to Is­rael’s safety… I don’t think there’s any­thing more re­ward­ing than that,” Mor­ri­son said.

Elim­elech said he en­joys the feel­ing of be­ing part of some­thing big­ger than him­self.

“When I’m on the bus, and I see a bus full of sol­diers, I can hold my head up high know­ing that I did my part,” Elim­elech said.

Wine was re­luc­tant to say he’d rec­om­mend the ex­pe­ri­ence to some­one else, but be­lieves it’s the most char­ac­ter-build­ing process he’s ever been a part of.

“This is not at all the de­ci­sion for ev­ery­one, but for those who have the head for it, it is some­thing to look back on, even through all the tough times, and be proud of your­self.”

What makes the tough times a lit­tle eas­ier for El­lis to swal­low is the love and sup­port he feels from Is­raelis.

“In our unit, we have the high­est ca­su­alty rate, and when there is a war, we are the first ones in and the last ones out, and all of Is­rael un­der­stands that,” El­lis said.

“I’ll leave base and some­one will call out to me on the street and say, ‘Golanchik, come have a falafel on me.’ Es­pe­cially be­cause I come from out­side of Is­rael, I get so much ap­pre­ci­a­tion. My ti­tle is be­ing a lone sol­dier, but I’ve never once felt alone. I know that ev­ery sin­gle mother in Is­rael wants to be my mother, and ev­ery sin­gle fam­ily wants to help me. All of the guys in my unit, I’ve been to all of their homes for Shab­bat, and I know that if I need any­thing, I’m part of their fam­i­lies. That is the most re­ward­ing thing.”

For El­lis, ful­fill­ing his Zion­ist dream of serv­ing in Is­rael’s army – al­though dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing – was one of the best de­ci­sions he ever made.

“I wake up ev­ery morn­ing and I look in the mir­ror, and I ab­so­lutely hate my­self and I say, ‘I hate you. I hate you so much. What are you do­ing here? This is the worst thing ever.’ But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be any­where else.”

El­liot Wine (right) with a fel­low lone sol­dier Sagie Mad­nick.

Ei­tan El­lis

Yonah Mor­ri­son

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