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Lone Soldiers

Jerusalem Post, Aug 22, 2004

It's dangerous, difficult and sometimes brutal. So why would North American kids want to serve in the IDF? In the first of a two part article, some of them explain why they're here.

Lone Soldiers receive their berets. (L to R) Yonatan Freedman (New York, NY), Daniel Schneck (Livingston, NJ), Binyamin Kleinman (Toronto), Jeremy Stern (Los Angeles )

MY family teases me," laughs Ari Wexler, an IDF infantryman formerly from Toronto. "They say I'm the first Wexler to ever run to the army. Everyone else was running from the army - the Russian army, the Turkish army."

Wexler is one of an elite group of non-Israeli men and women from all over the world who decided not only to come to Israel, but also to volunteer for the IDF. Beyond that, however, Wexler came as a hayal boded a "lone soldier" without immediate family in Israel.

Being alone, without family, while serving in the IDF can create a host of additional problems that magnify the difficulties of army life itself - not that Wexler seems to have noticed.

"This whole experience has been the best thing in my life," he says. "Lots of people say they hate the army and want to get out. But for me, it's just the best thing I've ever done."

FOREIGN army volunteers have been a mainstay in Israel's defense since before the State was created.

In 1948, over 3,500 overseas volunteers, many of them veterans of World War II, came from 43 different countries to serve. According to then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, these overseas volunteers provided not only a critical mass of additional manpower, but just as importantly, they also served as a physical expression of the solidarity of the Jewish people. Under Ben-Gurion's auspices, a professional fighting force was created, the MACHAL, an acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz La'Aretz (overseas volunteers) - although as Dr. Jason Fenton, one of the 1948 volunteers recalls, local Israelis thought it stood for Meshuga'im Mi'Hutz La'Aretz, those "crazy guys from outside Israel."

Today, according to an IDF spokeswoman, there are about 5000 really "crazy guys" - and gals - who came to the IDF not only as overseas volunteers, but who also came alone, as lone soldiers.

"Israel is a very small country," an IDF spokesman noted. "Most soldiers go home for Shabbat or scheduled leaves. They rest, get their clothes washed, fill up on mom's cooking, catch up on sleep. When they need help, their families step in to run to the bank or post office, or deal with government offices. Lone soldiers don't have any of that family support, and it can be really tough."

THE IDF helps in several ways. Lone soldiers get extra pay, subsidies to help pay rent and utilities and an extra day off every other month. There's even a full-time clerk assigned to help with whatever they need. All of these additional perks help, but it still doesn't make it easy. How do these kids - most of them between 18 and 22, many away from home for the first time - handle it all?

Coping strategies vary: going to a kibbutz is one alternative. In a kibbutz they are treated like one of the family, and in turn, the kibbutz benefits from the subsidy payments that cover their expenses. Another alternative is to go a yeshiva, where they get similar help. Still others tough it out by themselves, renting an apartment with at least one roommate, and managing, somehow, on their own.

Some try more innovative methods to find the perfect solution.

Aaron Mirsky, a 20-year-old about-to-be-inductee from Toronto, turned to technology for help. Mirsky posted an ad on an Internet website in which he identified himself, said he was currently studying at a yeshiva, and would start his IDF basic training in August. Then he added: "I am a lone soldier with no family in Israel. Therefore I am looking for a nice family in Jerusalem that has a spare room. Someone to 'adopt' me, maybe, so I'll have a place to stay."

"I thought it was worth a try," Mirsky says. "I'd looked at some apartments, but I'd need a roommate, and everyone I talked to had other arrangements. I thought if I could find a family to stay with, it would be so nice. I could use a little pampering."

Mirsky is still sifting through dozens of e-mailed responses. About 10 families have offered their home," he says, "and many more than that have invited me for Shabbat - more Shabbatot than I will ever get off from the army, can you believe it? I'm looking for a place that's reasonably close to the bus station, because I'll be traveling a lot, and also someplace where I could store some of my stuff. But I'm so touched by how many people responded so quickly. I thought I'd get just an e-mail or two. I mean, I'm a total stranger here, and all these people have invited me into their family!"

"Only in Israel!" he adds.

EZRA HaLevi, formerly of Albany, NY, faced the same where to live problem when he enlisted.

"I was looking for an apartment in Jerusalem," he says, "but my price range limited possibilities. Then my roommate and I got lucky, and we stumbled on this great place. The owner even came and picked us up to look at it. It was big, light and airy and fully furnished - and he gave it to us at an unreal price.

Next door was a Moroccan neighbor who spent all week cooking for Shabbat, so when we got home on Friday afternoons, hot and tired, she insisted that we eat all our Shabbat meals with them. She'd have this eight-course meal - it couldn't have been better."

"Israelis are extremely conscious of lone soldiers " HaLevi says. "They hear you're in the Army, and ask, 'You have family here? No?' And they step in to take care of you. For a while, our landlord took our laundry to his home, and did it for us, just to help out. Everyone seems ready to help in any way possible."

GOING the yeshiva route is another option: Israel is home to numerous Hesder Yeshivot, schools that combine Torah study with army service. The Hesder programs are a starting point for many lone soldiers because they offer a base of operations for their students while they are on active duty. One of these yeshivas, Yeshivat Har Etzion, in Gush Etzion, suffered a terrible tragedy November 2002, when one of their students, Yoni Jesner from Glasgow, Scotland, went to visit his uncle in Tel Aviv and was killed in a suicide bus bombing. When Jesner's parents decided to donate his organs to both Jews and Arabs, his story made headlines around the world.

In the curious way the world works, Yoni Jesner's murder had another dramatic effect: Many of his classmates at the yeshiva volunteered for the IDF with even greater commitment.

"I thought to myself, 'My blood isn't any redder than their blood.'" said 20-year old Yonatan Freedman, formerly from New York, then a student at Har Etzion. "I wanted to help, so I volunteered for the IDF.

"There were seven of us from here who entered the IDF at the same time, so we had a lot of support," says Freedman. "I was a lone soldier, true, but I was a part of a very close knit group. We molded together. Everyone was always commenting on how close we were. I was lucky, too, because I was a ben bayit a boarder with the Wolf family in Gush Etzion, who took me in and treated me like a son. I could stay at the yeshiva, too, when I was off duty, so I could do my laundry there, and that made things easier.

"The kind of thing that's tough for lone soldiers is all the little stuff, things you wouldn't even notice, if you were back in the US, or had a family here to help. Sometimes I needed to go to the bank. But the banks keep short hours, and maybe I didn't get there in time.

"Other things came up. Once, I got called for jury duty in New York while I was in the army, here. It was a mess. I had to get a copy of my passport and student visa and mail it to my parents in New York, so they could take care of it there. But my US passport was in storage, and I had a hard time getting into the storage facility during the time allotted. See, if I'd had a family here, they could have done all those things."

In the scheme of things, however, all the "little things" don't seem to matter much to Freedman. He's still happy to be serving.

"When people see me serving in the army," Freedman says, "They say one of two things: about half say, 'Kol hakavod! Good for you, how wonderful.' And the other half say, 'Are you nuts? You didn't have to do this.' When I hear someone say that, I tell them, 'But here I am. I'm religious. I volunteered. I served longer than I had to and I did it not because I had to, but because I wanted to."

ARI Wexler of Toronto, the 'crazy guy' from Toronto who thinks the IDF is the best thing he's ever done, loves the army so much he's staying in as long as he possibly can.

"As a volunteer, I'd have to stay only nine months, he says. "But I'm now in my 11th month, and will probably stay for another four. I want to stay as long as my friends are here.

"You talk about lone soldiers,' he says, "but I'm not alone. These people I am serving with are my family. I want to stay, to finish with them, to go all with way to the very end.

"But that's not the only reason," he adds. "The other thing is, I really love doing this stuff."

"You know what my favorite part is? It's doing guard duty at 3 am, when it's raining. If you're on a checkpoint at 3 pm, everyone around you is working, too. But at 3 am, you're out there all alone. People are depending on you to safeguard the country. It just gives you that neat feeling - I'm really doing something important, here. There's nothing like it in the whole world."

CHERIE Arildsen, formerly from Copenhagen, Denmark, qualifies as one of the world's most gutsy girls.

Not only is she a lone soldier in the IDF, she also fought to get into an infantry unit, to serve with the toughest of the tough.

"I want to live in Israel, so I wanted to serve in army, too, to be a part of things," she says. "And if I was going to be in the army, I wanted to go all the way: I got into an infantry unit. It's been hard, very hard, sometimes, to tell you the truth. Lots of times I was just lost. I didn't understand all the Hebrew. Sometimes I was so tired, I'd fall asleep in class, or I'd be standing there in a daze, just nodding as though I understood. There were plenty of tears, too. It's tough."

Arildsen, who'll celebrate her 21st birthday in November, is now serving as a radio operator somewhere along the Jordanian border.

"It can be dangerous, sure. But really, one of the hardest things was just learning to live in a unit with all those other people, men and women, both. Israelis don't have any choice. But me, I'm committed. I wanted to be there, I choose it, out of all the other things I could have been doing - and I had to fight to get into this unit.

"Many people don't understand why I wanted to be here so much. All I can say is that I love Israel, I want to do whatever I can to to help, and to be a part of it all. What other reason could there be?

"Sometimes, I think of all my friends back in Denmark. Right about now, they're all getting their university degrees, and here I am, running around the desert with a gun in my hands. But the thing is, I've learned so much, I can't even tell you how much. I've learned things about myself, about others, about life. I've learned things my friends with their college degrees will never know.

"There's enormous pressure in the army, and lots of times that pressure causes you to change. One lesson is: I'm not the only person in the world.

"Right, it sounds simple," Arildsen says, laughing. "But for me, that was a big lesson."

DAVIDA Kutscher, who's now on duty working in the Foreign Press Office, grew up in New York.

"I always knew I was going to serve in the IDF. For me, the only question was, would I go before high school, or after?"

Kutscher finally decided she'd be more valuable to the army if she had a degree, so she graduated from college in June, majoring in political science and English, and came to Israel with a garin an aliya group, of 34 people ages 17-24.

"We all got to know each other," she says, "We met several times, all came to Israel together, and all went into army.

"It's been fun. It's very intense, I'll say that. We all have the same ideals, same core values, same goals. But that doesn't mean that everyone is either neat or quiet.

"I remember my 22nd birthday. I was with my unit, in our tent. I'd misplaced my hat, and had to go outside to look for it, and when I came back, the girls had arranged a whole surprise party - cake, candles, the whole thing. I couldn't believe it.

"We were taking pictures, laughing and talking, and then the whole thing dawned on me, how different and wonderful my life is. In the US, on someone's birthday, people would go out and drink - even drink too much, maybe. And here I was, sitting with a bunch of girls in a tent in some lonely part of Israel. We were dirty and exhausted, and in the pictures you can see we're all holding our guns. It's a very different world here, but I can't even tell you how happy I was. It was just one of those wonderful moments.

"I don't feel alone here. There are so many people who support us. People donate mattresses, refrigerators, food, invite us to their homes, help us in any way they can. And I realize how much I've benefited from all the support I've had, all the way through my life. My family, my mom, has been so supportive, and my grandfather, Si Bosworth, has been wonderful. He fought in World War II, landed on Normandy, and helped liberate some of the camps. You can just imagine what it means to him, that his granddaughter is serving in the IDF.

"I am a lone soldier by definition. But think of it this way: I have the 33 people I came with. I have the people in my unit. I have all my Israeli friends that I've met while I've been here, lots of friends who are hayalim bodedim. Really, I'm not alone!"

"I want to encourage the dream for others," says Toronto resident Yossi Mirsky, who just finished nine months of active service in the IDF, service he volunteered for, and came all the way to Israel alone, as a "lone soldier," to perform.

"I admit I thought to myself, 'What? Are you nuts? But then I'd remind myself of the awesome responsibility - to save and protect Jewish lives, in my own country. So I pushed aside my fear to do what I believed was right. And the truth is, I enjoyed every last second."

Mirsky is unabashedly enthusiastic about his nine months of service.

"The army pushes your physical and mental abilities to the max and proves to you that you can do things you never thought possible. It teaches you things about yourself you'd never learn otherwise," he says.

Mirsky's no exception, either. His passion for the hard, dirty, dangerous work of the IDF seems to be shared by his North American counterparts who undertake the same mission.

WHAT could be so enjoyable about serving in the army - any army? At the moment, over 5,000 young Jews - most between 18 and 22 years - from all over the world, have come alone to Israel to enlist. Why do they do it? What's the motivation?

There are probably 5,000 different reasons, but for most, it appears to be some combination of a desire to protect their people and homeland, a sense of tradition, a desire to fit into Israeli society later, and for most, believe it or not, for the fun and adventure.

FOR Yossi Mirsky, it started with tradition.

"In our Toronto high school, Yeshivat Bnei Akiva Or Chaim, it's traditional that we go to Israel to learn for at least a year before starting university," Mirsky says. "Right from the start I was taken in by Israel. I fell in love with the warm, caring people and the land itself. By my second year, I knew that no place outside of Israel would ever be my home, and I decided that doing the army through MAHAL would be the best way to start my aliya process."

The Mirsky family could almost staff a platoon all by itself: Yossi is one of triplets who celebrated their 21st birthdays this summer. His brother, Aaron, who started basic training just a few days ago, spent a couple of years in university before enlisting. Rachel, their sister, just graduated from college, and is planning on aliya. Beyond that, the triplets have 16-year old twin brothers, who are waiting their turn. And then there are their first cousins, Joey and Yoni Lightstone, 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Joey spent last year as a volunteer medic for Magen David Adom, and will soon join the IDF, while Yoni served as a volunteer infantryman.

"In Toronto, lots of young people volunteer for the IDF. It's something we aspire to," Yossi says.

SOME volunteers arrived through a more circuitous route: Ezra HaLevi, co-founder of Kumah, a youth aliyah organization, was active in aliya work in the US before coming himself. "My friend Yishai Fleisher and I started promoting youth aliya in college," HaLevi says. "I made aliya myself in June 2002, and started working on my MBA at Bar Ilan, but I still felt like a tourist. I started bugging the army, but they kept putting me off. So I went to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to improve my Hebrew. I worked in the fields and helped with their natural pest control business, until the army finally accepted me in December, 2002. The kibbutz 'learn Hebrew while you work' program was great, but army is the ultimate ulpan," HaLevi says.

"I started basic training in a unit that was mostly Russian new immigrants. I met people I'd never have met otherwise. Then I was selected for a search and rescue unit, and we learned to drive heavy equipment on the beach in Netanya. It was every little boy's dream."

Finally HaLevi was sent to a regular army base.

"I was always being asked by native Israelis 'Why did you come here?' There's a lot of banter in the Army and it's not too often you get to speak about the really important things, so for me, that question was my opening.

"'Look " I'd say, 'the media in Israel tries to make America look all shiny and glittery, perfect. But here, in Israel, I'd tell them, this is the place to be."

As he sees it, "The most boring job in the army has incredible meaning - we are protecting not only Israel and our fellow Jews, but fighting for a free and enlightened humanity."

According to his father, HaLevi's path to Israel was paved by a number of different factors.

"I think it's mostly due to my wife, Laya," says Buzzy Levine, Ezra's father, from Teaneck, NJ.

"Ezra was our experimental kid, the oldest of four. We sent him to high school in Monsey, where he lived away from home. I suppose that was part of it. Reb Shlomo Carlebach was another part. He used to visit Albany and stayed next door. Ezra got to know him, and appreciated Reb Shlomo's enthusiasm about Israel. When Ezra finished college, we asked, 'So, Ezra, what are you going to do now?' We knew there was no way he was going to take a regular job in someone's office. He said he was going to Israel. Of course we were a little concerned.

"But I had to admit it: his mother and I did our own thing, too. We'd lived on a Jewish farm, painted houses, grown our own vegetables. Ezra's making aliya is his Woodstock. He has more faith than we do, or maybe he's just younger. But he's doing exactly what he wants to do and he has so much joy. He's idealistic. I think it's wonderful, just wonderful. We're so proud of him."

ELYASAF Schwartz, a Yeshiva Har Etzion student from Brooklyn who just finished serving in the infantry, also cites his growing-up years as his inspiration.

"I was a Zionist from birth," he says. "I was raised in the tradition of doing, not just talking. After 2,000 years of exile, we Jews have returned to our homeland. Now I'm presented with an opportunity my grandparents could only dream about - in fact, I'm the product of their dreams.

"I came here with the idea that I was going to give something to the state of Israel," he muses. "But ultimately, all I did was receive. I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of protecting the land of Israel, to feel that special esprit de corps for myself. Even wearing the uniform was a privilege. I'd feel a kind of pride I can't even express. I was part of something really important.

"When you're here, the Hebrew word achi (my brother ) takes on a whole new meaning. I can sit here and wax poetic about the idealism involved, but sometimes it's the camaraderie, just being with your brothers, that gets you through the day."

THE army is tough, they all say, but everyone tells stories of how much fun they had, too. The language issue pops up in lots of tales.

Learning Hebrew in the Army leads to some funny stories. Cherie Arildsen, an IDF infantrywoman from Denmark, had experiences that sound like an Israeli version of Private Benjamin: "My mom's Israeli," she says, "so I had some basic Hebrew, but no army words. There are special words for everything, for example, all the different vehicles have special names. My problem was, I could never remember which was which. I'd be working, sometimes so tired I was almost in a trance, and someone would tell me, 'Quick! Run out to the ..' and then they'd name some vehicle, but I had no idea which one. I'd start running, trying to remember the words as I ran.

"One day, I was running with my gun in my right hand, a bunch of papers in the other and asking people all along the way, 'What am I supposed to do? Did you understand?' It was kind of funny, actually. It's a good thing I can laugh about it.

"Now I'm a radio specialist, so I follow the highest person in the unit around, to take and send messages. But on the radio, they use all these code words. I mean, it's bad enough that everything is in Hebrew, but then it's in code, too? I finally got so I could just repeat what they'd said, word for word, but most of the time I had no idea what it meant.

"There were days when I was thinking, 'I'm so tired. I hate this. I just can't do it anymore.' But even on those days, if you'd had asked me if I should have joined, I would have said yes. Being in the Israeli army, being in the infantry, is the best thing in the world."

DAVIDA Kutscher was born in Jerusalem - her mother made aliya in 1967 - but grew up in New York after her father, who'd served as a paratrooper, passed away.

"I have the best job in the entire army," she says. Kutscher works for the IDF's Foreign Press Branch.

"I run around a lot. I mean really run," she says. "I've had some phenomenal experiences at work. There was an International Conference on Warfare, and I met people from the Czech Republic, Austria, Kenya, India, all over. At a party, I found myself talking to three men, from Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. I explained I was a 'lone soldier' in the Israeli army. They absolutely couldn't believe that I would come alone, all the way from America, to serve in the Israeli Army.

"So I told the guy from Sweden that there was a girl from Sweden, here, too, a friend of mine. He was absolutely shocked. And I said, yes, she's in a combat unit, serving in the West Bank.

"He nearly lost it. 'A girl from Sweden, in the Israeli army, serving in the West Bank? I pulled out my cell phone. 'Would you like to talk to her?' I asked. I dialed, handed him the phone, and they chatted away in Swedish.

"It was very funny. It's such a privilege to be able to explain to people just a little bit of what it's like, how wonderful an army the Israeli army is. You know, in many places, the Israeli army doesn't have a good reputation, and I just love it when I have a chance to tell about what we do, and how we do it.

"I came to the army with so much idealism," Kutscher says. "I remember thinking, 'I have all these skills, I have a college degree, I know how to work hard. So when I get in that army, I'm going to be able to change a few things and turn things around for the better. Now that makes me laugh. It's so na ve, it's funny. The army didn't need me to change a thing. I'm the one who's been changed, and for the better, too.

"So many times I feel this sense of wonderment. It's something that happens to me a lot. Maybe I'm on a bus from Jerusalem, and we're heading in the direction of the Kinneret. We get to this one spot on the road where it goes from dry and barren to lush and green, and everything is in bloom. I know exactly when that view comes and every time, it just takes my breath away.

"Or I see Jerusalem at night, with all the lights. Those moments give me a feeling of perfect happiness, perfect contentment.

"Somehow, I know that everything I've done, everything I'm going through, even the tough parts, all of it has been absolutely worth it, for just that one moment of perfect peace."

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