Israel’s Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin is a godsend, says Oren Hason, who made aliyah in 2008 from Fair Lawn and served in a field intelligence unit. A “lone soldier” is a young person who made aliyah on his or her own, and then joined the army.
“They helped me through a lot of bureaucratic mess,” Hason says of the Lone Soldier Center. “They are really angels.”
Josh Flaster, a former lone soldier who grew up in Phoenix, founded the center (www.lonesoldiercenter.com) in 2009. Several organizations provide services to the estimated 5,700 Israel Defense Forces soldiers who lack local family (including Friends of the IDF, see the sidebar on this page), but this is the only one run by former lone soldiers exclusively for lone soldiers.
“We do not support the IDF. We support lone soldiers off base,” he stressed. “We have about 100 volunteers, mostly former lone soldiers, who understand the issues these brave young men and women face as they give all they can to Israel.”
Flaster named the non-profit in memory of Michael Levine, a lone soldier from Pennsylvania who was killed at age 21 during the second Lebanon war.
Youths from many different countries are drawn to serve in the IDF – Tzahal – for Zionistic or idealistic reasons, but may not realize the emotional and practical difficulties they will face without immediate family in Israel, said Flaster. While lone soldiers receive a higher salary than do regular Israeli servicemen, they are often surprised to find their paycheck does not go far.
“I was a lone soldier, and my service was meaningful and important to me,” says Flaster, “but off base I struggled for basic needs, including food and housing. So when I finished, I got together with other lone soldiers and opened a center to make it better for kids serving today.”
Avi Hirsch of Passaic, now serving in an infantry unit along with lone soldier Adam Nagar from Paramus, said: “The center creates an environment where we feel at home. They help us with everything we need, from an apartment to a soothing word, to make us feel better if we are having a bad day.”
Last year, the center’s offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv assisted about 1,300 lone soldiers from 51 different countries. They organize social events, army preparation and release seminars, group holiday and Shabbat meals, “adoptive” families, furniture and appliance donations, and personal advising.
Lone Soldier Center volunteers attended Hirsch and Nagar’s end-of-training ceremony to stand in as surrogate family, and sponsored a “Fun Day” for their unit.
“We try to reach out to as many lone soldiers as we can, and we hope to help closer to 1,500 this year,” said Flaster. “About 10 percent of Israel’s fighting force is lone soldiers, and that’s a big part of the army.”
Hason, a Frisch School graduate, sought help from the center even before getting drafted. He married just a month before he entered the military. The Lone Soldier Center helped him through the paperwork and intervened successfully twice to correct problems caused by IDF record-keepers.
Since his discharge, the 26-year-old has volunteered for the center. “We see what we missed out on, and try to make things better for the next soldiers,” he said.
Flaster has a long list of lone soldiers from North Jersey who have benefited from the center’s assistance. Forty percent of lone soldiers come from the United States, he said, and most of the center’s funding comes from their families.
“Jews in America can help get the word out about us,” Flaster said. “We’re happy to put people in touch with kids from their community so they can send packages and letters. It’s heartwarming for me when people ask if they can take out a couple of lone soldiers from their area for dinner when they’re visiting Israel. The soldiers really appreciate this.”
Those interested in helping through the Lone Soldier Center can sponsor bar/bat mitzvah projects to collect items that soldiers always need, such as big backpacks, flashlights, or warm gear for winter.
“The programming we do costs money, so people are welcome and encouraged to donate,” said Flaster.
|A group of soldiers from New York and New Jersey who live in the same apartment in Jerusalem with the Lone Soldier Center’s senior adviser, Tziki Aud (third from left).|