|Jon Bendavid, far right, of the men’s club of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, stands with sailors thanking the shul for a donation of 100 fleece jackets to a patrol boat division in charge of the northern waters, 100 thermal suits to a search and rescue unit, and 100 sweatshirts (the only allowable outerwear) for a submarine unit.|
Winding his way up the hills of Samaria in the west bank, Leon Blankrot points toward a red sign warning Israeli drivers not to venture into the Palestinian territory beyond. Few Israelis can do so legally – among them, Israel Defense Forces personnel and Leon Blankrot.
A North Bergen native who moved to Israel from Passaic in 1995, Blankrot refers to himself as “chief cook and bottle washer” for Yashar L’Chayal (Straight to the Soldier). He’s been visiting Passaic and Teaneck as he kicks off the group’s annual warm winter-wear campaign, but will not be making any formal presentations.
Blankrot prefers to work behind the scenes. Each week, he drives to border army installations and in areas under the Palestinian Authority, delivering donated items that the IDF cannot or will not provide to its fighting forces. His trunk is filled with anything from blankets to toasters on any given day.
Blankrot, 49, doesn’t frequent the showcase IDF bases that other soldier-welfare organizations bring foreign visitors to see. These aren’t the ones whose commanders call him with desperate requests for, say, hydration backpacks or warm socks – even a pair of tefillin.
Beyond that red sign is one such base, set up in an abandoned factory. “There are rooms without windows, and it’s freezing cold at night,” says Blankrot, who enters the base periodically with an army escort.
On another base where Israeli civilians are prohibited, Blankrot spotted border patrol soldiers in full battle gear sleeping on the pavement at 9 a.m., with their heads on their helmets. “Turns out, these guys came from an overnight patrol and their rooms were too hot, so they slept on the cold sidewalk. We came back and gave out 13 air conditioners.” He pauses for emphasis. “I don’t give out fluff.”
Blankrot asked one supporter for a donation toward bathrobes for soldiers whom he’d seen running across the way from their barracks to the showers, in mid-winter, wearing only towels. “These soldiers, most of them Ethiopians, cannot afford such luxuries, and they cannot ask the army to provide them.”
Yashar L’Chayal was an outgrowth of Blankrot’s volunteering during the 2006 Lebanon war. A fellow congregant at his synagogue in Ma’aleh Adumim had received $250,000 from the Florida-based Cherna Moskowitz Foundation to help soldiers during that hot summer war. Blankrot took a month off from work, recruited additional volunteers, and began toting vanloads of supplies to the north.
“I went through $200,000 in a couple of weeks,” he recalls. “I’d make up to two trips a day to the Lebanese border. I’d speak to officers and quartermasters – the Radar O’Reillys of the base – to tell me what was needed. The list of things we gave out included drinking water and thousands of pairs of underwear.”
The connections he forged made Blankrot the logical choice to head a more permanent effort to assist Israeli combat soldiers. Despite the work of existing organizations, Blankrot uncovered supply gaps among lesser-known combat units, including infantry, tank, engineering, paratroop, and artillery brigades. He also aids “lone soldiers” – who have no family in Israel – and visits wounded fighters and their families.
“Yashar L’Chayal is built so every penny goes to soldiers’ individual needs, something nobody else is doing,” said Blankrot, who is now in his fourth year of a five-year contract.
Mostly, Blankrot supplies low-ticket items that parents with any sort of means could buy at the mall for their soldier children: neck warmers, fleece jackets, and gloves; $22 “shlooker” water backpacks; $19 thermal rain gear; toasters for members of a religious brigade living in hostels or boarding with families.
“We give out thousands of fleece jackets and a lot of long underwear,” says Blankrot. “I always do my due diligence to make sure these things are not being provided by the army or any other organization, and I make sure donors get recognition. I try to get the biggest bang for the buck.”
Just before Passover 2009, Blankrot learned that 24 Golani Brigade infantry troops’ families lacked refrigerators, and he supplied them.
“Everything I purchase is made in Israel,” he says. “Donors always ask me if they can send underwear on sale at Wal-Mart or Target, but the army has specific regulations regarding color and thread count. That’s hard for Americans to understand.”
It’s also hard for Americans to grasp the level of poverty in which many soldiers live despite the token pay they receive.
“At training bases, I set up closets where indigent soldiers can get shampoo, soap, towels, underwear,” says Blankrot. “Probably about a quarter of Israel’s combat soldiers are in this situation, including a lot of Ethiopians and Russians. If a kid doesn’t have money, he can’t even get a dog-tag cover.”
Blankrot brings visitors to a base in Kochav Yaakov, a Samarian town strategically overlooking Ramallah. Here, soldiers in a company of the Kfir brigade – established after the intifada to serve in the west bank – serve in six-month rotations.
“Conditions here are not horrible, but there is a lot to be done,” says Blankrot, speaking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping soldiers who just returned from a 12-hour patrol.
There is a mobile synagogue, and a trailer-cum-clubhouse supplied by from Friends of the IDF. Blankrot has brought blankets in the winter and air-conditioners in the summer. He’s brought curtains to black out the windows so the young men can sleep better during the daytime.
Showing a thank-you letter from the IDF’s head of human resources, Blankrot says that Israel’s military leadership gives Yashar L’Chayal ample recognition for its work.
Some American synagogues, including Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, contribute to the organization. Blankrot also partners with the Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel on some projects. For more information, see www.yasharlachayal.org.