This is a feel-good story that starts in a Paramus Jewish high school and ends on an Israeli army base.
The first link in the chain of events was the Frisch School’s annual Chanukah charity fundraising competition, which raised a record $20,000 in pledges.
The student tzedakah committee, Kahal, had voted to give the proceeds to the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. This Jerusalem-based organization provides supportive services to some 7,000 IDF soldiers whose parents either live overseas or are absent or dysfunctional.
In March, Frisch’s assistant principal, Rabbi David Goldfischer, turned the collected funds over to Andi Flug Wolfer, the executive director of the U.S. Supporters of the Lone Soldier Center. At the beginning of April, Ms. Wolfer learned of an immediate need that the donation could cover with money it had left over.
Menachem Katz, the center’s director of operations for the Jerusalem district, was starting to look into the possibility of renting a food truck to bring edible cheer to soldiers in the field on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, May 9.
Mr. Katz found a business that rents out food trucks for NIS 10,000 (about $2,777) per day. But when the business owner heard the truck was for lone soldiers, he refused to take any money. “Money is for the pocket, but good deeds are for the soul,” he told Mr. Katz, adding that his family had “adopted” a female lone soldier.
But he also urged Mr. Katz not to wait until May. This was April 2, a week after seven residents of a Tel Aviv suburb were wounded by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Soldiers stationed near the border were on high alert, and another round of fighting was a distinct possibility.
The owner told Mr. Katz, “Everybody’s on the border, so go now. I want you to take a truck down to Gaza.”
Oren Hason, CEO of the Lone Soldier Center — and, coincidentally, a 2004 Frisch graduate — agreed that “giving the soldiers something they’d really enjoy instead of eating the same eggs, cottage cheese, and bread” could be a good morale booster and, of course, it would not be limited to lone soldiers. “When the country is about to go to war, soldiers are sometimes eating very basic stuff,” he said.
Even without the rental expense, however, the center needed money to buy the food, gas for the truck, and personal gear to distribute to troops arriving at the Gaza border.
“When soldiers transition to a new base they might not have all the equipment unpacked and available right away,” Mr. Hason said. “Also, we can give them items that may be higher quality than the army can provide.”
With no time to waste, Mr. Hason talked to his local fundraising chairwoman, who called Ms. Wolfer in New Jersey. Ms. Wolfer arranged to transfer the funds donated by Frisch right away. It was agreed that whatever money remained after the food-truck project would go toward buying Passover food vouchers for needy lone soldiers.
“What started as a grassroots initiative by a group of students in New Jersey ended up supporting young men and women halfway around the world confronting a tense and unpredictable situation,” Ms. Wolfer said.
Mr. Katz quickly made the rounds of Israeli merchants and received 65,000 shekels’ worth of such items as G-Shock watches, Leatherman multi-tools, and flashlights “at an insane discount.” He also got discounted premium hot dogs and beverages from a supplier he knew.
At that point, Mr. Hason phoned the seven residences sponsored by the Lone Soldier Center, asking if any of the 121 soldiers in those houses wanted to come along to visit their friends.
One house mother told him that a resident of hers, Rina R., a lone female combat soldier from Florida, had just learned that instead of having the weekend off to celebrate her birthday, she would have to stay on base because of the tense situation.
On April 4, Mr. Hason, proudly wearing his old Frisch soccer jersey, headed a convoy down toward Gaza. There was the food truck, driven by the son of the generous renter and powered by a generator the man got for them when the truck’s own generator proved faulty. There were volunteers — including an off-duty lone soldier — in private cars piled high with backpacks and T-shirts to hand out.
“We drove down toward Gaza and stopped at Rina’s base and all of a sudden we’re throwing a massive birthday party,” Mr. Hason recalled. “There are 200 soldiers dancing with Rina, and I’m throwing out Leathermans and G-Shocks like I’m Oprah. We turn on music, roll out AstroTurf, and set up chairs. Everybody is going nuts. I cannot describe the amount of simcha there.”
After two hours, the convoy spontaneously headed to a base just 1,000 meters from Gaza. The commander wouldn’t let them enter, but he allowed them to set up outside the gate and he brought out soldiers who had just returned from a mission, still in combat gear. More than 300 troops enjoyed the food, music, and giveaways.
“We were there to lift spirits and that’s exactly what happened,” Mr. Hason said.
He sent videos and photos of the day to Frisch. “Everyone was so touched, partly because they saw a Frisch jersey but mostly because they could see where their money went.”
Over the years, many Frisch alumni have served as lone IDF soldiers and some now are in service, according to Kahal’s co-chairs, Rebecca Ciment and Hanna Karben.
“Students know many people who are lone soldiers, so they really connected to this cause,” said Rebecca, a senior from Englewood. “We raised more this year than Frisch ever has.”
Hanna, a senior from Pomona, explained that each class decides on its own way to raise funds, and the class that garners the most pledges wins a prize. She was pleased that the money went toward the Passover vouchers, food truck, and personal gear.
“It felt powerful to make a difference and know we are helping people,” she said.
Ms. Wolfer said that the U.S. Supporters of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin hosts a flagship event for Yom Ha’atzmaut in New York City. “The concept of the food truck resonated so much that this year the funds raised at this event will go toward sending another food truck to soldiers,” she said.
Mr. Hason added that the organization is looking into buying its own food truck. “Hopefully we’ll be able to go to more bases and when lone soldiers’ families visit, they can come with us and hand out the things themselves,” he said.
While the IDF was not sent into Gaza this time around, ongoing violence at the border is a tough situation for the troops.
“It’s easy for lone soldiers from the U.S. to lose sight of their goals and to forget why they enlisted in the IDF in the first place,” Ms. Wolfer said. “When they receive small expressions of gratitude from students and communities back home, it’s a powerful reminder that can help give them a much-needed push forward.