Soldiers in Israel don’t think anyone outside Israel gives a damn about the situation over here," said 1st Sgt. Ohad Poraz, who was recently discharged after four years in the Israeli Air Force.
So when a group of Americans comes to Israel to put on concerts on military bases, the soldiers feel a powerful boost in morale. Poraz was in Miami this week promoting the Israel Service Organization, a New York-based organization created last year to start an Israeli version of the USO show on American military bases.
From left, Noah Solomon, Jon Weiss, Mitch Friedman, and Ben Frimmer of The Humble Kings Project perform at the Hatzerim Air Force Base on Aug. 14, ‘007.
"A band from New York comes just to play for you," said Poraz. "That means a hell of a lot to the soldiers."
ISO executive director and co-founder Jon Weiss had the idea last year after witnessing the negative media coverage of the Israel Defense Forces during the Second Lebanon War. He wanted to do something to show the soldiers that they were appreciated.
After months of cutting through IDF red tape, he received approval to bring musicians to an air force base. All he needed was a band. Weiss turned to his friend Ben Hyman, a native of Teaneck, who, like Weiss, lives in New York.
"Nobody was doing this in the Israeli army," said Hyman, executive vice president and co-founder of the ISO. "There are no consistent efforts to keep their morale up."
In August, The Humble Kings Project performed six shows on air force bases across Israel. With Weiss performing lead vocals and Hyman on guitar, the band of six to eight musicians performed songs by Weiss and Hyman.
"The reaction was just overwhelming," said Hyman. "We didn’t realize there was a problem with morale in the Israeli army. Most of these guys have lost friends, seen friends injured, or been injured themselves."
Weiss and Hyman are planning to bring the ISO back to Israel this summer. They are coordinating with the air force, which Weiss learned is the branch most capable of handling such an event because its bases include amphitheaters for special ceremonies. He hopes to do shows in May and August, but the ISO must raise the funds to produce them.
"We’re looking to the Jewish community right now to say, ‘We need the USO for Israel,’" Weiss said.
Unfortunately, Poraz said, many Americans don’t understand the need for the ISO. After the group performed on his base in August, they stayed up all night playing basketball and talking with the soldiers.
"It wasn’t just about playing and leaving," Poraz said. "They stayed the whole night. They really wanted to know us, know what’s going on, how we’re feeling. It’s not just about a bunch of songs."
Since his discharge, he has been helping the group raise money and awareness before returning to Israel. During last year’s tour, the IDF put up half the funding, while the ISO raised the other half from private donations. But, Poraz said, many of the people he has met with don’t think entertainment is as good an investment as donations to groups that provide equipment or food to the IDF.
"The organization doesn’t bring food to the soldiers, new uniforms, or bulletproof vests," he said. "But this is something different. This is something nobody’s given soldiers before, and when it comes from America, it gives it a whole new meaning. It makes us feel special, even if it’s [only] for a couple of hours."
The organization received not-for-profit status last year and is working on obtaining a charter from the Knesset. Eventually, Weiss would like to see the show expand beyond just The Humble Kings Project and include famous Jewish acts from across the world.
"This organization is above all types of religious views: right, left, religious, nonreligious," Weiss said. "We have no political views, no religious views. Our only view is all sides have to unite and show support for the soldiers regardless of their beliefs."