Eight Israeli combat soldiers sleep cramped together in a broken, hot trailer near the dangerous west bank enclave of Kalkilyah.
A group of Golani soldiers guard the northern border on frigid nights, with nothing but uncomfortable army-issued insulated jumpsuits to keep them warm.
Israeli soldiers are shown with some of the baseball hats donated to their Golani unit doing training through very hot weather.
An Ethiopian soldier lives a three-room apartment with her family of 11. She has no bed, let alone a bedroom. By day, she participates in tank exercises at a base for emotionally handicapped soldiers.
These are not the kinds of bases that well-meaning tourists ever get to see. But these are the bases that Leon Blankrot visits each week, bringing along sorely needed supplies bought with funds from American donors.
"We deal with the have-nots on the front lines," said Blankrot, a native of North Bergen who made aliyah from Passaic in 1995. "These are the guys in [places including] Gaza, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, and Metullah, in bunkers and observation posts, where donors don’t come because you can’t get there on a bus."
This week, Blankrot is in Teaneck to spread the word about his organization, Yashar LaChayal (Straight to the Soldier), which began during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of ‘006.
During that war, the Israel Defense Forces experienced severe shortages of food and equipment for its fighters.
Upon learning of these shortages, Blankrot and a few other volunteers from the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim took it upon themselves to make a dozen dangerous trips up north to the front lines with food and supplies. They soon discovered that the shortages were not just a wartime occurrence and that soldiers serving in many remote or dangerous areas regularly lacked necessities.
One of the volunteers was acquainted with the Florida philanthropist Irving Moskowitz. Moskowitz’s foundation agreed to bankroll operating expenses for five years so that the group could continue to identify and help underprivileged bases and soldiers, as well as lone, impoverished, and injured soldiers not being served by existing soldier-aid organizations.
Blankrot, previously director of the Appeals Authority for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, became the organization’s sole paid employee or as he calls his position, "chief cook and bottle-washer." Yashar LaChayal has a board of directors composed of lawyers, health-care professionals, and educators.
"Every shekel goes straight to the soldiers," said Blankrot, whose home has a wall papered with thank-you letters from officers and troops. "We speak to their unit commanders and to those responsible for supplies, and then we step in to fill the gap. By going directly to the soldier, Yashar LaChayal eliminates the bureaucracy to get them what they need in the quickest way possible. And I bring everything personally. I’m allowed in places others aren’t allowed."
Many people ask him why such an organization is necessary, when the IDF should theoretically be supplying all its soldiers’ needs. "Well, it’s not happening," replied Blankrot. "If you would see what goes on, you’d be very surprised."
Last year, supporters in Teaneck’s Congs. Rinat Yisrael, Keter Torah, and Bnai Yeshurun earmarked proceeds from their Israel Independence Day Kiddush for Yashar LaChayal, to the tune of about $50,000. This year, the Young Israel of Teaneck and Cong. Netivot Shalom are participating in a similar effort. At Young Israel this Shabbat and Bnai Yeshurun next Shabbat, Blankrot will answer questions about the non-profit, whose Website is www.yasharlachayal.org.
Before Passover, Blankrot met with Golani Brigade officers at a base near Ashdod to find out what their soldiers needed. They revealed that ‘4 of the troops come from homes so poor they lacked refrigerators. "I went to see these soldiers’ families, and then we bought ‘4 refrigerators and delivered them in six Golani trucks right before Pesach," said Blankrot.
For the soldiers in the hot trailer, he brought five air-conditioning units. For the northern border patrol, he brought 500 fleece jackets, neck-warmers, boots, and gloves. Other units receive DVD players and DVDs to alleviate boredom. Injured soldiers in rehabilitation have gotten laptop computers, food parcels, or new shoes in addition to regular morale-boosting visits. One base simply requested ball caps to help shield the soldiers’ faces from the sun something that, without Yashar LaChayal, commanding officers were likely to have bought with their personal funds.
"When we supply these things, it’s a difference of night and day," said Blankrot. "We look for guys sitting in the middle of nowhere, feeling like the whole world is passing them by, and we bring them what they need."