As National Director and CEO of the Friends of the IDF, Gershon, who comes from Pardes Hanna and lives in Tenafly, hopes to expand the Israeli army by 10,000 volunteer soldiers from around the world within five years. That’s four times the number of soldiers who volunteer today.
“I want to update the vision of [former Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion, who said that Israel is the melting pot of the Jewish people,” Gershon said. “That was true in the first decades of the state. Today, the IDF can and should be the melting pot of the Jewish people. If there were no IDF there wouldn’t be a State of Israel, and if there were no State of Israel, Jews worldwide wouldn’t have the same security and prosperity. Our vision is to better unite the Jewish people behind the State of Israel through the support of Israeli soldiers.”
Working with the leadership of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Gershon led the initiative to create a comprehensive international program for lone soldiers. The organizations already had been working together to provide well-being programs for lone soldiers from North America. The new project provides a host of benefits, including pre-aliyah and post-army counseling; aliyah grants, and flights to visit their families during their army service. In the past few years, FIDF has granted hundreds of academic scholarships to lone combat soldiers who remain in Israel; full scholarships for qualifying soldiers are in the works for the future. For those who choose to return to their countries of origin, a special seminar is being created to prepare them to be ambassadors for Israel and the IDF through personal interaction and the use of social media.
Gershon calls the lone soldiers “the pioneers of the 21st century.” Their presence is so vital that the IDF has agreed to let them serve for a range of periods – 9 months, a year, 18 months, or 2 years (if they want to serve in a combat unit). “The IDF will find a way to absorb any Jewish kid from anywhere in the world who wants to take part in protecting our homeland,” Gershon said. “It’s not our mission to increase aliyah, but once they are on their way we will support them fully, so they view their decisions not just as individual ones but as serving the State of Israel.”
The expanded lone soldiers program is a way to connect young Jews to their roots and history and to build a relationship between the diaspora and the State of Israel through the army. “It’s about taking part, about making an impact and investing in your destiny and your family’s future,” Gershon said.
FIDF was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors to provide and support educational, social, cultural, and recreational programs for IDF soldiers. Today, FIDF has more than 120,000 supporters and 16 regional offices throughout the United States and Panama. New Jersey supporters have been particularly active, initiating services and assistance to lone soldiers from around the world, Gershon said. The New Jersey chapter was formed by three former IDF soldiers, Sammy Bar Or, Avi Oren and Mike Gross, who met and bonded while serving in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. Since its first annual IDF tribute dinner in 2005, the chapter has raised over $25 million; this year’s dinner, scheduled Nov. 3 at the Sheraton Meadowland Hotel in East Rutherford, will celebrate generations of lone soldiers.