|Avital Levavi of Cherry Hill will enter the Israeli army, as a ‘lone soldier,’ in November.|
With their parents 6,000 miles away in New Jersey, Avital Levavi and Ron Zahavi will be classified as “lone soldiers” when they go into the Israeli army in November. But thanks to a unique program recently expanded to include religiously observant youth, they will not be alone.
Levavi, 19, and Zahavi, 23, will be part of Garin Tzabar, an 18-year-old program that groups lone soldiers together on a kibbutz that provides them with bureaucratic assistance, peer support, and a home base (see box).
“I knew I wanted to do the army and make aliyah,” said Levavi, a Cherry Hill resident studying in an Israeli seminary this year.
“I spoke to a rabbi here and he said, ‘There is a great program for Americans like you.’ In Garin Tzabar you get all the help you need, with the support of a group that takes you through the whole process.”
It was only two years ago that, due to popular demand, Garin Tzabar was opened to participants who prefer a kosher, Sabbath-observant environment. Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, part of the Orthodox Kibbutz HaDati Movement, hosted the first group of 15. The following year, Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu joined the program, and this summer, Kibbutz Lavi also will host a group.
Demand is so high that there is a waiting list, said Dalia Yohanan, coordinator of the Tirat Tzvi garin (“ga-REEN,” or core group). This summer, 40 religious participants are among a record 200 young adults taking part in Garin Tzabar.
“I think the war in Gaza affected girls and boys in the States,” said Yohanan. “They want to come and be part of the Israel Defense Forces.”
Yohanan recently returned from New York, where she interviewed the prospective members of this summer’s group at the office of the sponsoring organization, Friends of Israel Scouts.
Zahavi, a Rutgers University graduate from Highland Park, signed up in January. “I had two friends involved with Garin Tzabar and they and their families pumped me up on the program,” he said.
After filling out an initial application/questionnaire, he and the other 15 Kibbutz HaDati applicants attended two mandatory seminars on the rules and protocols of kibbutz and army. After buying a ticket to Israel for May 25, he arranged to spend some time in a yeshiva before going to Tirat Tzvi in August.
Between August and November, all Garin Tzabar members live in sex-segregated kibbutz dorms and take intensive Hebrew classes. They also complete the series of pre-army exams and physicals that ordinarily are spaced over the course of two years for Israeli teenagers.
In addition, the Kibbutz HaDati groups get practical advice on maintaining religious observances while in the largely secular army. “It is much easier if you learn this beforehand,” said Yohanan.
Although the garin itself functions as a family unit, each lone soldier also has a host family on the kibbutz. “These families go to all the army ceremonies,” said Yohanan. “And every Sunday morning their [lone soldiers’] bags are full of cakes their host mothers made for them as they’d do for their own children.”
The kibbutz parents are also in touch with the soldiers’ parents. “Israeli parents have their own ‘national support group’ of other parents,” Yohanan pointed out. “The mother in New Jersey doesn’t. But she knows she can call the host mother in Tirat Tzvi if she can’t sleep at night because of something she heard on the news. And most parents do come to visit at least once during their child’s service.”
That was the case for Teaneck native Jason Reich, who joined Garin Tzabar at the secular Kibbutz Degania Alef shortly after arriving in July 2004 at age 22.
Today, after finishing combat service that included a command post in the second Lebanon war, Reich lives in Tel Aviv. He is still in close touch with the other 21 members of his garin.
“We spent four months just acclimating and team-building, and I think that was the most important and most fun period of time,” he said. “What differentiates Garin Tzabar from other army programs is that it’s not about the army. It’s about the garin. In the army, you learn that what really matters is who you’re with.”
Levavi, who is making aliyah on Aug. 3 through Nefesh b’Nefesh, said her parents are trying to come to terms with her plans. “They grew up in America and aren’t used to the idea of people going into the army, so it’s difficult for them to understand the whole system,” she said.
Zahavi, on the other hand, is the son of two IDF veterans. “My parents are supportive and proud,” he said. “They raised me this way; they taught me to love the land and its people.”
His hometown acquaintance Peninah Rost, 23, grew up in a traditional Conservative home and was in the first garin at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. Now just a few months shy of her discharge from the IDF’s International Relations Unit, she no longer lives on the kibbutz, but remains close with her 15-member garin.
“Other [lone soldiers] become your best friends, because they’re going through every experience you are,” Rost said. “It’s hard to relate to those who aren’t.”
Though not every applicant is accepted to the program, Reich said he believes Garin Tzabar ought to be even more selective. “It shouldn’t be for people who just want to go into the army and carry a gun,” he said.
Indeed, “Garin Tzabar is easiest way to join the IDF and get so much support,” said Yohanan. But, she added, garin members tend to be exceptionally successful in the army, often volunteering for the most elite units and serving with distinction.
“Commanders love them because they have such high motivation – sometimes much higher than [native] Israelis,” she said. “They are full of Zionism and idealism.”