Lone soldiers grow up
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Lone soldiers grow up

Friends of the IDF remember - and help

It’s not exactly a case of being careful about what you wish for in this case – but it’s not entirely different either.

Often – increasingly – young diaspora Jews go to Israel to join the army, full of idealistic fervor. They find a chance to serve the Jewish people and the Jewish state, and to challenge themselves at the same time.

It is noble and often transforming. The army is the blast furnace that melds people into lifelong relationships. It is the smelter that refines them into being more of exactly who they are.

It’s also often very hard, particularly for young “lone soldiers” with no immediate family close by, able to coddle them during their time off and keep the housekeeping details of their lives moving along when they are on duty. Lone soldiers generally have very little money; they are paid a bit more than other soldiers, but they must use that salary for basic expenses whenever they are off base.

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Mike Gross, left, Sammy Bar-Or, and Avi Oren

Three Jewish guys who served together in Tzahal (the Hebrew acronym for Israel Defense Forces, or IDF) around 1970 remember all of that clearly. None of them remained in Israel, but their IDF experiences were formative. Two of them were lone soldiers – Mike Gross is from London, and Sammy Bar-Or, born in Iran, made aliyah by himself when he was 13. Later, Bar-Or moved to the United States and spent many years living in Saddle River.

A third friend from the same paratrooper unit, Avi Oren, a native Israeli who later moved to West Orange, founded a New Jersey group to support lone soldiers. In 2005, they joined forces with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, or FIDF, glad to be able to use the larger organization’s structure and resources. Today their group is FIDF’s New Jersey chapter, and Bar-Or is on the parent group’s board.

A dinner set for Nov. 3 at the Sheraton Meadowland Hotel in East Rutherford will raise money for the chapter. (See box for details.)

“In 1967, I went over to Israel with my brother to join the army, and to my amazement I was taken into the army as a driver,” Gross said. “A driver had been killed, and they didn’t have another replacement.”

He was 19. He served in the elite Golani Brigade as a volunteer for a year, went home, and came back again in 1969 “and joined the army proper. I went into the paratrooper brigade, and was blessed by being with a fantastic group of guys,” a group that included Bar-Or and Oren. This was during the so-called war of attrition; the soldiers “were very young, and we lost quite a few men,” Gross said.

There was less understanding of the particular stresses lone soldiers faced then, Bar-Or said. “In 1970, they didn’t know what a lone soldier was,” he said. There were fewer young diaspora Jews, like Gross, in the IDF then, but there were many more who, like Bar-Or, had made aliyah without their parents or siblings. The two young lone soldiers became close very quickly, and their friendship, three decades later, is deep.

Gross finished his IDF stint just before Yom Kippur 1973 and went home. He went directly from his London shul back to Israel – on Yom Kippur, of course, the day the war broke out – and rejoined the army. “We were the farthest group of soldiers on the road toward Cairo, going south, when they stopped us,” he said. The war had ended.

He stayed in for another two years and then returned to make his life in London, but the IDF was firmly lodged in his heart.

While he was still in the IDF, Gross had started something he called Fun Days, a daylong retreat for lone soldiers. “I found a very nice Canadian family named Silver in 1971, who wanted to do something for soldiers.” The first Fun Day was in the Sharon Hotel in Herzylia, and it attracted somewhere between 50 and 60 soldiers. “They still talk about it today,” Gross said.

Bar-Or, Gross, and Oren all were successful in their careers, all felt the need to give back, and each had something to give. They went to Israel together in 2002, “and I saw that some lone soldiers didn’t have much to eat, and they didn’t have much money. They needed help, so we decided to do something.”

At first, he thought “it would be easy,” Bar-Or said. “I have thousands of friends, and each one will give $100,000. But then I realized that it wouldn’t be so easy.”

The three began small, with a Fun Day for about 150 lone soldiers. That first event led to televised fundraising, which soon got the three men connected to the FIDF.

Gross, who said he’s been retired “for many years,” devotes himself to volunteer work for the IDF and for disadvantaged children in Israel. He feels particularly drawn to lone soldiers. To explain why, he begins by describing how the Israeli government defines them:

“Boys and girls who come from abroad and so have no parents in Israel; orphans; kids whose parents normally live in Israel but are living abroad – sons and daughters of ambassadors, or people who work for technology companies, but the sons and daughters have to go into the army.”

He cares about all of them, he said.

“But the ones I care most about are the ones from charedi families. If the kids go into the army, they are totally cut off from their families. They are totally disowned. There are hundreds of them. And they never ask for anything. I have kids who don’t have clothes when they leave the army, and they go to wherever it is they are calling home.

“Once a kid is recognized as a lone soldier – and they have to go through a process to be recognized – they get a bit more help. They get a bed in a room.”

There is a special program for disadvantaged soldiers, he said. “They serve for three years, but six months before the end of it they go to a special education base. It’s for kids who are not educated in the normal sense of the words – mainly charedim. They are given the chance to study for their bagrut” – a high school matriculation certificate. “All their lives, these kids have been learning Gemara. They know nothing about math, history, English, science.

“These kids are my passion,” he said. “It’s the two sides of Israel.”

Seth Rosenberger is the New Jersey FIDF chapter director. He is a former lone soldier, and that experience has driven his job choice.

“I know what it’s like,” he said. “Lone soldiers are paid about $350 a month. Beer costs about $8, and a sandwich is about $10. It’s very hard to live.”

In general, the FIDF focuses on three things – education programs to show IDF recruits from outside Israel what the country really is like, or to teach them about Judaism. (Many lone soldiers are from Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union, and have many knowledge gaps to fill.) Other education programs offer scholarships to soldiers once they leave the IDF or focus on the well-being of families while their children serve. The third set of programs builds shuls on army bases. In New Jersey, the FIDF concentrates mainly on lone soldiers because so many of them come from this state.

The Fun Days that Gross, Bar-Or, and Oren began and the New Jersey chapter funds “not only took you out of army life, it gave you a chance to relax, and even more importantly to have the opportunity to be around other people who are going through what you’re going through,” Rosenberger said. It was a kind of group therapy, and it was important because “being in the Israeli army is not an easy thing to do.”

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