|Leora Kagedan with David Moed of Englewood and Davidi Ronen of Teaneck, old friends from home who are now lone soldiers.|
Lone soldiers – Israel Defense Force members whose parents do not live in Israel or cannot support them – have been much in the news this harsh summer.
Estimates put the number of lone soldiers at about 5,800, and add that at least 750 of them are American. Two of those lone soldiers – Max Steinberg, 24, from California, and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from Texas – died this summer as they fought for Israel in Gaza.
Despite the idealism that brings young recruits to the IDF, and that sustains them as they fight, it is a hard path that they have chosen. Luckily, there are organizations, including the New Jersey branch of the Friends of the IDF, that work to meet some of their needs.
In Israel, the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin provides, as its vision statement says, a “warm, supportive, inclusive community for lone soldiers … before, during, and after their service.” The young man whose name the center carries, a Philadelphia native, moved to Israel, joined the IDF as a lone soldier, and died in Lebanon in 2006 at the hands of Hezbollah. He was 21.
Leora Kagedan of Teaneck, 20, graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus, spent her gap year in Israel, and finished her freshman year at Brandeis University in the spring. This summer, she returned to Israel through the Boston branch of an internship program called Onward Israel.
The program “sets everyone up with a different internship, based on their interests,” Ms. Kagedan said. “I’m not sure about my major, and I wanted to find a good organization that helps people.” That was the Lone Soldier Center, where she had a front-row seat – well, not exactly a seat, the job didn’t involve much sitting still – to the drama taking place in Israel and Gaza.
Ms. Kagedan arrived in Israel on June 1, for Shavuot, and began working at the Jerusalem-based center a week later. On June 24, three teenagers – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah – were kidnapped, and on June 30 their bodies, dead since June 24, were discovered. That was the catalyst for the situation in Gaza that is winding down, with 64 Israeli soldiers and about 1,600 Palestinians dead so far.
If you wanted to help the IDF, it was the right time to be at the Lone Soldier Center.
“It didn’t feel so crazy at the beginning, when the boys were kidnapped, but then when we heard that they were dead, and then the rockets started, it got crazy,” Ms. Kagedan said. “But I had been in Israel a bunch of times, including during Pillar of Defense in 2012, so it wasn’t so shocking to me.”
Ms. Kagedan went to the three teenagers’ joint funeral. “I have never been around so many people at the same time in my whole life,” she said. “And everyone was doing the same thing. There was tons of singing. Very few people there knew any of the three boys. It was insane – getting home after it was over took forever – but somehow it was energizing.
“It was all of Am Israel” – the people of Israel – “together, with one purpose. Everybody was there – of all backgrounds, religious, not religious – everyone was together,” she said.
That feeling of unity that has so struck visitors to Israel this summer was evident to Ms. Kagedan as well. “There are rallies all the time,” she said. “I’d be walking to work” – the center is on the always-bustling Ben Yehuda Street – “and I’d see it. You really felt the unity.”
The center received huge numbers of supplies for lone soldiers, brought from around the world. “It was overwhelming,” she said; one day she counted hundreds of pairs of socks. “People came in to see what they could do.” Parents of lone soldiers came to Israel to be closer to their children.
Many of Ms. Kagedan’s friends were themselves lone soldiers. She remembers that a friend told her “how good it was to see people,” she said. Not anyone in particular, just random strangers, walking freely. He had been in Gaza, “and he didn’t see anyone not in his unit, because all the people who lived there had run away,” she reported. When she was able to take a trip down south, to a big base that allowed visits, “My friends looked so happy to be with friends,” she said. “They were talking about the army, but they also had normal conversations about the outside world.
“It was funny – they were asking me about what was going on in the world, and I said, ‘You were there, and that is all the world is talking about.’
“It was crazy,” Ms. Kagedan concluded. “When I was younger, I would always hear about soldiers, but they weren’t my age. But now that is my age.
“I was never scared for myself – I was in Yerushalayim” – Jerusalem, she said. “But my friends were at war. That didn’t leave my mind. Not for a second.”