NEW YORK — They may be lone soldiers, but they are not alone.
Of the more than 2,500 immigrant lone soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces, there are 740 Americans, according to the New York-based Friends of Israel Defense Forces, FIDF. With a deeply rooted sense of obligation to serve in the IDF, 50 percent of the young men and women serve in combat units.
“They are coming because of their sense of responsibility. They understand where we came from and where we stand today,” said Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon National Director and CEO of FIDF. “They understand the importance of the State of Israel, not just for Jews but for the free world. We are fighting radical movements who seek to destroy.”
Still, being a soldier so far from home can be challenging. Most arrive alone, with no Israeli friends or family in country. Many lone soldiers speak little or no Hebrew when they first arrive. Some face financial burdens.
Several organizations across America, including the New York-based FIDF, are working to ensure these soldiers receive needed support.
The FIDF has 15 chapters in the United States; several in the greater New York area. In addition, there are six lone soldier chapters in New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area.
Support from these various organizations is key for soldiers going home for short breaks or on leave, said Dr. Eitan Kilchevsky, neonatologist from Connecticut. He and his wife Laura are longtime supporters of the FIDF.
In Israel they may go home to an empty house or apartment. Some need financial assistance to purchase basic appliances, furniture, and food vouchers. In 2013, FIDF provided over 8,000 soldiers in need with necessities such as appliances, Chanukah Friendship Vouchers and furniture, according to FIDF.
“We are aggressively assisting the soldiers and their families,” Eitan Kilchevsky, an IDF veteran said.
The FIDF provides 24/7 call centers in five different languages, flights to visit family and friends abroad, as well as social gatherings and social networking.
As Operation Protective Edge continues, these support networks are more crucial than ever, Gershon said.
“It’s FIDF’s vision to connect people to people, to support the kids in uniform. We are standing together for the soldiers during the campaign and after the campaign,” Gershon said. “These brave soldiers are pioneers connecting communities around the world. We have a slogan: ‘Watch us, we watch them.’”
FIDF will send care packages to soldiers and make sure they have everything they need. Afterwards they help send soldiers home to visit their families.
“We know many of the families nationwide. If they need anything of us we do what we can,” Gershon said.
The organization also works to help provide educational opportunities and post-service academic guidance, scholarships and career counseling.
“It’s so easy for all of us to nudge our friends to help. Israel needs your help more than ever,” Laurie Kilchevsky said
Sometimes the lone soldiers simply need a place to do laundry, share a meal or a holiday
Sometimes the lone soldiers simply need a place to do laundry, share a meal or a holiday. FIDF links lone soldiers with Israeli families.
“The idea is to create as close a feeling to home as possible. We facilitate communication back home, help parents here visit their kids in Israel,” Kilchevsky said. “It’s very impressive, the close relationships between the soldier and the Israeli families.”
The Jerusalem-based Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, AWIS, works closely with several overseas organizations including FIDF, the Canadian-based Association for the Soldiers of Israel, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the British-based Association for the Soldiers, and the Yoter association and Haguda lemaan Hahayal Mexico. Also, in Israel, the AWIS program “Adopt-a-Battalion” links Israeli companies with combat units.
“First of all we are contributing to the welfare and wellbeing of the Israeli soldier, especially in these times,” Ilan Tal, president and CEO of AWIS, said. “We want to show how much we appreciate what they [the soldiers] are doing. It has nothing to do with political views – you can have leftist views and rightest views. But the soldier in the center is the child of all of us.”
AWIS has raised almost 10 million shekels ($3 million) for soldiers during Operation Protective Edge, Tal said. The donations come from Israel and other countries around the world including Canada, France and the United States.
The money is used to purchase essentials for soldiers on the front lines. Tal said they speak with commanders to find out exactly what soldiers in the field need, from sweets and shaving cream to T-shirts and socks.
The packages are a morale booster, Tal said, adding that the ones containing letters from children are especially uplifting to soldiers on the lines. All together AWIS has so far gathered and donated tens of thousands of packages for combat soldiers.
“Even if those packages aren’t exactly what the soldier needs, they often include photos and a letter,” Tal said. “It’s heart warming to see.”
From New York, Maj. Gen. Gershon said he feels the tug of Israel now. But after serving 32 years of active duty, many commanding combat units, he said his work in New York is critical.
“I see what we are doing here and this is another front,” Gershon said. “We have a saying – their job is to look after Israel, our job is to look after them.”