Away from family, Israel’s lone soldiers are thankful for Thanksgiving

None of the approximately 800 young people who attended Thursday evening’s Thanksgiving dinner for lone soldiers in Tel Aviv had to be there. Hailing from the United States, the UK, Australia and elsewhere, they could have been at home attending college or partying with their more carefree peers.

Instead, they volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces, spending their days patrolling Israel’s border with Syria or capturing terrorists in special operations. When Thanksgiving rolls around, with their families thousands of miles away, the lone soldiers turn to each other.

Yael Birnbaum, a 25-year-old graduate student who became a lone soldier when she moved to Israel from New York City at the age of 22, said she wished she had known about the Lone Soldier Center, which sponsored the night’s event, during her military service.

“I would have liked people like myself to be with and talk to. Aside from the emotional support, not having your parents here means there is no one to pick you up from the bus station on weekends, no one to buy groceries or do laundry,” said Birnbaum, who served as an infantry instructor in a missile unit after graduating from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Yael Birnbaum (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Yael Birnbaum (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

“I forged strong friendships with Israelis in my unit but it would have been nice to have that extra social setting,”

Josh Flaster, the Lone Soldier Center’s national director, said that he and several friends came up with the idea for the center after their friend, fellow lone soldier Michael Levin from Philadelphia, was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War.

Flaster, now 30, together with those friends founded the center, known as The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, in 2009.

“I knew Michael from our informal network. We talked about ways to make life better and easier for lone soldiers. He had a big heart.”

There are 6,300 lone soldiers in Israel, said Flaster, out of about 176,500 soldiers in Israel’s standing army, and the number increases every year. About 4,000 lone soldiers have received some form of support from the center, whether it is information, counseling, help with renting an apartment, furniture donations or free Shabbat meals and other social events.

If the Lone Soldier Center can raise enough money, a staff member tells The Times of Israel, they dream of opening a big building in a major city with apartments, a cafeteria, laundry and social activities for soldiers on weekend leave.

Noah and Josh Flaster (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Noah and Josh Flaster (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Most lone soldiers are Jews from the diaspora, with the largest number from the United States, although Flaster says the soldiers hail from 51 countries and there are even lone Israeli soldiers, including orphans, ultra-Orthodox whose families disowned them, and last year there was a Bedouin soldier whose family had scant economic means.

Because they don’t have homes to return to, most rent apartments in cities with other soldiers. A little over 30 percent of lone soldiers are women.

Many of the soldiers The Times of Israel spoke to said that they had received a strong Jewish and Zionist education abroad, but then surprised their parents by actually volunteering for the IDF.

“Your parents put the Jewish values inside of you, so it’s not surprising the output is going and defending Israel and Jewish people,” said Flaster, who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona.

“You also see how much it means to Israelis around you. My mother was always very supportive of me. My dad, it took him a little longer.”

Soldiers in both uniform and civilian clothes enjoy a Thanksgiving meal (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Soldiers in both uniform and civilian clothes enjoy a Thanksgiving meal (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

A young man named Noah walks in and gives Flaster an affectionate slap on the back. He has been in the country nine months and wants to enlist as a medic in the engineering corps, but he has yet to receive word from the IDF.

“I call the army all the time. Right now I’m working on my Hebrew so they’ll take me,” says the 21-year-old from Rockland County, NY. “I was an EMT in the US. I even brought my stethoscope with me.”

But there’s a hitch. Noah is the only child of a single mother. His mother would have to sign a waiver to let him serve in a combat unit.

“My mom doesn’t want to sign. We discuss it. She says, ‘this is your life,’ but she wants me to be extra, extra careful.”

‘Like family’

At the event, current soldiers mingle with those who are one or two years past their army service while a host of volunteers serve copious quantities of home-cooked turkey, stuffing, gooey desserts and beer. On stage, two women perform an energetic rendition of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive.”

Volunteers dish out Thanksgiving fare to lone soldiers, Nov. 26, 2015 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Volunteers dish out Thanksgiving fare to lone soldiers, Nov. 26, 2015 (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Stanley Block from Stamford, Connecticut told The Times of Israel how he moved to Israel two years ago at the age of 18 and joined the paratroopers.

“I spent eight months training, then a few weeks looking for the kidnapped boys,” he recalled, referring to the three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank in June 2014 and later found dead.

“Then I served in Gaza. I saw all the tunnels and everything.”

Block said his experience as a soldier was tough in the beginning because he didn’t know Hebrew and it took him time to get used to Israelis. During last year’s Operation Protective Edge, when Block was in Gaza, he was not allowed to phone his parents for two weeks, and they were understandably worried.

Stanley Block (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Stanley Block (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

“After the war, I flew home to be with them,” says Block, who is now a business student at the IDC-Herzliya. Meanwhile, his younger brother has followed in his footsteps and left Stamford to enlist in the paratroopers.

During his military service, said Block, the Lone Soldier Center “helped me like a family. Once a month they had a Friday night dinner in Jerusalem. I didn’t have to worry about shopping. They gave us warm clothing in winter.”

Monica Gloger, a lone soldier from Chicago, is sitting holding hands with her boyfriend Isaac, a lone soldier from Australia.

Gloger serves on the country’s northern border as an IDF liaison with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) there. Isaac is an elite combat soldier.

“I was with the UN troops doing inspections and we went to his base,” explained Gloger.

Isaac, who was at the entrance gate decided to chat up the female soldier by praising her English.

“I said, ‘I’m from America,’” recalled Gloger, “and he said, ‘That’s funny, I’m from Australia.’ That’s how we met.”

Monica and Isaac met while serving near the Syrian border (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Monica and Isaac met while serving near the Syrian border (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Danny, a 22-year-old soldier originally from the UK, is also stationed on the Syrian border, where he serves in a special reconnaissance unit. One aspect of his job is to take in wounded Syrian rebels, send them for medical treatment in Israel and then send them back.

Danny from the UK (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Danny from the UK (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

Asked if these Syrian rebels are good guys, Danny answered, “They’re the best of a bad bunch. There’s ISIS and there are two rebel groups that hate Assad. One is jihadi and one kind of wants democracy, so Israel thinks if we help these guys who kind of want democracy, hopefully we’ll get something in return.”

Danny said he attended Jewish schools growing up and was also in a Zionist youth movement. When it came time to go to university, he felt it wasn’t for him because he didn’t know what he wanted to study.

“I worked in the finance industry as a headhunter for banks and hedge funds, then I came to Israel and tried out for this. I never thought I would get in.”

Danny said his parents are understanding, as well as proud of him in a way they weren’t in England, “because I was kind of a naughty kid,” but he harbors no illusions about the danger.

“When you join the army you realize it’s not a game. You stand there and there are explosions. This is real. At the end of the day no one wants to die, no one wants to be injured, but if I don’t do this, who will?”