For the parents gathered in a living room in Livingston on Aug. 27, Israel seemed both very close and very far. All have a passionate connection to the country, but most have children there, preparing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, currently doing so, or recently done serving.
And that, they acknowledged, can make the country seem very far away.
The 17 people present were members of a newly formed chapter of the Lone Soldier Center. Some 2,800 “lone soldiers” — those serving in the Israeli military who grew up abroad and without immediate family in the country — are currently serving. The Israel-based nonprofit was established in memory of Michael Levin, a lone soldier originally from Philadelphia who died fighting with the IDF in 2006.
Those at the meeting had come from Essex, Morris, and Union counties with the intention of orchestrating support for their offspring and others like them through the center’s four branches in Israel.
Dov Ben-Shimon, who this week took over as executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, 25 years ago was serving as a lone soldier himself. Ben-Shimon, who now lives in Fanwood, grew up in England, and moved to Israel when he was 18. He came to the meeting to hear the group’s goals and discuss ways the federation can support them.
“I want to hear what you would like to see us do — and what we’re doing that you don’t like,” he said.
Serving as a lone soldier, he said, “gave me a sense of mission and destiny, and it shaped the kind of Jew I am today.”
Because of security rules, the parents at the meeting asked that only their first names be used in this article.
All seemed proud of their children’s choices. Hanoch, an immigrant from Israel whose son went to live in Israel 18 months ago, said, “All we ever talked about when I was growing up was finding a way to get to America. And here you have all these kids wanting to go there to serve in the army.”
Another father, Craig, whose son has been in the IDF for a year and a half, said, “It’s amazing to me what these young men and women are doing — things we can’t imagine.”
When the recent conflict with Gaza erupted, there was a total halt in communication with their son. “We knew that no news is good news,” Craig said, but that wasn’t much comfort. Finally, through a friend in the federation’s partner community of Ofakim, where Craig has conducted a basketball exchange program for the past few years, they found an army contact who was able to confirm that their son was fine.
“You really begin to see what it means to have these people-to-people connections with Israel,” he said. “We have true friends in these communities now.”
Their younger son, for his upcoming bar mitzva, wants to organize a raffle to raise funds for a lone soldier center in Israel. The group voted to support his effort. “It’s great to get kids involved,” Paula said.
For some, the challenge is finding an emotional balance. One father said that while he is not, his wife “is a news junkie.”
“Well, I limit myself to one news broadcast a day now,” she said. “More than that makes me crazy.”
Marilyn, who came to the meeting with her husband, Robert, wanted advice on sending parcels to Israel. Their daughter Elana has been in Israel since June 2013 and is serving with an army K-9 unit, working with bomb-sniffing dogs. She is wonderfully fit and enthusiastic, her mother said.
Marilyn told the group — and her husband, who was hearing about it for the first time — that Elana had called in desperation a few days earlier. “She was at a training course when she got a call to report to the base. She had to drop everything and go, but she didn’t have socks, or her pillow, or a second towel with her. She was desperate.”
The next day, Heather Sorkin, operations manager for the federation’s Israel Program Center, contacted Michal Zur, the IPC’s director of community engagement in Israel, and arranged for her to get the supplies to Elana. “It’s my honor and my pleasure to be able to help these parents,” said Sorkin in a phone call.
All agreed on the benefits of living in Israel and serving in the IDF.
Elana, her parents said, was “a bit lost” after she left high school. Going to Israel and serving in the IDF has given her a sense of purpose.
David and Monique Gordon, who could be named because their son has returned home, lived in Israel for a number of years. Their son served in the IDF for three years. “He was somewhat of a slacker through high school,” David said, “but he has really risen to the challenge. He was one of 12 people chosen out of 300 to serve in a special unit, and it gave him a great sense of accomplishment.”
He came home this summer and plans to start studying. “He said that if he has 5 percent of the social life here that he had there, he’ll be contented,” Monique said. “He’s doing really well, but I wonder if he’ll want to make a life here now. If his unit is called up, does he go back?”