Ron Zahavi moved to Israel in May and will enter the Israel Defense Forces in November as a “hayal boded.”
“Lone soldiers” are young people serving in the military with no immediate family in Israeli.
Though his parents remain in Highland Park, Zahavi has a home away from home thanks to Garin Tzabar, a program that groups lone soldiers on a kibbutz to provide them with bureaucratic assistance, peer support, and a surrogate family.
Garin Tzabar was originally partnered only with non-religious kibbutzim. Its sponsoring organization, Friends of Israel Scouts, three years ago instituted a limited expansion of the program to dati (religious) kibbutzim so that participants like Zahavi can prepare for the army in a kosher, Sabbath-observant environment.
Demand became so high for this option that there is a waiting list, said Dalia Yohanan, coordinator of the Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi garin (core group). So this year, the program was made fully operational, and 40 participants were accepted.
“There are 16 of us at Tirat Tzvi, and each person has an interesting reason for being here,” said Avital Levavi, 19, formerly of Cherry Hill. She and Zahavi are the only New Jersey natives in the garin of 10 men and six women at the kibbutz, located in the Beit She’an Valley.
Levavi spent a year in Israel after high school and then made aliya as part of a 55-member Garin Tzabar contingent Aug. 4.
A Rutgers University graduate, Zahavi always wanted to return to the land where his parents grew up. He learned about Garin Tzabar from friends, and signed up last January. At 24, “I will be like a grandpa compared to some of the other guys,” he joked.
Interest in the overall program is at a peak since its founding 18 years ago. A record 240 Garin Tzabar participants were welcomed at a ceremony at Tel Aviv University in early August. They’re housed in dorms at nine different host kibbutzim, including the dati kibbutzim Tirat Tzvi and Lavi in the north.
Between August and November, Garin Tzabar members take ulpan, intensive Hebrew classes, and complete the pre-army exams and physicals that ordinarily are spaced over the course of two years for Israeli teens.
In addition, the religious kibbutz groups get practical advice on maintaining ritual observances while in the largely secular army. “It is much easier if you learn this beforehand,” said Yohanan.
‘Training is no joke’
Although the garin itself functions as a family unit, each lone soldier also has a kibbutz host family, where they can go to dine on Friday nights and drop in during the week.
“These families go to all the army ceremonies,” said Yohanan. “And every Sunday morning the [lone soldiers’] bags are full of cakes their host mothers made for them, as they’d do for their own children.”
The kibbutz “parents” maintain contact with the soldiers’ parents, too. “Israeli parents have their own ‘national support group’ of other parents,” Yohanan pointed out. “The mother in New Jersey doesn’t. But she knows she can call the host mother in Tirat Tzvi if she can’t sleep at night because of something she heard on the news.”
Levavi’s “adoptive” family is well acquainted with the highs and lows of parenting soldiers; one of their own sons was among 13 fighters killed seven years ago in an antiterror operation in Jenin.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Pennsylvania native Michael Levine was killed at age 22. Because Levine, a “lone soldier,” had stayed at Tirat Tzvi before his army service, the kibbutz dedicated its Garin Tzabar clubhouse in his memory. This is where members eat most of their meals and enjoy recreational activities.
On a typical day, Zahavi, who has a map of New Jersey hanging in his room, rises at 6:30 and has a run and a shower before morning services at 8. “Afterward, we have a 20-minute window for scarfing down food before ulpan,” he said.
Between the evening meal and additional physical training, visiting lecturers talk to the group about aspects of life in the IDF and Israel in general.
Yohanan said that Garin Tzabar members tend to become very close with one another and are exceptionally successful in the army, often volunteering for the most elite units and serving with distinction.
“Commanders love them because they have such high motivation,” she said. “They are full of Zionism and idealism.”
As the son of two IDF veterans and brother of a former IDF combat engineer now living in New York, Zahavi has no illusions that it will be easy to realize his dream of following in the footsteps of his fighter-pilot father, Avi.
“Who’s not afraid of military service?” he said. “Training is no joke. A 90-kilometer march in one night is sort of an absurdity, especially with a 40-kilogram bag on your back. But that’s what they build you up for.”
He is determined not to let age or cultural differences handicap him.
“They’ve never seen anything like me. If they expect me to be at the back of the line, they’ve got another thing coming,” he declared cheerfully.