Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) takes a group of people in their 20s and 30s to Israel every summer on the “Edidin Heritage Trip.” One of their stops is the Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv. The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin was founded in 2009 by a group of former lone soldiers aware of and concerned with the needs and struggles of the more than 6,300 lone soldiers serving in the IDF. The Lone Soldier Center is the first and only organization solely dedicated to meeting all of the physical and social needs of lone soldiers.
MJE also takes on a chesed project every year as part of their Annual Blood Drive & Mitzvah Fair. This year, with the event taking place near Thanksgiving (the event occurred Sunday, Nov 20), thoughts turned to the lone soldiers who wouldn’t be with their families for the holiday because of the sacrifices they’re making to voluntarily defend our homeland.
“The opportunity given to us here in Israel to serve in the IDF is a huge honor and game changer,” explained Akiva Pudell, an IDF lone soldier from Teaneck, New Jersey, serving in the Kfir Brigade. “However, being a lone soldier presents many challenges. As lone soldiers, we are away from our families, friends, community and, really, everything we’ve grown up around and been comfortable with our whole lives. For me, things can get especially difficult during the holiday season, when I’m used to a big family Thanksgiving dinner.”
Pudell was dreading having to spend the Thanksgiving holiday alone and without his family, until he found out that, thanks to the Lone Soldier Center and its donors, hundreds of soldiers would be coming together to create their own family for a festive Thanksgiving dinner.
“Every time we visit the lone soldiers on our trip, I am blown away not just by their bravery, but by their humility,” says Rabbi Mark Wildes, founder and director of MJE. “They never complain about the difficulties or ask us for any thanks. They explain they are doing this because they feel it is a personal responsibility. They want to do their part to protect the Jewish people, and they are honored to be given the opportunity to do so.”
Rabbi Wildes remembered that during MJE’s last visit, some of the soldiers had remarked how much fun it would be to have a ping pong table at the Lone Soldier Center to use for blowing off steam when they are off duty. That’s why the MJE team decided to host a ping pong tournament as part of their mitzvah fair this year; they wanted to raise money to buy the lone soldiers a ping pong table of their own, as well as give them a monetary donation to use toward supplies for the center.
“We are really looking forward to sending the lone soldiers a gift this Thanksgiving as well as a donation to show them that their sacrifice has not gone unnoticed; that we in America think of them often, keep them in our prayers always and are so grateful for their service,” said Rabbi Wildes. “They may not ask for our thanks, but they sure do deserve it!”
In addition, MJE raised money to pay it forward and send a participant to Israel this summer who has never been and who otherwise would not be able to afford the visit.
The Ping Pong Tournament fundraiser was a major hit with the community, garnering buzz from a funny video put out by MJE to advertise the event. Many people at the MJE Blood Drive & Mitzvah Fair event expressed that they wanted the opportunity to share the fundraiser with family and friends, so MJE kept the donation page open through the week following Thanksgiving.
The MJE Blood Drive & Mitzvah Fair was started nine years ago, in memory of Jill Wildes’ father, Irwin Brandfon, z”l, who was an avid blood donor.
“My father gave blood every chance he could; it was the mitzvah he really connected to!” says Wildes, co-founder of MJE.
The blood drive this year saw more donors than ever before. Over the years, MJE has collected in total over 567 pints of blood. One pint of blood can save up to three lives, so, because of Irwin Brandfon, a potential 1,701 lives have been saved. (All donations go to the New York Blood Center.)
“I love that I can go home to my family later this week feeling like I have actually done something to actively give thanks!” said Amanda Winn at the event, an MJE regular and first-time blood donor. “Having the opportunity to give blood today and potentially save lives makes the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday actually feel meaningful.”
Rabbi Wildes explained that “giving to others is truly the best way to get into the Thanksgiving spirit. On the Jewish festival holiday of Sukkot for example, which is a harvest festival and the Jewish holiday most similar to Thanksgiving, we are commanded to give gifts and do thoughtful things for our families, communities and people in need. Doing these things takes us outside of ourselves, and is the key to practicing gratitude and feeling true joy.”
“Knowing that the people back home in New Jersey and around America are thinking about us while they are sitting at home with their families this Thanksgiving allows me to reflect on how much my community has supported me in my service,” said Pudell. “It makes me proud to represent New Jersey as a lone soldier, who really isn’t so lonely after all. Happy Thanksgiving!”
To watch a video about the Lone Soldier Center and why MJE is giving back to them, and/or to make a donation, please visit their youcaring fundraiser page: youcaring.com/pingpong4lonesoldiers.