April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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New Jersey Residents Join the IDF

Busy, bustling Israel with all its buses, taxis and falafel could not be more different from the quiet suburbs of New Jersey. Imbued with an innate spirituality, Israel is a place Jews all across the world call their home. But this minuscule country, tucked between its enemies, could not exist without the protection of soldiers who ensure that every Jew can go to sleep at night feeling safe and secure.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has thousands of soldiers serving on compulsory service. But what you may not realize is just how similar many of them are to you and your family. “Lone soldiers” is the term used for the 2,500 brave men and women from across the diaspora who leave their families and volunteer for the IDF. Some 900 new lone soldiers join every year and 200 to 250 of them are currently from the New Jersey area.

One native New Jersey soldier, Caleb, joined the Nachal unit in 2013. “I felt like there were constant rocket attacks and innocent people were being attacked,” Caleb told the Jewish Link (all names have been changed to protect the security of active duty soldiers). “I’ve always wanted to live in Israel and this was my way to give back and help the country.”

None of Caleb’s friends or family thought he’d ever actually go through with it. “In 11th and 12th grade I always said I would [enlist] and everyone would say, ‘yeah, right.’ But a few weeks after high school, I joined.”

Caleb said that his favorite part of being a lone soldier is the warmth and acceptance he gets from other Israelis. “It constantly makes you think back at why you initially joined,” explained Caleb. “They give you a lot of honor and credit because you’re a volunteer and you don’t have to be serving.”

“Not having family to share your achievements with is the hardest part,” continued Caleb. “Not having family I could share with when I finished basic training, someone I could relate to. When I talk to my family, they don’t understand army words and terms.”

Having a relative in the army also presents a challenge for those back at home. One mother from Essex County, Liora, has a son who enlisted in the Paratroopers unit this past December. “We were very proud that he wanted to make aliyah, that he loves Israel, and wanted to defend Israel…but we wanted him to finish college,” Liora laughingly told the Jewish Link. “So we were very concerned.”

On a more serious note, Liora described how she worries for her son’s safety. “I keep pushing the fear down the road,” she explained. “He’s still in basic training. His friends were going to guard duty but he sprained his ankle and he was all upset. And I was all like ‘that’s another weekend I don’t have to worry.’ It’ll be harder when he’s out of basic training and he’s an actual soldier.”

Liora attends a support group for parents of New Jersey lone soldiers where she got to know other parents going through similar situations. Started last summer, the group is considered an extension of the Jerusalem Mark Levin Lone Soldier Center. The group gives the parents a framework and opportunity to share their concerns and fears with people going through similar challenges. Last summer, during Operation Protective Edge, Jewish Family Services came in and helped the parents who were stressed about their sons serving in Gaza. Another time, they had one of the sons attend and help the parents become familiar with army terminology.

Many soldiers are not necessarily motivated by religious fervor but are driven to protect the Jewish State, a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Diane, a New Jersey mother of a lone soldier, said that her son joined Nachal because “he believes in the State of Israel and the continuity of not only the Jewish people, but also of the free world.”

Liora’s son actually runs an online blog that follows his journey in navigating the unique and complex world of the Israeli army. When he first landed, he wrote, “[This is] the epiphany that I had been waiting for. I’m in Israel…I felt like such a Zionist…This is it, this is what Theodore Herzl had dreamed of. Maybe not having me drink lemonana on the beach, but the fact that I can come here and love it. That the sand is my sand. And the language is my language. And the air is my air.”

Friends of the Israel Defense Force (FIDF), a non-profit organization that assists soldiers in the IDF, has a New Jersey branch that reaches out specifically to families like Liora’s and Caleb’s. They provide a variety of services; one program that is actually unique to FIDF is that during his or her term, FIDF pays for a lone soldier to come home and see his or her parents. After Operation Protective Edge, they gave soldiers an additional flight to visit their family.

“I tell all parents who have a child joining, ‘Make sure you know about the services available, because not everyone is aware,’” said Howard Gases, Director of FIDF’s Tri-State Region.

“We have 24/7 call centers available for them to call all over the world,” Gases told the Jewish Link. “We also provide financial assistance, personal guidance counselors, adopt-a-family programs, gift packages, Shabbat and holiday meals and, upon completion, we help them facilitate into civilian life.”

Diane told the Jewish Link that she uses FIDF’s services and supports them because “sometimes it’s very hard to navigate the Israeli military, especially when you’re 6,000 miles away.”

To Follow Liora’s son’s blog, go to https://lostinthehomeland.wordpress.com/

To donate to the FIDF, go to www.donate.fidf.org.

By Bracha Leah Palatnik

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