While many aspects of life have been put on pause as a result of COVID-19, the need for service in defense of Israel has grown. Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus has made it more difficult for Israeli soldiers to connect with family and friends, particularly lone soldiers who are unable to fly home. Fortunately, organizations such as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) have responded to the social, emotional and financial challenges that lone soldiers are facing.
Pvt. Haley Nagelberg of New Brunswick made aliyah in July 2019 and has not seen her family since she enlisted in the IDF in January 2020. She reported that the lone soldiers “missed all of those little things, like hugging our moms or joking with our siblings.”
Nagelberg added that lone soldiers are concerned about their families’ well-being, worries which are intensified due to the physical distance between them.
FIDF continues to work alongside the IDF to ensure that soldiers such as Nagelberg are supported. Founded in 1981, FIDF provides a host of support services for soldiers across Israel, to both lone soldiers coming from outside of Israel and Israeli-born soldiers lacking essential resources. FIDF helps the 3,500 lone soldiers who come from more than 70 countries, with 120 soldiers originally from New Jersey.
Howard Gases, director of the New Jersey tri-state region of FIDF explained that FIDF works directly with the IDF to “understand the needs of soldiers and ultimately address them.” Gases further elaborated that FIDF recognized and responded to the unique set of obstacles that COVID-19 created.
FIDF continues to provide emotional-support resources to lone soldiers through its 24-hour call center. Additionally, FIDF collaborates with the IDF to organize phone and video calls for lone soldiers with their friends and family, from wherever the soldier is stationed. Nefesh B’Nefesh, an FIDF partner organization, contacts soldiers on a regular basis to make sure that their daily needs are being met.
FIDF also works with soldiers to find host families, set up holiday and Shabbat meals and provide financial assistance for housing and university expenses. For this year’s high holidays, FIDF is distributing $1.75 million in holiday vouchers.
One of FIDF’s greatest contributions to the well-being of IDF soldiers is offering lone soldiers one free flight home. Such trips usually occur just after soldiers complete their first year of army service. FIDF provides more than 800 of these flights every year. However, when international travel was canceled as a result of COVID-19, many lone soldiers were unable to return home.
Sgt. Naftali Pudell from Teaneck, who drafted into the IDF in March 2019, described the disappointment when “both soldiers and family members were looking forward to reuniting after a year of service.” With travel restrictions expected to be lifted around Rosh Hashanah, FIDF has worked directly with the IDF to ensure soldiers can celebrate the holiday with their families.
Soldiers have also struggled with the extended period of time stationed on base, resulting from COVID-19 restrictions. Pudell, for example, was notified by the army to bring enough personal items for a month or more. “When I arrived on base, nobody knew anything or how long it would last. That was hard, especially as we realized that everyone would have to be on base for Pesach.”
While this unforeseen period of time away from family created new challenges for soldiers, it also brought them closer together.
“The most meaningful part is that this is an army of everyone. While it has been challenging, the feelings of togetherness have really been evident during corona. For the first time, it is not just us that are missing out on seeing family, everyone is missing their home and is able to relate,” Nagelberg described.
Pudell emphasized the support felt by him and many other soldiers: “Right away, the army did a great job at keeping everyone in good spirits. They brought us many supplies for anything we would possibly need. All Israelis knew the soldiers were having a hard time and chipped in. People from houses nearby brought us food and snacks for holidays. We felt that people were rallying behind us and supporting us.”
FIDF, for example, has food trucks delivering soda and ice cream throughout the year. “It may not seem like a big deal, but for soldiers to get ices in the middle of a hot day really brightens our spirits,” Pudell said.
Nagelberg offered, “Even though I have only been in my officer’s course for a week, I have already been invited to so many homes for Shabbat and holidays. They don’t think twice about it, they go out of their way to help me.”
When reflecting on the tremendous support she has felt since making aliyah, Nagelberg emphasized how “all of the organizations that help soldiers don’t go unnoticed…and genuinely make a difference for lone soldiers.”
To support FIDF’s mission to help Israel’s defenders, join FIDF’s first virtual national gala on September 13, as they celebrate the IDF soldiers, and welcome the new CEO and national director of FIDF, Rabbi Steven Weil. Register at https://www.fidf.org/events/2020-national-gala.