In partnership with Nefesh B'Nefesh
They immigrate to Israel alone, far away from family and friends, and land straight into Israel’s melting pot - the IDF. Along with the need to adapt to the military framework, they also face language, cultural and bureaucratic difficulties.
A unique program operated by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the FIDF - staffed by advisors who themselves were once lone soldiers - guarantees these new and future lone soldiers a soft landing.
About 3,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 22 immigrate to Israel every year and enter the IDF - Israel’s melting pot. Many of them come alone, without family, out of the love of the land and a strong desire to contribute to the state.
"I didn't know anything about Israel before I arrived, but I saw my future here," says Elie Grob (39), who immigrated from Strasbourg, France 20 years ago and enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier.
"I studied for a year in Israel, and after a few months I decided to make Aliyah and join the army. I didn't know anything about the army. I arrived at my Tzav Rishon (“First Notice” pre-draft call up) with a very low level of Hebrew."
After three months of intensive Hebrew studies at the Michvei Alon base, he wanted a significant service. Elie was an only child, and therefore exempt from combat, and so decided to serve as a medic.
It was 2002, and Elie’s intense introduction to the IDF came at the end of Operation Defensive Shield, when a wave of terrorism struck across Israel. "It was a very stressful time," Elie admits.
"I served in Samaria, and it was not easy for the medical forces in the area. Every week there was an attack or two, and every day we treated newly wounded soldiers."
Military service is an intense and challenging time for any young Israeli, so imagine how a young man who comes from another country feels, without speaking the language, or having any family or friends, and without understanding the Israeli mentality.
Elie reminisces about a time when he was in the hospital for a few days with pneumonia: "There weren’t that many cell phones back then. None of my friends knew I was hospitalized, and they didn't come to visit me, not even from the military. Today, however, things are different.”
When Elie says that the situation today is different, he knows what he is talking about - he is among those pursuing change as a part of the Lone Soldiers Program run by Nefesh B'Nefesh and the FIDF.
"This is a holistic program run in cooperation with the IDF. The program aims to answer many of the needs of new Olim who join the IDF as lone soldiers,” explains Noya Govrin, director of the program.
The program is unique because it consists of advisors who speak different languages (English, French, Russian, Spanish), who themselves are new immigrants, served as lone soldiers, and have gone through the military and navigated the various obstacles themselves.
Govrin says that the program begins even before the future lone soldiers immigrate to Israel, and the assistance continues after they are released from the army. Ninety percent of the lone soldiers who immigrate to Israel, she notes, participate in the program.
"A lone soldier has many mental, emotional and physical challenges. They experience great longing for family and also find there are both language and cultural gaps."
But the biggest difficulty is what Govrin calls “the dream, the reality and what is in-between.”
"Many of the soldiers come motivated, they want to serve in elite units, but do not always get accepted which can cause great disappointment. Their service is undoubtedly a roller coaster with ups and downs, and we are here to give them all the tools and support to succeed."
Elie, who currently serves as a coordinator for French-speaking lone soldiers, agrees with the phenomenon described by Govrin.
"We do seminars and try to synchronize expectations - what the military expects of them, and what they likewise expect from the military. There are those who have big dreams, and it is important for us to explain to them that the military has its own system.
"Many of them have a chance to reach these desired units such as elite combat forces, the IDF spokesperson’s division and Oketz (an elite K9 unit), but they might not have enough time to prepare to get accepted."
What were you missing as a lone soldier that you provide today as an advisor?
“I don't regret my military service, but if there was an organization that would have given me more information about the military, it would have opened my mind to more options. Israelis have a few years to prepare for the military, new immigrants only have a few months.”
Big brother to the lone soldier
Unlike Elie Grob, who did not have a supportive framework as a lone soldier, many advisors are also graduates of the Nefesh B'Nefesh program, which was founded 11 years ago.
Leo Loeffler (29), coordinator of the advisors to English-speaking soldiers in the program, immigrated to Israel from Boca Raton, USA, seven years ago, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration at the age of 22.
"All my life I had wanted to enlist and even have a picture of myself at the age of four with an IDF shirt."
Leo testifies that he came with good preparation for the army. He didn't have big ambitions to be in combat, he admits.
"I came with an older perspective, out of a desire to contribute to the country. I didn't care if I would be a fighter or a cook. I already had a college degree, and I had lived away from home for over five years. There are a lot of 18- to 19-year-olds who are away from home for their first time, and it's hard for them to have to deal with everyday things.”
He was assisted by the Nefesh B'Nefesh - FIDF Lone Soldiers Program back in the United States and sought to expedite the recruitment process. After a few months, he landed in Israel, skipped Ulpan (Hebrew Class) and entered into the Netzach Yehuda military unit.
"As soon as I arrived, I told myself that I needed to learn Hebrew fast. I would write words in my notebook and would choose someone to follow every day in order to see what he does and how he speaks."
How did you benefit from the Lone Soldiers Program while in the army?
"At the beginning of my service I received a grant and used it to pay rent and throughout my service I had an English-speaking advisor who I could talk to and was familiar with my story.”
Leo completed his service in 2016, got married and began working as an analyst at a high-tech company.
"But after six months, I realized that's not what I wanted. I felt like I had a lot more to contribute. I started as an advisor and today I am a team leader. The work gave me a different perspective on the whole army process. I realized how important it is to have advisors, who will understand the side of the soldiers. We're kind of a big brother."
Get through the bureaucracy
Aside from many language and cultural difficulties, many of the new immigrants encounter additional difficulty, which seemingly sounds trivial, but can for many be a serious and despairing challenge – the bureaucracy.
"When you don’t know the language, it's hard to deal with the bureaucracy," explains Anastasia Medvedovsky (29), an adviser to Russian-speaking lone soldiers.
"I, for one, did not know that there was such a thing as a preference questionnaire, and that is why I was drafted into a random position. In retrospect, I found there were a lot of interesting roles for me. But because I didn't know the language, I missed the stage where I would have been able to fill out the questionnaire stating my preferences of where I would like to serve."
She immigrated from Russia with her family at the age of 17. Her family left after a year, and Anastasia, who graduated from high school early, chose to stay in Israel alone and join the army.
"At that time, I lived alone in Holon and came home every day. It was very difficult for me - so I asked to change to a closed base, to make friends and be less alone at home. I moved to Artillery, to the Moran unit, and served as a company clerk. I had great commanders there who were very supportive of me. Then I went to an officers' course and it was very interesting."
She completed her military service in 2013 with the rank of captain, worked and studied for a bachelor's degree in political science and communications at Tel Aviv University, and after graduating, she received an offer from Nefesh B'Nefesh to serve as an advisor.
"And I couldn't say no because I know what it's like to be a lone soldier. It is important to have such support, a team who can help you navigate your military service in your own language."
About 3,000 Russian-speaking youth are currently benefiting from the Nefesh B'Nefesh – FIDF program, says Anastasia - ranging from the pre-draftees who are in the early stages of the process, lone soldiers in active duty and even veterans.
"Before they make Aliyah, we explain to them about the recruitment process, make it clear to them that it takes time [it can take at least eight months]. We assist them in understanding how to find work and where to live. During their service, we have weekly personal conversations and assist with bureaucratic difficulties, such as submitting documents. After the military, many consult with us regarding higher education and life in Israel.”
With the understanding that bureaucracy can be challenging, Nefesh B'Nefesh-FIDF's Lone Soldiers program pushed to establish a Yom Siddurim (Errands Day) for the new immigrants.
"Once every two months, any lone soldier can request a day’s leave to address their personal needs, such as their personal banking, the DMV, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, etc.," explains Noya Govrin.
As a result of the success of this implementation, the Lone Soldiers Program created an annual centralized Yom Siddurim.
"Every year, all government ministries and agencies gather in one place. 2,500 lone soldiers come to Beit HaChayal in Tel Aviv, visit the various stations, and organize all their administrative affairs under one roof, in one day."
Why is it important to support immigrants who enlist in the military?
"Most of the lone soldiers left their friends and family, some of them graduates of academic institutions like Harvard and Yale, and made the decision to serve in the military. It is important that they have a good military experience, because if the service is good, chances are they will remain afterwards and lead successful lives as Israeli citizens.”
“Military service in the IDF is difficult and challenging for every soldier, and even more so for Lone Soldiers. The decision to enlist in the IDF is a brave and noble act - one rooted in a deep sense of mission and love for the State of Israel,” said Steven Weil, Friends of the IDF (FIDF) National Director and CEO.
“Together with Nefesh B'Nefesh, FIDF is committed to continuing to assist these brave Lone Soldiers through a variety of unique programs during and after their military service. We are grateful for each of them and salute them for their important contribution to the State of Israel. We will continue to ensure that none of them ever feel alone.”