Incitement and violence in the ultra-Orthodox world towards those who enlist in the Israel Defense Forces didn't stop Yosef Friedman, a young former member of the Haredi community from Kiryat Yearim.
Leaving behind his family and everything he knew, Yosef became non-religious, came out of the closet and joined in a combat unit in the IDF.
"I grew up as a Haredi right up to the age of 17 or 18. I was in a black-and-white [dress code] yeshiva and I wore the hat, the suit, everything. I never felt like I belonged and always wanted to leave the religion," he says. "Enlisting was my way out."
After enlisting, Friedman moved to the Soldiers House where he met secular friends and decided to come out of the closet. He says there was a nearly total break with his family.
"I haven't been in touch with the family for a year and a half. I took a step back and cut myself off," he says.
Friedman and many more like him are lone soldiers without family support.
"Soldiers without family support are the lone soldiers who come from two main sectors: Haredim who've left the community and whose family refuses to acknowledge them, and at-risk youths who come from different backgrounds," says Lt. Col. (ret.) Liora Rubinstein, director of the Lone Soldiers Without Family Support program at the Michael Levin Memorial Center.
The foundation takes in the youngsters about six months prior to recruitment and guides them through a process of getting to know their new reality, the new life they're beginning.
Rubinstein recalls a particularly memorable case from her two years working for the foundation.
"A few weeks after I came in, the coordinator asked me to accompany a new recruit because she couldn't go with her. I went to the recruitment center on her recruitment day and there stood a girl, a former member of the Haredi community who'd decided to enlist, and when she saw me she gave me a big smile and was so happy that I just melted," she says, smiling at the memory.
This is just one example of many such cases of these youngsters who are so enveloped in solitude that "anything we can help them with, just a smile, a little hug, some attention, conversation, a hot meal - it means the world to them," says Rubinstein.
'I discovered that the foundation is my family, my friends'
Toward the end of his military service, Yosef's father died of cancer.
"I had to go home to sit shiva for him, whether they accepted me or not," he says.
Shortly before his father died, a friend who is also a lone soldier introduced him to the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers Without Family Support.
"They sent two volunteers to visit me during the shiva and they were the only people who came to visit me," he says.
"No friends, nobody came. And that's when I realized that this organization really is different from the others. It truly is family, it's the friends I never had."
And this relationship continues even after the soldiers' discharge, since for Israeli lone soldiers going back to the civilian world, life can be very complicated.
"When I was about to be discharged, I got stressed out, I had a panic attack, and I actually passed out at the base. It's scary. You're going out to an unfamiliar world where you don't know anything," says Friedman.
"The day a lone soldier without family support is discharged and starts civilian life, he looks around and sees no one there, he sinks into a pit of anxiety," he says.
"This is why, before they're released, we talk to them, figure out what they're looking for, where they want to go, what they want to do – go to college or find work. What their priorities are, how much they managed to save over the course of their service, and what their starting point is."
The Lone Soldiers Without Family Support program helps candidates for military service prepare for enlistment in the IDF, soldiers already in the service, and discharged soldiers for up to five years after their discharge. The center assists 1,000 lone soldiers every year.
"The 16-year-old Yosef wouldn't believe it. He'd be surprised to learn where I ended up. I left the Haredi community, I came out of the closet, I enlisted, I fought to get into a combat unit, I served a full term of service, and now I'm completing my matriculation and dreaming of becoming an interior designer," says Friedman. "And if you don't think you're capable - you can pick yourself up. Fight for it, it's worth it."
These days, as the coronavirus epidemic affects each and every one of us, for these lone soldiers who are isolated to begin with, loneliness has much a greater and more significant impact.
"I'm now on unpaid leave. I was working as a waiter. So now I have to really make do with very little. When I buy groceries, I plan ahead and decide what to buy and what to pass up so I'll still have some money tomorrow. I try not to look too far ahead because it's stressful," says Friedman.
"This is where our presence is more important than ever, providing aid and helping them in their plight," Rubinstein says. "It really is like the family I'm missing; the foundation takes the place of the parents who can't support me now. I have Liora and Avi who really are like a mother and father to me."