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Day 139: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

Everything but Lonely

Imagine your son or daughter, graduating from 12 years of schooling and instead of joining their friends in academic studies, they pack their bags, say their goodbyes, and leave. Instead of acclimating to a vibrant campus life, a busy and competitive curriculum, and adjusting to living in student dormitories, they are obliged to start a new life in a completely new place.

They land at a remote airport and around them they hear a language they don’t really understand. They encounter a different mentality and are surprised by it: unmediated, warm, welcoming interactions with people, even strangers.

Welcome to Israel!

While their parents remain back home with new worries and longings that begin to pile up, the sons and daughters start a new life as “lone soldiers” in the Israel Defense Forces.

What is a civil duty and a natural part of life for every 18-year-old Israeli is not so for others. For those who leave family, friends, and homes far behind, the decision to enlist in the army out of personal choice and deep commitment is not natural, certainly not mandated. It is an act of nobility and great love for the Jewish land.

Israeli children are born into a reality in which the army is an integral part of their lives. Mom and dad were in the army and from time to time serve in the reserves. Grandpa was too. All around they are surrounded with men and women in uniform.

On Purim, Israeli children dress up as soldiers and dream of becoming important commanders when they grow up. They know they will enlist in the army at the age of 18 and start training during school to get accepted to the most elite units.

Their friends overseas, however, are born into a different reality. A reality in which the army doesn’t play such a central role. Hence, joining the army usually is not included in their plans as they grow up. While their 17-year-old Israeli friends wake up for early morning runs and skill exercises in preparation for their enlistment, North American teens tour colleges and universities with their parents, debating which one to choose.

A “lone soldier” is an IDF soldier with no family in Israel to support them. A lone soldier may be a new immigrant, a volunteer from abroad, or an Israeli whose family can’t provide the needed support. Twenty percent of lone soldiers come from North America, 14% from the former Soviet Union, and the rest from Israel and other parts of the world.

Israeli soldiers go home on army leave to the loving embrace of their parents, to mom’s home cooking, and to hanging with their friends, returning to the base refreshed, with clean uniforms that smell of home, and fresh-baked cookies. Lonely soldiers go to rented apartments where they cook for themselves, do their own laundry, and receive only a virtual hug from afar. Mom and dad fit their kisses onto screens.

Many lone soldiers, or at least those who choose to do so, are matched with Israeli families who “adopt” them so they also can enjoy a sense of home and family. But it is never the same as the home they left behind.

Twenty-year-old Staff Sergeant Simon Shlomov fell in battle in the southern Gaza Strip earlier this week. Simon was a lone soldier who immigrated to Israel in 2021 from Kazakhstan. He loved the State of Israel and its people and left everything behind to live here, enlist in the paratroopers, and serve his beloved country.

About two months ago, Simon’s friend, Sergeant Boris Donavetsky, was killed in the fighting. Boris had immigrated to Israel from Russia in 2018 as part of the Na’ale program, through which Simon also arrived in Israel. Na’ale is a unique educational program designed for Jewish youth worldwide who come to Israel without their parents.

Two friends, two warriors who left families and friends behind and out of obligation to the Jewish people arrived in Israel alone, enlisted in the army, fought alongside their fellow Israelis, and fell for their homeland.

Of the 7,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the army, 24 have fallen in the current war.

Think about their parents, family members, friends who are awoken in the middle of the night by a terrible phone call—a conversation they dreaded from the first day their children told them of their decision to enlist in the Israeli army. Imagine their long flight to Israel. As they sit on a plane, floating among the clouds, their dead children are now among the angels, spreading royal wings, lighting up the sad night sky, twinkling like stars, and accompanying their parents on the painful, tormented flight to Israel.

The wheels of the plane touch the ground, and finally they are on Israeli soil. Other passengers, as is the custom on El Al flights to Israel, applaud, excited to be here. But Boris and Simon’s parents, now bereaved, can’t clap; their hands are tied up wiping their tears. This is not how they imagined meeting their children who chose to defend the State of Israel. Instead of a hug and immense excitement, they will look into their children’s eyes one final time, sending them on their last journey with a great sense of pride alongside endless pain.

The people of Israel welcome our lone soldiers with great love, thanks, support, and help. We hug them warmly when they are among us, alive and happy. And we do the same for them in death. Lone soldier funerals are usually massive funerals. Lone soldiers are anything but lone as they are buried in the soil of the land they loved so much right alongside other soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s wars.

In Israeli military cemeteries they are like everyone else—native Israelis buried alongside lone soldiers from all over the world, low-rank soldiers next to generals. The best sons and daughters of this country, of this nation, that continues to exact such a heavy and painful price for the right to live here.

Simon, Boris, and so many, many others. Your beautiful heads wear many crowns—crowns of heroism, dedication, commitment, courage, and determination. You are all that and so much more, but you certainly are not lone. Never alone. Look down from above and see how an entire nation bows its head with respect and gratitude for your sacrifice.

Rest in peace and know that you are the pride of the land and its people. In the army of heaven, you are crowned as generals—and angels—who until recently fought shoulder to shoulder with you and now rest by your side and salute you with love.

Together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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