December 2, 2007 / 22 Kislev 5768
“I came to Israel to serve in the army and to protect the land that is ours,” says Daniel Schattan who made aliyah on his own from Brazil less than three years ago. The 23-year-old is serving in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “I am doing what I wanted to do," he says. “Still, it’s hard to be alone in Israel. Sometimes you want a hug from your mom or just to be close to family.”
Daniel is one of about 2,500 lone immigrant soldiers currently serving in the IDF. These exceptional young men and women have left family, friends and the comforts of home behind in their native countries to move to Israel and defend the Jewish homeland. During the Second Lebanon War, five lone soldiers from the United States, Australia, France, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia were killed and 10 others were wounded.
“It’s not easy being a lone immigrant soldier. You have to get used to a totally different way of life,” says Anath Lev, (pictured above), 20, who serves in a combat unit that specializes in citizen rescue. Though her father is Israeli, Anath says that she knew only four Hebrew words when she made aliyah from the Dominican Republic in 2004.
Through a broad range of programs and initiatives, the Jewish Agency is working to help lone immigrant soldiers like Anath cope with the difficulties of adjusting to a new country while ensuring that they are able to maintain a dignified standard of living. This support includes everything from pre-paid calling cards that allow soldiers to stay in touch with their families abroad to a special course prior to their discharge that prepares them for the challenging transition back to civilian life.
When she arrived in Israel, Anath spent 10 months at the Jewish Agency Hebrew ulpan at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, located about 20 minutes outside of Haifa. The kibbutz remains her home away from home and she returns there on free weekends and vacations from the army. “As a lone soldier, having the kibbutz is one of the best things. It is a place I know, where I feel safe and it’s the closest thing to home,” Anath says.
As new immigrants, both Daniel and Anath receive a small amount of money each month from the government; they also receive a nominal salary from the IDF. But in most cases, this money is simply not enough. Anath is grateful for the help she receives from the Jewish Agency as part of its Lone Soldiers Project. This includes pre-paid calling cards to phone home to the Dominican Republic and a voucher to buy electrical appliances.
“My economic situation really isn’t great,” says Daniel, who rents an apartment with two other soldiers in the Katmonim neighborhood of Jerusalem. “The army allows me to work, but because of my schedule it’s nearly impossible.” Daniel also feels the strain of being in Israel without a family to rely upon. “Sometimes I can be on the base for 30 days at a time. Then when I get home, exhausted, I have to go to the bank and the post office, clean and do laundry and buy food. I don't have parents here to help like so many of the other soldiers."
Through its At Home Together program, the Jewish Agency provides those like Daniel and Anath with the kind of supportive family network that is so critical to successful adjustment to life in Israel. The program matches lone immigrant soldiers with veteran Israeli families who can provide guidance, encouragement and love.
Last October, within the framework of the At Home Together program, the Jewish Agency held a golf tournament at the Gaash Golf Club, located near Netanya. All proceeds went to benefit Jewish Agency programs for lone immigrant soldiers and more than 120 players, among them public figures and Israeli businessmen, participated.
The Jewish Agency’s Keshet program is also working to ease the emotional isolation experienced by so many lone immigrant soldiers by flying their parents to Israel to visit. This past March, the Jewish Agency brought 177 parents to Israel from 23 different countries for a one-week trip. Some of them had not seen their children in five years.
“I miss my boys every day and I dream of them at night,” wrote one mother in her letter of thanks. “Despite this, I am sure they are in the right place, both for their personal growth and because they have a purpose greater than themselves – the security of the land of Israel.”
Close to 80 percent of all lone immigrant soldiers hail from the former Soviet Union. About one-quarter of them are not recognized as Jewish according to religious law, something that can make life in Israel even more difficult for a new immigrant. For these soldiers and others who want to know more about their Jewish identity and strengthen their connection to their heritage, the Jewish Agency created the Nativ Jewish Zionist Identity Program.
Soldiers learn about the history of the Jewish people, Bible, and Jewish philosophy and practice. Nativ also constitutes a basic step in the conversion process for those interested in becoming Jewish according to Jewish law. Russian-born Irina Etkin, 23, is one of nearly 6,000 soldiers who have participated in the program since its inception six years ago. “Nativ enabled me to go through the whole process of conversion with dignity," she says. “Now there will never be any questions about my children’s Jewish identity.”
All of the Jewish Agency’s programs in support of lone immigrant soldiers, including the Lone Soldiers Project, At Home Together, Keshet and Nativ are made possible through the generous support of the United Jewish Communities, Federations across North American, Keren Hayesod-UIA and donors in Israel and around the world.