September 2012 / Tishrei 5773
When Elie Markowitz decided to make Aliyah during the Second Lebanon War, it quickly became apparent to the 21-year-old from France that there was no better way to integrate into Israeli society than to immediately enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). And after two rounds of screenings, Markowitz was accepted to the Sayeret Tzanhanim, an elite paratrooper unit.
“Soon after training began, I experienced a significant shift in the Israelis’ attitude toward me,” Markowitz recalled. “Once we were side by side in uniform, they started to recognize me as one of their own. My Hebrew improved and I gained a deeper understanding of Israeli culture.”
Markowitz, who fought during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, was known by fellow soldiers as a hayal boded, or “lone soldier.” Each year, the IDF classifies approximately 2,500 soldiers as hayalim bodedim - young immigrant soldiers who came to Israel without the support system of family and friends. Typically these are twenty-somethings who make Aliyah and join the IDF to ensure that Israel remains the foundation of a secure Jewish future.
Each year, some 700 lone soldiers are discharged and, as civilian life in Israel draws closer, their anxiety often grows. They see their peers returning to their families as well as their established networks of emotional support and career advice. Lone soldiers, however, are left to face these tough questions on their own: Where will they live? To which university should they apply? How will they find a job? How will they afford the rent?
“Suddenly, I was confronted with the frightening reality of facing real life, alone in a foreign country,” Markowitz says.
Fortunately, the IDF is known for making sure its wounded are never left on the battlefield. This same ethos compels commanders to look after soldiers’ interests at all times. Markowitz recalls discussing life after discharge with a commander, who suggested The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Wings program. Wings provides lone soldiers a “soft landing” into Israeli society. It begins with a five-day seminar, led by occupational psychologists, and provides lone soldiers with instruction on eligibility for financial benefits and career choices. It also helps lone soldiers with their resumes and university applications. In some cases, individual counseling for lone soldiers continue for up to two years.
“Israel was established as the Jewish homeland, and - as such – it needs to continue to be a welcoming place for olim, such as our lone soldiers,” said Yehuda Scharf, director of Aliyah and absorption at The Jewish Agency. “These young men and women chose Israel as their home and their commitment is reflected in the service they’ve given not only to Israel, but the Jewish people. The Jewish Agency is devoted to making sure that they can overcome the unique set of challenges they face after their discharge.”
Further, Wings offers a mentoring program in partnership with the Rotary Club and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. These mentors invite soldiers to their homes and include them in family gatherings. Many mentors, including all Big Brothers and Big Sisters, were once lone soldiers themselves.
“This amazing program helped me quickly adjust to Israel’s civilian society,” Markowitz said. “I learned so many important lessons and received invaluable advice for creating a successful, vibrant life in Israel.”