Yitzchak Ickovich (right) before boarding the plane at JFK Airport in New York Aug. 22. (photo by Shahar Azran)
Recent University of Victoria graduate Yitzchak Ickovich, 23, was one of 215 olim (immigrants) from the United States and Canada who moved to Israel and made aliyah last week on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 64th specially chartered El Al flight. The flight was facilitated with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL) and Jewish National Fund-USA.
After becoming a citizen, Ickovich will draft into the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier. He will join the 3,500 men and women from around the world who are currently serving as part of the FIDF-Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program.
Most of the future lone soldiers on the Aug. 22 flight are part of Tzofim-Garin Tzabar, a Friends of Israel Scouts program, who before and throughout their military service are adopted by Israeli communities that serve as their home away from home. Their absorption period includes ulpan Hebrew studies, educational tours in Israel, introduction to the military structure and the different positions.
The charter flight comprised 22 families, with 75 children among them, 15 single men and women, and 17 retirees. The youngest oleh on the flight was four months old, and the oldest oleh was 77 years old. Also onboard were seven doctors and 15 health professionals who will be integrating into the Israeli medical system. Twenty-seven of the olim are part of the Nefesh B’Nefesh-KKL Go Beyond initiative, which is aimed at developing Israel’s peripheral regions and Jerusalem.
Last summer, a pilot initiative to further streamline the aliyah processing was offered to a handful of olim – representatives of Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, and the Population and Immigration Authority handed out teudot oleh (immigration certificates) onboard. For the first time, this opportunity was extended to all the passengers on this year’s charter. While still on the flight, olim filled out the relevant forms and were handed their teudot, finalizing their aliyah processing.
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, right, with Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin, and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon at the inauguration ceremony in August of a new home for female lone soldiers in Jerusalem. (photo by Yossi Zamir)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh was an 18-year-old new immigrant from Canada when she enlisted for the Israel Defence Forces some 30 years ago. Unlike most of her fellow recruits, she had no home to go to on weekends.
“I was a ‘lone soldier,’ without close family in Israel. There was no real framework that supported us – but much has changed since then, as this matter has become more acute,” she said.
Now a Knesset member (as a representative of the Blue and White coalition faction led by Benny Gantz), Cotler-Wunsh has taken up the welfare of the more than 6,300 lone soldiers lacking family in the country: immigrants, volunteers, orphans and youths estranged from their families.
“In retrospect, serving in the army was the most amazing exposure to Israeli society in many ways,” said Cotler-Wunsh, whose father Irwin Cotler was Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general from 2003 to 2006. “I did a squad leaders course and served in a very ragged anti-tank base at Nitsanim. The company slept in tents and went on marches in the dunes.”
The army gave her rent support and, on weekends, she stayed in a room in a Jerusalem apartment. “I lived with an elderly man who usually went away on weekends, so I was alone in the apartment,” she said. “To this day, I have connections with people from the Machane Yehuda market, especially the owner of the marzipan shop and the Tzidkiyahu delicatessen. These two would prepare boxes of food for lone soldiers at the end of Friday business, and we would get to Jerusalem after everything was already closed, go through the market and take the boxes of food prepared for Shabbat. To this day, I don’t forget them and they don’t forget me.”
Beyond material needs, she recalled the psychological hardship of being far from home.
“I know how important it is for lone soldiers to have their parents accompany them,” said Cotler-Wunsh, who served in the days before digital communication. “One aspect that has changed is parents’ involvement in day-to-day matters. Nowadays, it’s possible to convey to the lone soldiers’ parents a reality that they do not understand – and there’s no chance that they will understand – but they’re very concerned about. This communication calms both them and the lone soldier throughout their military service.”
“Lone soldiers need somewhere to live, a hot meal on Friday night … things other soldiers take for granted,” Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit organization that looks after their welfare.
The LSC, established in memory of an American immigrant soldier killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, currently operates nine apartment homes, offering low-rent housing to about 100 soldiers in Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, as well as social clubs catering to about 1,000 soldiers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. Only financial restraints are preventing the opening of more facilities and programs.
Beyond the social-psychological aspects, soldiers’ needs are often prosaic. “They need basic things like clean underwear, a toaster, somebody to look after them when they are sick,” Berman explained. “We have hundreds of volunteers who cook and do their laundry for them – many of them former lone soldiers or others immigrants.”
The organization’s staff also provide advice on how to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and attend military ceremonies, taking the place of their parents who cannot be there. “They say this means the world to them,” Berman said.
“The difficulties continue beyond their army service,” noted Cotler-Wunsh, who returned to Canada after studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “After 13 years in Israel and with a small baby, for the first time in my life I missed my family. I was pregnant with my second child and also wanted to do a second degree, at McGill University, and took the opportunity to be close to my parents.”
She returned to Israel 10 years later with four children and pursued a legal career that led her to the Knesset, where she has taken up a host of social issues, including the welfare of lone soldiers before, during and after their service.
“Nowadays, when they do have a support system, the loneliness hasn’t disappeared – it’s just been postponed. It’s harder when you’re used to an all-embracing system then, suddenly, to find yourself really alone. In any case, getting out of the army is a shock. For a lone soldier, it’s even harder to go from a hierarchic system to being an independent citizen who has to make decisions that will affect their life. That’s part of the reason why so many young Israelis go traveling after their army service.”
Over the High Holidays, the LSC is launching a global crowdfunding campaign to help lone soldiers get through the toughest time of their lives. For more information, visit charidy.com/lsc.
Daniel Ben-Talwas a lone soldier serving as a paratrooper before becoming a journalist. Over three decades he has penned hundreds of articles in a host of journals and websites around the world. Formerly an editor at the Jerusalem Post and the English version of Haaretz, he is now an Israel-based freelance writer, editor and translator.
Vancouverite Maya Gur-Arieh was among the 57 soon-to-be-enlisted Israel Defence Forces lone soldiers who landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Aug. 15. (photo by Gil Zohar)
A happy crowd of approximately 2,000 people – family and friends, along with eight members of the Knesset and assorted officials – arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel at 6 a.m. on Aug. 15 to welcome the second plane of Nefesh b’Nefesh olim (immigrants) and returning citizens to touch down this summer. On board were 239 newcomers, including olim hailing from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and 24 American states.
The reception at Terminal 4, a hangar adjoining the tarmac, festooned with banners, featured hora dancing, shofar blowing, tears of joy and shouts of “welcome home” and “mazal tov.” The newcomers varied from babies to retirees, including 30 families, 90 children and three sets of twins. But it was the 57 soon-to-be-enlisted Israel Defence Forces lone soldiers, wearing T-shirts emblazoned in Hebrew with “Ascending to an army uniform,” who garnered most of the accolades.
Among these future IDF soldiers was Maya Gur-Arieh, 18, who was born in Ashkelon but moved with her family to Vancouver when she was six months old. Keen to enlist for the past 24 months, she told the Jewish Independent, “I’m really happy I’m here. I’m really looking forward to my service. I really recommend Garin Tzabar.”
The program, affiliated with the Hebrew Scouts Movement in Israel and largely funded by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, facilitates service in the IDF and provides a support system for Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora serving in the army who do not have at least one parent living in Israel.
Lone soldiers receive a higher basic salary from the IDF, as well as financial assistance from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Ministry of Housing. Lone soldiers in combat units receive a monthly salary of NIS 3,100 ($1,200 Cdn), according to the Garin Tzabar website, and they are given help with housing and the right to extra time off, including 30 days per year to visit family overseas.
Gur-Arieh said she attended four Garin Tzabar programs in San Francisco, at her own expense, in anticipation of joining Zahal, the Hebrew acronym for the IDF.
In heading to Israel, she is following a Gur-Arieh family tradition, she said – her two older sisters both served as lone soldiers, one as an artillery instructor and the other as a combat engineering instructor. Both became officers, she said with pride. One of her sisters is making a career in the IDF.
Gur-Arieh doesn’t know where she will be serving since she hasn’t done the battery of physical and psychological tests that all draftees must complete before being assigned to a unit. Like her sisters, she, too, would like to be an instructor in a combat unit.
Until she is drafted, Gur-Arieh – whose surname means lion cub – will be living at Kibbutz Kissufim on the Gaza periphery. Asked about the tensions in the south and the rockets, mortars and incendiary balloons and kites from Gaza that have targeted her adopted home, she was nonplussed.
Founded in 2002, Nefesh b’Nefesh has assisted in bringing 57,000 Jews to Israel from Canada, the United States and Britain. The organization currently assists 3,200 soldiers in its lone soldier program.
The Aug. 15 Nefesh b’Nefesh charter flight was paid for by Heidi Rothberg of Denver, Colo.