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Jewish Journal

L.A. youth become Israel’s brave lone soldiers

by Tom Tugend

February 26, 2014 | 4:37 pm

Shai Berk of Los Angeles is congratulated by his sister, Pnina, at the ceremony during which an Israeli soldier receives his unit beret after completing basic training. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Arye Berk

Shai Berk of Los Angeles is congratulated by his sister, Pnina, at the ceremony during which an Israeli soldier receives his unit beret after completing basic training. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Arye Berk

“I want to give back, not just sit back,” Samuel “Shimmy” Kandel said. The 19-year-old Angeleno was explaining in a phone interview why he decided to interrupt his studies at Santa Monica College to serve as an American volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Danny Rubin and Ari Platt, both 24, became friends at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA). Both went on to serve with the IDF’s elite Givati Brigade between 2009 and 2011, after which Platt extended his term for a year to attend officers’ school. Platt is now a pre-med student at Columbia University.

Each year, some 5,000 young men and women like these three come to Israel from about 120 countries — most of them from the United States — to serve in Israel’s armed forces, leaving behind their families and friends for one to two years, sometimes more.

In Israel, these enlistees are known by the somewhat odd designation of “Lone Soldiers,” to indicate, according to the IDF Web site
(idfinfo.com.il), that they “do not have their biological parents in Israel — they are usually new immigrants, volunteers from abroad …”

These men and women serve Israel every year, “despite dealing with numerous emotional and financial struggles,” the site adds.

Among the challenges is seeing their Israeli comrades leave camp on Shabbat and other holidays to return to their families, while the American Lone Soldiers’ kin are as many as 8,000 miles away.

For the parents, most of whom are generally supportive of their child’s decision to serve Israel, there is still the anxiety of wondering whether their offspring are safe.

When Kandel decided to go to Israel and enlist, his mother, Esther Kandel, was asked to sign a permission form required by the IDF when an only-child enlists in a combat unit.

“Shimmy is my only son, and I can’t tell you how scary that was,” she said. “I got flak for that from some of my Zionist friends, but I told them that if Shimmy felt this was his duty, I couldn’t say no.”

Shimmy Kandel left Los Angeles in late December and is now ready to serve an 18-month stint in an artillery unit. Asked about his motivation, he cited the recollections of one grandfather who survived Auschwitz and the Ebensee concentration camp, and his other grandfather who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

“Stories of their experiences helped shape my thinking,” he said.

Shai Berk, the 19-year-old son of Miriam and Rabbi Arye Berk of Adat Shalom, made aliyah in the summer of 2012, and now, as an Israeli citizen, is serving a full three years in the Givati Brigade.

After discharge, he will embark on a free university education, courtesy of the Israeli government.

“Before Shai made his decision, we sat around the Shabbat table and talked about his future,” Rabbi Berk said. Now that he is in Israel, “we are worried and we are proud.”

In addition to the efforts by the IDF command to ease the integration of Lone Soldiers, there are a number of support groups in the Diaspora. What is missing, however, is organized action to link American families in support of their children serving in Israel.

To close that gap, at least in one city, some 120 parents and siblings of Lone Soldiers from Southern California met one recent evening on the rooftop of the Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills, at a gathering hosted by David Siegel, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

At the event, Siegel and other speakers held up the volunteers and their parents as “inspirations,” “heroes” and “true Zionists.”

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation recalled that ever since 2007, when he spent a summer sabbatical in Israel with his family, his son Adin, then 14, dreamed of joining the IDF.

Adin realized his dream, and in so doing changed the relationship between father and son. “Up until then, I was my son’s teacher, but now my son taught me what commitment and love of our people really mean,” Kanefsky said.

Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Platt, Ari Platt’s father and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA, has been lobbying the local Israeli Consulate for some time for backing a Lone Parents and Families organization in Southern California as a prototype for other American cities. With Siegel’s arrival in 2011, and the help of Friends of Israel Scouts regional director, Orit Mizner, the effort is getting off the ground.

“When our young men and women volunteer for service in Israel, each leaves behind a hole for the grandparents, parents and siblings who stay behind,” Platt observed.

He outlined the mission of the organization to provide mutual emotional support for the families left behind, complement other private groups in providing comforts for the Lone Soldiers in Israel, and push the IDF to fully recognize the special problems and needs of Diaspora volunteers.

Neither the IDF nor local officials have a count of how many current Lone Soldiers are from the Los Angeles area, but at the meeting at the Luxe Hotel, more than 50 parents signed up to support the group’s formation.

As an aside, Platt noted that when the volunteers return home, they and their families face some readjustments. “They leave as children and return as adults,” he said.

For the first American Machalniks, including this reporter, who shipped out clandestinely in 1947 and 1948 as Palestine transformed into Israel, the difference between then and now is staggering, not only within the state itself, but also in the attitude and self-confidence of the American Jewish community.

American Jewry, not nearly as wealthy and infinitely more timid in the 1940s than now, contributed considerable money, and a few men risked jail and loss of citizenship to smuggle arms and airplanes to the beleaguered
Yishuv.

But if a people’s commitment is judged by the ultimate test of putting their lives at risk, then the American performance was disappointing. Despite being from the largest Jewish community in the world, and one of the few to emerge from the war with greater strength than before, just 1,400 Americans went to fight for Israel in her life-and-death struggle.

Relative to the size of their Jewish populations, every English-speaking country sent vastly larger contingents, even if the American count includes those who manned the illegal immigrant ships of Aliyah Bet.

South Africa, for instance, sent 700 top-notch volunteers from a Jewish population one-fiftieth the size of the American colossus. Notably, the 1948 volunteers were overwhelmingly World War II veterans, whose experience was invaluable to the emerging Israeli underground fighters, especially in the air force and navy.

The disparity in the number of volunteers from the various Anglo countries during the War of Independence reflected their differences in communal attitudes and civic courage. South Africa’s Jews, and also Britain’s, set up their own selective service systems, complete with physical and psychological testing, and rallied fully behind their young men and women heading for the battlefield.

By contrast, organized American Jewry, fearful of “double loyalty” accusations, generally averted its collective eyes and prayed that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.

Fast forward to the Jewish community today. While the Lone Soldier volunteers comprise a relatively small group among American Jewry, no one worries anymore about double loyalty charges, or even about the loss of American citizenship — a real possibility in 1948.

And though the Lone Soldiers could use more moral and material support, a number of active organizations are looking out for the welfare of the young volunteers.

Foremost is the Garin Tzabar program, a name difficult to translate but whose motto is “Family for Life.” It consists basically of a group of American youth, who are “adopted” or guided by the Israel Scout movement while preparing for and making aliyah, working on kibbutzim and entering military service.

The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces raise some $6 million annually in the United States to assist Lone Soldiers through grants, flights home, phone call centers, holiday packages and furlough housing.

The organization’s Western region raised $250,000 last year, said regional executive director Miri Nash, citing as leading supporters Cheryl and Haim Saban, Erika Glazer, Vicki and Ron Simms, Soraya and Younes Nazarian, and Ruth and Leo David.

Popular destinations for Lone Soldiers are the Michael Levin centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, named for a Philadelphia native killed while serving as a paratrooper during the fighting in Lebanon in 2006.

One byproduct of the military service programs for foreign volunteers is producing graduates who will either decide to settle permanently in Israel, or return to their home countries as strong advocates for the Jewish state.

Some old Israel hands see such results as the central purpose of the programs, arguing that the IDF, in its present sophisticated state, does not really need untrained overseas volunteers.

This viewpoint is contested by Lt. Libby Weiss, head of the IDF North American Media Center, who said that while the programs of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government’s Aliyah Department are aimed at attracting future citizens, the army programs are focused on training soldiers.

The Oregon-born Weiss, 26, like many of the American volunteers, is the child of Israelis who immigrated to the United States but imbued in their sons and daughters a love for Israel.

Comparing the reports of the first and the most recent overseas volunteers, some experiences have changed, while others have stayed the same.

The astonishment expressed by native-born Israelis as to why the foreign volunteers would leave New York or Los Angeles, where the streets were supposedly paved with gold, to fight for Israel puzzled Rubin and Shai Berk, as it did the original Machalniks in 1948.

What has changed is the impact of the volunteers on Israel’s military capability. In 1948, the enlistees were overwhelmingly World War II veterans, whose experience was invaluable.

By contrast, hardly any of the current crop of Lone Soldiers have military experience and have much to learn from the IDF, one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world.

For more information on Lawrence Platt’s efforts to establish a Lone Parents and Families group, e-mail him at ldplatt@gmail.com.

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