Canadian Ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons and a group of senior Canadian diplomats and military officials welcomed 33 Canadian lone soldiers serving in the IDF to the ambassador’s residence in Tel Aviv for an evening of pizza and socialization on Jan. 16.
The lone soldiers, those without immediate family in Israel, are working long hours far from home and family. “What we wanted you to know is that we’re your family, too,” Lyons said.
Most of the soldiers were from Montreal or Toronto, with a few from Edmonton and Vancouver. Montrealer Robbie Kohos, 21, is serving in combat intelligence – his top pick of three choices during the recruiting process. He’s almost halfway through his two-and-a-half-year service.
“I went to Jewish elementary school, but I actually hated learning anything related to Hebrew studies and Jewish studies.” But a Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel – he says he wanted to go to Europe, but his parents put their foot down – gradually led him to feel a very deep connection. From there, he began hatching a plan to enter the IDF after high school.
As much as he loves Israel, Kohos is just as determined to fulfil his post-IDF dream of returning to Montreal to work in real estate investment, and take back what he’s learned.
“Your knowledge of automatic weapons obviously isn’t going to help you so much in Canada,” he says. “But the lessons you learn, being responsible, learning to take care of yourself, to overcome really hard things. Especially being a lone soldier, moving here, it’s a tough thing.”
While lone soldiers are prepared for physical challenges, many aren’t as adept at dealing with the emotional hazards. They also often have trouble transitioning into post-army life. The IDF offers social work services and support, but although lone soldiers comprise only 4 per cent of Israel’s military, they make up 30 per cent of its suicide rate.
A number of dedicated programs aim to ease the transition – both secular programs, like Garin Tzabar and religious programs, like Lev LaChayal – providing pre-and post-enlistment support and “adopting” lone soldiers to create a softer landing.
Easing into Israeli society was less of a problem for Ayala Rotenberg, 20, a corporal in the air force. The Toronto native came to Israel for grades 10 to 12 with a program called Naaleh and has lived here almost constantly since. Thanks to Naaleh, she was already up to speed in Hebrew. – “I’ve been told I don’t have an accent” – and better able to cope with the emotional aspects. “It’s really tough. I think the toughest part is not being with family.”
Though Rotenberg was the only one of her peers who went into the army – the others opted for Sherut Leumi (national service), a more popular option for religious girls – the army suited her career and personal goals. She’s earned an associate’s degree through a girls’ engineering program and is now working as an F15 technician. Rotenberg has served nine months of a two-year minimum service, which could be extended by another year and a half. She may pursue engineering when she’s finished – but either way, she definitely plans to stay in Israel.
Being a lone soldier forces her to be more independent than her IDF peers. When they have time off, they all go home to family, while she has to shop and cook for herself and do her own laundry. Although one perk she mentions of her base near Rehovot is that it has a washer and dryer, so her laundry doesn’t have to pile up between weekends off-base.
Lone soldiers receive a higher salary than ordinary IDF soldiers, ranging from NIS 2,292 to 3,520 (about $1,100 to C$1,330) per month, plus other benefits, like subsidized housing, grocery vouchers, and extra vacation time.
Many also discover less tangible, but longer-lasting, benefits. Yaakov Herman, 20, a corporal in the Nachal Brigade, credits the IDF for two major discoveries: the diversity of the Jewish world – “it’s an eye-opener” – and new truths about himself. “You learn how good a person you are. You’re exhausted all the time, and whether you’re going to help somebody else out, take a shortcut here, you really see how high a standard you’re going to hold yourself to. How strong or not strong you are.”
Though there are only a few English speakers in his unit, Herman who’s also from Toronto, has felt very accepted. Some Israelis tell him they find it inspiring that he’s chosen to serve voluntarily. With about seven months to go of his 17-month service, he’s planning to stay in Israel after the IDF.
There are currently 45 Canadian IDF lone soldiers, among 35,000 Canadian citizens in Israel. One of the embassy’s tasks, Lyons explained, is building bridges to Canadian culture through movies, theatre, music, and dance. She invited the lone soldiers to join in with Canadian cultural events any time they were feeling homesick.
“We both share a love of Canada and a love of Israel,” Lyons said. “We at the embassy are very proud of what you’re doing. It’s really quite incredible. The experience I know that you’re having is going to sustain you for the rest of your life.”