Whether it’s something Israelis look forward to or dread, serving in the Israel Defence Forces is a rite of passage that few Israeli citizens have a choice about.
But in Canada, where a love of the Holy Land is instilled in many members of the Jewish community, each year, dozens of Canadian Jewish youths choose to defer their post-secondary education for an opportunity to join their Israeli peers in defending the Jewish state as lone soldiers.
A lone soldier is defined as having no family in Israel to support him or her, whether they’re a new immigrant, a volunteer from abroad, an orphan or someone from a broken home.
According to the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, founded in 2009 to meet the needs of soldiers in these circumstances, they number more than 6,300.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, an immigration absorption organization that also offers a lone solider program, reported that 2,500 soldiers come from abroad to volunteer. Garin Tzabar, another organization run by Tzofim Tzabar Olami that works with the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, estimated that between 50 and 70 Canadians are drafted by the IDF each year.
‘I would sit there while the Israelis would talk about their girlfriends, their families and life back home. All I wanted to do was be a part of that’
“I am a firm believer in everyone doing what they can to give to Israel. Not everybody can donate money, and not everybody has time to run or attend events. This is my way of giving to Israel. I feel it,” said Elliot Wine, 23, who moved from Toronto to Israel at age 21 and enlisted in the IDF’s combat engineering unit in late 2015.
“I grew up going to a Zionist Jewish day school, and a Zionist synagogue weekly, and support for Israel and the Jewish homeland was infused into my daily life. When I met an Israeli soldier for the first time at the age of 14, I was sold. I can’t tell you what his job or name was, nor where he was in the army. All I saw was the green uniform, and I was hooked from then on.”
Eitan Ellis, 20, who enlisted in 2014 as a combat solider in the Golani brigade, said growing up in a Zionist, modern Orthodox home in Toronto, he felt that it didn’t seem fair that the defence of the Jewish state should rest solely on the shoulders of those who live there.
“I would always go to shul with my parents, and at the end of the service, there would be a prayer for the State of Israel. I thought it was a nice thing, but something always bothered me about that. Everyone always says, ‘I love Israel, let’s say a prayer for them,’ but I never really felt like that was enough,” Ellis said.
For 18-year-old Torontonian Yonah Morrison, who was drafted into the IDF’s search and rescue unit late last year, his participation in a Camp Ramah program called Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), which offers high school students an opportunity to spend a semester studying in Israel, was a big influence on his decision to join the Israeli army.
“During that program, we actually spent a week at Gadna, which is a pre-army week of simulated basic training,” Morrison said, adding that the experience along with his Zionist upbringing, solidified his belief that since Jews all over the world can benefit from the existence of a Jewish homeland, they should do their part in service of the country.
Tomer Elimelech, 34, was drafted 10 years ago as a combat soldier in the Golani brigade. Although he couldn’t say whether his motivation to join a decade ago is any different from the motivation of those who make that choice today, he imagines that most people volunteer for the same reason.
“They want to serve. They want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves,” Elimelech said.
Joanna Sasson, Morrison’s mother, said she recalls when her son first started hinting about his ambition to join the Israeli army.
“I remember when I visited him [when he was participating in the TRY program]… He said to me, ‘I’m definitely going to be back.’ When he said that to me, at the time, I think he was already thinking of a more long-term commitment to Israel, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe he’ll do a year of university there.’ I wasn’t there yet,” Sasson said.
“I remember being taken aback the first night that he said, ‘I’ve decided to join the Israeli army,’” she said, adding that her reaction to the news would have been the same if he had told her he decided to take a gap year in Africa or anything that strayed from her expectation that he would go to university right after high school.
“Compounded on that was the nervousness that I’m sending my kid to the Israeli army.”
Limore Ellis, Eitan Ellis’ mother, had her own apprehensions about her second of four children enlisting in the army.
Asked about her reaction when her then-17-year-old son told her he’d be serving in the IDF, she said, “What? Where did we go wrong? We sent you to Jewish day school, we raised you in this loving Jewish home, we taught you to love Israel, but – what? Can’t you love Israel from afar and do some good over here?” she said, laughing.
Despite her reservations, Limore understood that as her son approached his 18th birthday, there was little she could do to stop him, so she opted instead to support him.
“Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I think about it all the time, but we’re very fortunate with technology. Eitan is very close to my husband and me. We speak almost every day,” she said.
Wine said that although his parents have grown to accept his decision, having to come to terms with his family and friends’ “lack of 100 per cent approval” was one of his biggest challenges.
“Not a single person has disowned me – yet – or told me they do not approve of my decision. However, there are many that have stated they would prefer me on the western side of the world where they are sure I can find another way to give to Israel,” Wine said.
Thanks to organizations that provide services that promise to make the transition to life as an Israeli soldier smoother, lone soldiers enjoy some special perks, which give their parents some peace of mind.
“As a lone soldier I receive certain benefits from the IDF and the Israeli government in order to help me live in Israel, including an extra stipend, an extra day off each month to run errands, and 30 days a year to leave Israel and spend time with my family,” Morrison explained.
Garin Tzabar also places groups of lone soldiers in kibbutzim with host families, to ensure they have a home away from home.
Still, with all the programs and special perks in place for lone soldiers, there are certain challenges even the best programs can’t prepare them for.
“The most challenging part for me is being so far away from my family. I’m still able to call and Skype with my family whenever I have free time, but it’s not the same as actually being with them,” Morrison said.
For Elimelech, adjusting to Israeli culture was a challenge.
“You’re on your own, you’re away from your family, you’re with a bunch of Israelis, and no matter how Zionist and pro-Israel you are, it is a different culture… Some days were difficult. I’m not going to lie.”
Ellis said despite spending time in an ulpan program to learn conversational Hebrew before enlisting, the language barrier was the toughest thing to overcome.
“When I moved to Israel I knew virtually no Hebrew. I knew how to say, ‘How much does this cost? Where is the bathroom?’ And that was about it,” Ellis said.
“The first two months of my service was the hardest time of my entire life. I heard all these stories about military brotherhood, and that is all I wanted.”
‘I’ve had nights in the West Bank when they sent us in at three in the morning to arrest a terrorist…someone responsible for the death of Jewish lives. But then you see his nine children, sitting there, crying, with hate in their eyes’
He explained that at the end of each day, the soldiers had 45 minutes to smoke, use their phones and socialize.
“I would sit there, in a corner, while the Israelis would sit around and talk about their girlfriends, their families and life back home. All I wanted to do was be a part of that,” Ellis said.
“It was a rough few months, but my Hebrew got really good, really fast… After a while, everything sort of clicks.”
Wine said given the circumstances of life in the army, bonding is inevitable, no matter where you come from.
“When you eat, sleep, shower, lean on, and snuggle with the same guys for a year, you build a bond as though you are true brothers,” Wine said.
On the other hand, some of his fellow soldiers might feel a little resentful about the perks enjoyed by lone soldiers.
“I am entitled to certain rights that regular Israeli soldiers are not entitled to… Some feel offended that I don’t have to work very hard to receive them… It can be tough for a soldier who needs to help out at home, especially when they only see home once every few weeks,” Wine said.
Morrison said he doesn’t feel like he’s treated any differently from the members of his unit based on his status as a lone soldier.
“They understand why lone soldiers would get these added benefits… They’ve really helped me integrate into Israeli society, and by serving beside each other, we’ve grown into a family.”
In addition to having to adjust to the culture shock of living and serving in a Middle Eastern country, the soldiers also had to come to terms with their perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in some cases, changed because of their first-hand experience.
“Israel as a country is an absolute mess, politically speaking… The conflict itself, I see completely differently. I’ve served on virtually every border we have in Israel. I’ve seen every enemy, I’ve been engaged in conflicts with Hamas, with Hezbollah, even ISIS… I want to tell you that everything is perfect and the army is an incredible place, but the truth of the matter is that nothing is perfect,” Ellis said.
“I’ve had nights in the West Bank when they sent us in at three in the morning to arrest a terrorist, and we go in and we’re heavily armed and we break down the door and we grab people out of their homes, and we’re doing an amazing thing. We’re arresting a terrorist who is responsible for the death of Jewish lives. But then you turn around and you see his nine children, sitting there, crying, with hate in their eyes, and it breaks my heart,” he said.
“We’re the most moral army in the world – we just threw a solider in jail for killing a terrorist – but all these conflicts, it’s so complicated.”
Wine said that living in Canada made it much easier to “blindly” support Israel’s actions.
“Once you become the action that is debated upon, or someone who is scrutinized daily, the politics sink in a little bit more,” Wine said.
He added that being based in Otniel, a settlement south of Hebron, has allowed him to see what how each side interacts with the other.
“I will say that my experience has absolutely not changed my political views. However, it has made me a lot more open to other opinions on the matter. We are taught and expected to have a very high level of respect for every person we interact with,” said Wine.
For Elimelech, his role in the three-week Operation Cast Lead in 2008 reinforced his belief about Israel and its security.
“We can’t rely on anyone, and we have to defend ourselves. Whether we like it or not, there is an enemy out there. Until we do have peace, we have to be ready for this,” Elimelech said.
Although each of the soldiers spoke of the mental strength they needed to get through the tough times, they all agreed they had no regrets.
“By serving in the IDF, I’m contributing to Israel’s safety… I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than that,” Morrison said.
Elimelech said he enjoys the feeling of being part of something bigger than himself.
“When I’m on the bus, and I see a bus full of soldiers, I can hold my head up high knowing that I did my part,” Elimelech said.
Wine was reluctant to say he’d recommend the experience to someone else, but believes it’s the most character-building process he’s ever been a part of.
“This is not at all the decision for everyone, but for those who have the head for it, it is something to look back on, even through all the tough times, and be proud of yourself.”
What makes the tough times a little easier for Ellis to swallow is the love and support he feels from Israelis.
“In our unit, we have the highest casualty rate, and when there is a war, we are the first ones in and the last ones out, and all of Israel understands that,” Ellis said.
“I’ll leave base and someone will call out to me on the street and say, ‘Golanchik, come have a falafel on me.’ Especially because I come from outside of Israel, I get so much appreciation. My title is being a lone soldier, but I’ve never once felt alone. I know that every single mother in Israel wants to be my mother, and every single family wants to help me. All of the guys in my unit, I’ve been to all of their homes for Shabbat, and I know that if I need anything, I’m part of their families. That is the most rewarding thing.”
For Ellis, fulfilling his Zionist dream of serving in Israel’s army – although difficult and challenging – was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror, and I absolutely hate myself and I say, ‘I hate you. I hate you so much. What are you doing here? This is the worst thing ever.’ But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be anywhere else.”