By Rochelle Maruch Miller
They are contemporary heroes–our brave sons and daughters who risk their lives daily in order to serve AmYisrael. Many of these young men and women are “lone soldiers”–IDF members who have no family support during their time in the army. Although there are Israelis in the IDF who are considered lone soldiers if they do not live with or receive support from their family, a vast majority of lone soldiers are new immigrants who move to the country without their parents and family and are now in the IDF.
“I always felt a strong connection to the Land of Israel, be it naturally or thanks to various childhood influences. The time I had spent in yeshiva helped me translate these feelings into a substantial, cohesive philosophy,” says Eli Waltuch, 22. The youngest of three children, Eli, who grew up in Woodmere, came to Israel to learn at Yeshivat Hakotel upon graduating from Mesivta Ateres Yaakov of Greater Long Island. During his second year at Yeshivat Hakotel, Eli decided to join the IDF.
“I learned about the importance of the Land of Israel on a national as well as on a religious level, as well as how the two are very much interconnected, and I see the establishment of the first Jewish autonomy and Jewish army in over 2,000 years as a tremendous turning point in our history, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of it.”
Spurred to action, Eli enlisted in the IDF in March 2012 and served for 16 months in the 401st Armored Brigade, after which he returned to yeshiva as part of the requirements of the hesder program.
“When I first made aliyah in 2011, I was on a flight to Israel with 350 other future lone soldiers who were to draft three months after immigrating,” says Isaac Katz, 24. The Five Towns resident told me he has been asked “thousands of times” why he decided to enlist in the IDF. Although his answer is always different, Isaac explains that most of the reasons tend to have the same elements. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors and he believes that “if the State of Israel and the IDF had existed at that time, the Holocaust would not have occurred.”
“The IDF defends and protects not only citizens of Israel but Jews all over the world in the Diaspora,” he says. “One of the soldiers in my platoon, a Yemenite Jew with no familial connection to the Holocaust, exemplified this for me. We were in the middle of War Week, the final week of our training, which tested all of our abilities and pushed us to our limits. During one particular hard time during that week, I asked him how he’s finding the motivation to continue. He pulled out a small picture from the cover which held his dog tags. It was a famous picture from the Holocaust of a young Jewish boy surrounded by Nazis with his hands up in surrender. He told me that he always has this picture next to his dog tags to remind himself exactly what we’re fighting for.”
For Eli, acclimating to Israeli society proved less challenging than for many other lone soldiers. “I have plenty of family here in Israel, and I had already spent over a year-and-a-half in a yeshiva where there are plenty of students who had done or were doing what I had,” he recalls. “At my enlistment, we were 15 chayalimbodedim, lone soldiers, from Hakotel. All that being said, I had a pretty strong support system going on.”
Eli spent his first seven months in Shizafon, near Eilat. That time was divided into two months of basic infantry training, a month-and-a-half of mostly classroom work spent learning about tanks and how they operate, followed by three-and-a-half-months of more practical training exercises. Upon completing “maslul” he joined his plugah (company) and spent his last nine months rotating between intense drills–usually up to the Golan Heights–and routine patrol duty, both in tanks and on foot.
Being a tankist can be tedious work. “Before and after every mission we are required to do maintenance work that on some days will take up to an hour,” says Eli. “In addition, we have more thorough technical work every weekend and month that can take several hours–more if there is mud. And all that work is in addition to the mission itself! Don’t forget the duties every soldier has in addition to that (guard duty, kitchen duty, etc.) And once we’ve covered the challenges that every tankist faces, we get to the additional challenges of being a lone soldier. Most combat soldiers, at the end of 17 long days in the field, go home to a family that cooks for them and does their laundry, takes care of their bank documents when they’re away, as well as other such matters, while a lone soldier has to take care of all those things by himself.”
“Aside from the obvious emotional support issues of being away from your family, there were also a number of logistical challenges which lone soldiers face while in the IDF,” Isaac Katz explains. “During weekends off from the army, soldiers don’t want to do much else other than sleep, eat, and catch up with their friends and family. When friends go home for a weekend, they have their parents to do their laundry, cook their meals, and generally take care of them; however, lone soldiers don’t have that privilege. There were many times where I arrived back at my kibbutz to find no food in my apartment, because the last time I was there was a month ago. I would have to race down to the supermarket and get my grocery shopping done in time before Shabbat started when all the stores in Israel would close. There were some times where I wouldn’t get it done in time and I would have to rely on my friends and other kibbutz families for weekend meals.”
Yet another challenge Isaac faced was that his family was not involved in his military career. “For all the ceremonies, the Israeli soldiers’ parents would come to celebrate and spend time with their children.” He adds, “It was hard watching my fellow soldiers celebrating with their parents while my parents were thousands of miles away. My parents were able to make it to my swearing-in ceremony in front of the Kotel, which was definitely an incredible experience. However, I remember for my beret march, an arduous 60-km march to earn the red beret of the paratroopers, all of my fellow platoon-mates had their families there to meet them at the finish line and mine were in another country.”
The parents of lone soldiers share a special camaraderie. As proud as they may be of their sons’ and daughters’ decision to enlist, train, and serve in the IDF and defend Israel as well as Jews the world over, they find comfort in the support of other parents who share a similar experience. Dr. David and Debbie Waltuch, active members of our community, will always remember the support of friends throughout Eli’s time in the IDF. “It was so comforting to hear from people who had shared our experience, who felt it was valuable and expressed pride in their boys,” Debbie recalls. “The first South Shore dinner for FIDF gave us a tremendous amount of chizuk; the plan that year was to honor our local lone soldiers. Large foam-core posters were made with photos of each soldier serving currently or in the past. What a sense of camaraderie!”
Following the second dinner, Debbie and David decided to join the dinner committee. “One of the issues we discussed at meetings was the importance of the parents of lone soldiers, past and present, continuing to be involved, and that was about the time it was suggested that we host an event, a non-fundraiser, inviting these parents to take part in a support group.”
The response was nothing less than “stunning!” Says Debbie, “Veteran parents whose kids had returned to civilian life years ago expressed a strong appreciation for creating the group. And of course, the parents of current and upcoming chayalim; the event was surely for them! We had over 20 people in our home before Purim, and several others who expressed serious disappointment that they were unable to attend. So this is the bottom line: parents gathering to support each other. There will always be a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on. We share a mission of the pride we have in our sons and daughters who are out there serving Am Yisrael. And an understanding that we will always be parents of lone soldiers; the need to connect continues indefinitely. The empathy we share is like no other.”
“Over in Israel, the support of American Jews towards the State of Israel and the IDF is immeasurable,” says Isaac. “Israel relies heavily on the support of the Diaspora. Being a Zionist doesn’t require you to make aliyah and join the IDF. Anything that can be done to aid the country goes a really long way. Whether it pro-Israel advocacy or donating supplies or money to the IDF, any help is appreciated. The IDF fights for the defense of the country of Israel and now, more than ever, with all the uncertainty in the region, it needs all the help it can get.” v