American Jews' One-way Ticket to the Front Line

Young Americans who served in the IDF but live in the States are arriving in Israel to join their combat units.

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The phone calls and emails have been coming in all week. “I don’t tell them whether they should come, or not,” says Tziki Aud, looking up at the arrivals information board at Ben-Gurion International Airport Monday evening to figure out which flight is coming in when. “But I let them know that if they do show up – I am here.”

The man affectionately known by some as the father of Israel’s ‘lone soldiers,’ Aud has, for the past 20 odd years, been voluntarily assisting troops who have no family in Israel – and who therefore might need some extra help and attention.

According to data from the IDF, between 800-1,000 foreign lone soldiers enter the military every year. About half of these come on programs like Garin Tzabar, a joint scouts movement and Absorption Ministry program that offers a supportive community and communal housing on kibbutzim around the country. But others are just here on their own, renting apartments, buying themselves food for the weekends, and trying to find time to do their laundry.

Aud, who volunteers with the Michael Levine Lone Soldier Center, goes to their military ceremonies, tries to help them navigate the various logistics and bureaucracy of their new life here, and arranges Friday night dinners for them. And, while he does not actually do their laundry for them, he does help find washing machines, or, for that matter, anything else they might need to make weekends outside their army bases, and their lives in general, more comfortable.

This week, with rockets raining down on southern Israel, talk of a possible ground incursion, and some 40,000 soldiers called up for reserve duty, Aud was on hand at the country’s international airport, to help those lone soldiers who want to volunteer for duty. While exact statistics are not available, there is evidence that a high proportion of the lone soldiers end up in the toughest of units, ones that are among the first to be called up in times of need. If they are living out of the country, these soldiers are exempt from doing reserve duty, but they can still volunteer.

Twenty-four-year old Shmulik Lazaroff, one of 11 children in his family, grew up in Houston, Texas, where his parents serve as Chabad emissaries. Five years ago, he immigrated to Israel and began rabbinical school studies. Soon, he was drafted into an infantry unit, and got to know Aud and others at the Michael Levine Center.

When he was released from the army last year, after two and a half years of service, Lazaroff headed back to the States, where he has been managing a bicycle shop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and where, last summer, he cycled across the country, from Los Angeles to New York.

"Maybe I should be there"

This week, he says, when all his friends from his army unit were called up for reserve duty, being back at the shop in Brooklyn looking at a faulty gear boxes and changing inner tires felt uncomfortable. “It was a wake-up call,” he says. “I kept thinking, maybe I should be there and not here.”

Shalom Lakein, 21, from Brooklyn, was having the same thoughts. Lakein is also a Chabadnik, and one of six brothers, three of whom have served in the Israeli army. Lakein, who served in Golani, was released from the army four months ago. Now he wants back in.

He walks off the direct United flight from Newark wearing a black Golani T-shirt, long tzitzit (ritual fringes) and tattered jeans. And there, standing at arrivals, alongside the teenage girls holding “I love YOU” balloons and the Russian-language tour guides waving placards, is Aud. He is holding two new backpacks stuffed with socks, a long-sleeve shirt, a towel and a flashlight. “Welcome back,” he say, quickly embracing the young men and pushing the backpacks at them.

Soon, everyone is on their mobiles, trying to decide where to go and what to do next. Lazaroff is trying to figure out how to get up to Safed to get the stuff he left in storage. Lakein is wondering who he needs to talk to from the army to know where he should go.

“We are all comingSteve, Gitlin, Nagles,” says Lakein excitedly, after having slipped his old SIM card back into his phone and calling his old friends. It is not like the interim period at home has been bad, he notes. He was just settling in with a job working for his brother at a mobile-phone warehouse, after getting his driver’s license. But, still, with everything going on, he felt he was in the wrong place. “I called my commander and said 'What can I do?' and he said 'What can you do? You are in America. Have a good time.'

“On Friday night, praying in shul, I felt like a coward,” continues Lakein. “I knew that I was praying for a people I should be amongst.”

Collecting "miles" for Israel

He spent the whole Shabbat mulling things over, until Saturday night came, and he started making inquiries. Soon enough, a friend of a friend told him about a guy named Chaim Herzl who was collecting donated airline miles and offering them to anyone who wanted a one-way ticket back to Israel to serve.

Soon, he had a $700 dollar one-way ticket in hand, and was on his way. “I would have paid $2000 dollars for the privilege to come serve,” notes Lakein, who is so into his army unit that he flies a Golani flag outside his home in Crown Heights.

It is not at all clear that Lakein, who is not even registered yet as a reservist, will even be needed for service. But this does not seem to faze him. Tomorrow, he says, after a night in Jerusalem at the home of friends, he will go to the induction center, and ask to be allowed to head to the front lines of the offensive. “The Lubavitch rebbe said that 'whoever serves in the IDF gets his place reserved in the world to come.'” And he definitely wants to serve. “God willing. I will return to my unit,” he says.

By nightfall, it turns out that Lazaroff’s unit, which was called up Thursday, at the start of hostilities, has already been sent home. But he does not feel he has come in vain. “I felt worse being far away,” he says. “Here I feel calmer.” Meanwhile, there is plenty to occupy him – he's got the brit of his best friend’s child and a wedding to go to. “We might as well celebrate good things too,” he says. “I hope we can celebrate the end of this war very soonbut if not, I am here ready to do anything.”

Shmulik Lazaroff, left, with Shalom Lakein arriving in Israel last night.Credit: Danna Harman

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