Israeli Army Cites Rise in Number of Overseas Volunteers Joining Its Ranks

A resurgent desire to defend the Jewish state, along with improved support for recruits from abroad, have boosted the number serving over the past two years.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
Lone soldiers by the numbers
Lone soldiers by the numbersCredit: Haaretz
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

He was the youngest of four, from a comfortable Jewish home, with loving parents who gave him everything he wanted, and he had always dreamed of being a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

Then, last summer, three “lone soldiers” — an IDF term for recruits alone in Israel, often from abroad — died in Gaza. Their deaths gave this young Diaspora Jew the final push he needed to enlist.

“They put their lives on the line for us, for Israel, for all the Jewish people,” says the lone soldier, who asked to remain nameless. He is referring to Max Steinberg, 24, from Los Angeles, Sean Carmeli, 21, an American-Israeli, and Jordan Bensemhoun, 22, a French-Israeli — the three will be added to a list of more than 20,000 names when the country marks Memorial Day on Wednesday.

As he puts it, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

Military service is mandatory for Israelis and immigrants under a certain age, depending on gender and other factors. The term “lone soldier” refers both to ordinary conscripts who lack a support network, such as orphans, Israelis whose parents are abroad for part or all of the year, and the more than 1,000 from countries around the world who every year become soldiers, exchanging their civilian clothes for an IDF uniform.

At the end of 2014, there were 3,484 such soldiers in the IDF, according to army figures, including non-Israelis who joined through Machal, a program for volunteers who don’t have Israeli citizenship. Today the army has soldiers from more than 70 countries; a quarter of these foreign recruits are from the United States.

Around 2,700 are recent immigrants, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that works with Israeli immigrants. Nefesh B’Nefesh runs its Lone Soldiers Program in partnership with the army and a U.S. nonprofit group, Friends of the IDF, which provides funding for lone soldiers.

The numbers are small, but the increase last year was marked. By the end of 2014, the number of foreign lone soldiers in active service — both immigrants and non-immigrant volunteers — had increased by 330 from 2013, army figures show. That rise was a mere five soldiers the previous year and 11 the year before that.

“There’s no doubt that in the past two years we see a bigger increase than before,” a senior officer in the army’s Manpower Directorate told Haaretz.

A banner year in 2014

Among new immigrant recruits, the numbers have increased steadily between 5 and 10 percent over the last three years since Nefesh B’Nefesh founded its Lone Soldiers Program, the organization says.

Between 2002 and 2012, the average number of lone soldiers in total — both Israeli and foreign — was 5,500 a year, with a high of 6,332 in 2002 and low of 5,110 in 2005, according to army figures cited in a 2013 Knesset report. The total last year was 6,191, according to IDF figures.

One reason given for the recent jump among foreign recruits is the snowballing word-of-mouth recommendation network back home. “A friend brings a friend; these soldiers are our best ambassadors,” the senior officer says.

Meanwhile, Israel’s increasing isolation and the perceived rise in global anti-Semitism has galvanized Zionist Jews around the world to help defend the Jewish state, she says.

A full 57 percent of lone soldiers serve in combat units, both as fighters and in support roles such as combat engineering. But with many joining after college, the army often uses their maturity and language skills in intelligence roles, the senior officer says.

Women, who make up 30 percent of lone soldiers, also serve in combat units; as paramedics, for instance. “Today, girls can do almost everything, and foreign girls come highly motivated,” she says. The number of female recruits has been increasing, she adds, though the army declined to give figures.

Still, the low number of women compared to men makes sense, the senior officer says. “In most countries, women don’t go to the army .... It’s harder for parents to send a girl to a country alone to join an army,” she says. “But yes, there is an increase in women joining, also in the army in general. There is an increase in women in higher ranks and in combat roles.”

Female lone soldiers also serve in combat units as lookouts. “Today girls can do almost everything, and foreign girls come highly motivated,” the officer says.

Laura Himmelstein from Atlanta, 27, is one of the 30 percent. With a BA in business and an MA in public policy, she works in the International Cooperation Division, in a section managing the information flow with foreign militaries. She has nearly completed her one-year enlistment period, which started just before the the Gaza war last summer.

Laura Himmelstein. Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

Twenty-six when she became an Israeli citizen in 2013, she was past the age where she had to serve but insisted on volunteering, even though that meant being told what to do by 19-year-olds.

She wanted to learn Hebrew quickly, to assimilate and grasp the Israeli mentality, but her thinking was also ideological. “People can live here because others take their turn,” she says. “I wanted to take my turn.”

The Gaza war contributed “without a doubt” to the increase in lone-soldier enlistment, says Dar Iwler of the Tel Aviv branch of the Lone Soldiers Center in Memory of Michael Levin. This organization, which provides support for these soldiers, was named for a lone soldier who died in the Second Lebanon War.

Thinking back to last summer, Iwler recalls how “people arrived and said ‘I want a draft,’ or reserve soldiers came to me and said ‘I want to be on reserve duty.’ People asked me, ‘what can I do just to help in the fighting?’”

Facebook and Instagram

The majority of immigrant lone soldiers that Nefesh B’Nefesh works with come from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, France and Canada. A full 35 percent come from the States.

With soldiers sharing their experiences with family and friends back home on Facebook and Instagram, there is a greater awareness of the option, which has helped feed the increase, says a 27-year-old reserve soldier from the United States who preferred to remain nameless. “People see their friends, cousins, classmates or whatever posting pics in IDF uniforms, and it makes it seem possible,” he says.

Lone soldiers serve between six and 30 months, depending on age, sex and pathway into the army. Applying for lone-soldier status is part of the draft process; benefits include monthly salary stipends, food vouchers, and days off if parents are in town for a visit. The army also provides language classes for troops who need to brush up their Hebrew.

Meanwhile, outside the army, a range of initiatives for lone soldiers have sprung up in recent years. Garin Tzabar, which places lone soldiers together on kibbutzim, has been around since the ‘90s. The Lone Soldier Center was founded in 2009 by a group of former lone soldiers, friends of the late Michael Levin.

The Benjy Hillman Foundation, named for a soldier who fell in Lebanon, was founded in 2006 and opened its home for lone soldiers — Habayit Shel Benjy — in Ra’anana in 2013. Nefesh B’Nefesh launched its Lone Soldiers Program three years ago.

For the army, lone soldiers are seen as ambassadors, and the IDF actively tries to spread the word to potential recruits abroad through groups like Nefesh B’Nefesh.

“They are our spokesmen, they go home and explain what Israel is really like,” the senior officer says. A big part of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s work comes before future immigrants move to Israel, ensuring they are aware of what is involved once they enlist, says Eric Michaelson, vice president of the organization.

Still, though the initiatives provide support, and activities such as Passover seders and

Independence Day barbecues help foster a lone-soldier community, little can be done to soothe the rough edges of serving in a new country. Any lone soldier will tell you that homesickness is one of the toughest challenges.

Nir Katz, 29, a reserve soldier who lives in the United States and flies back annually for reserve duty on his own dime, recalls the loneliness of coming home to an empty apartment during his service. “No one is there waiting for you,” he says. “In the winter your house is cold, and it takes a few hours for the heating to get the house warm.”

For new immigrants, a second challenge comes after serving in the army: acclimatizing to civilian life. “We refer to this as aliyah shniyah” — second immigration — says Michaelson, who estimates that around 10 to 20 percent of new immigrants who find it hard to adjust leave Israel after the army.

As for the lone solider who asked to remain nameless, he probably won’t stick around after he finishes serving. Aside from the fact that his mother wants him home already, he thinks he can forge a better life across the Atlantic. There are bigger opportunities there, he says — “Thank God Jews in New York live well; there isn’t much anti-Semitism.”

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