Benji Hillman, who grew up in London and made aliyah with his family when he was four, was an officer in the Golani Brigades Egoz commando unit. He was killed during the Second Lebanon War at age 26, just one month after his wedding.
During the shiva, the issue of lone soldiers came up repeatedly as his family learned that Benji had spent much time and energy caring for the lone soldiers in his charge. Almost immediately, the family decided that the best way to keep Benjis legacy alive would be to build a residence for lone soldiers. We believe that this is what Benji would have wanted us to do, asserts Saul Rurka, Benjis cousin and a high-tech entrepreneur who dedicated the better part of six years to turning HaBayit shel Benji into reality.
A proper home
Lone soldiers are defined as anyone serving in the IDF who is not in contact with his or her family or whose family does not live in Israel. There are approximately 5,000 lone soldiers at any given time, of which 1,000 serve as combat soldiers. About 40% of the lone soldiers are native Israelis, who often cope with difficult personal circumstances, while the remaining 60% consist of Jews from the Diaspora who came to Israel by themselves to serve in the army.
Hundreds of lone soldiers dont have a proper home to return to during their leaves from the army – somewhere that can attend to their emotional as well as to their physical needs. While they are often adopted by kibbutzim, these arrangements are frequently not ideal. And the Soldier Homes run by the Association for the Wellbeing of Israels Soldiers are essentially hostels where soldiers can spend the night on a first-come first-serve basis – great for a weekend, but certainly not a long-term solution.
After having visited HaBayit shel Benji, it is clear that Benji would have been extremely proud of his family. It is a lovely new building located in Raanana that was inaugurated in February 2013 and which radiates a friendly, cozy atmosphere. It was clearly designed with a single goal: to provide a true home for lone combat soldiers. While it currently houses 48 lucky residents free-of-charge for their entire army service, funds are being raised in the hopes of adding another floor, which would make it possible to welcome 30 more lone soldiers.
Hundreds of volunteers
Lone soldiers are referred to HaBayit shel Benji by the IDFs Lone Soldier Department. Each soldier receives his own room in a two-bedroom suite that includes a shared living area and a bathroom. The rooms look like a real home, with a large bed, a TV on the wall and cupboards. Since each resident receives a room for several years, they have a secure place to store their possessions, and many add personal touches.
The homes common areas include a pleasant dining room where volunteers prepare and serve three meals a day; a large club room with a billiard table and work-out equipment as well as a large-screen TV and cozy living room furniture; and an entrance lobby with comfortable chairs and tables. We believe that lone soldiers should get the same treatment as regular combat soldiers who come home to their families on weekends, says Rurka.
Volunteers take turns at the front desk, working 24/7 in four-hour shifts, while others work in the kitchen. We have hundreds of active volunteers in addition to five full-time staff and two girls from Sherut Leumi (National Service), notes Rurka. The Raanana community has welcomed the lone soldiers into their town. In fact, each lone soldier has a laundry family from the community that picks up their dirty laundry whenever their soldier arrives and returns it clean and ironed within 24 hours.
While planning HaBayit shel Benji, Rurka travelled overseas and met many former lone soldiers who had returned to their native countries after completing their service in the IDF. When he asked them why they didnt remain in Israel, they unanimously replied that they simply didnt know what to do in Israel after the army. This revelation led Rurka to establish a guidance center, and today over 100 soldiers (not only those living in HaBayit shel Benji) receive guidance about careers, university, finding jobs, dealing with Israeli bureaucracy and more, in the buildings special guidance center. Each soldier is assigned a mentor who helps them navigate the hurdles they will face after they are discharged. There are 60-70 volunteer mentors at the guidance center, who provide advice and support in a large variety of fields.
The NGO has recently launched a new project in an attempt to deal with the huge waiting list. Lone combat soldiers for whom there are no available rooms at HaBayit shel Benji will be matched with adoptive families in the Raanana/Herzliya area. The idea is that they will be given their own room in a familys home but will be able to spend time at HaBayit shel Benji and participate in social activities. They will be part of the HaBayit shel Benji family,explains Rurka, but its important to check the families carefully and make sure they are compatible. For example, Anglo families often want to adoptan Anglo soldier.
40 children fighting
HaBayit shel Benji relies entirely on donations. It was built thanks to generous donors from around the world, with major support from The Legacy Heritage Fund (New York). Now that the project is up and running, it costs about two million sheqels a year to maintain the home and guidance center. Rurka is proud of the management team and its efforts to reduce costs while providing first-class services and amenities to the soldiers.
In addition to ongoing fundraising efforts, the Benji Hillman Foundation organizes an annual Walkathon in Raanana, where thousands of people raise money for the NGO by participating in the hike.
This past summer has been especially stressful for the staff and volunteers at HaBayit shel Benji. We all felt that we had 40+ children fighting. Whereas families who had one child fighting in Gaza experienced more than enough anxiety, we were worried about all our soldiers. We feel blessed that, except for a few scrapes and bruises, all of them came home safely, says Rurka.
What the residents have to say:
A.M., a lone female combat soldier from Russia: From day one I felt as though this was my home. I met amazing and loving people: the staff, the volunteers, and the other soldiers. The home itself is beautiful. It has everything I needed: delicious food lovingly prepared by volunteers, a room that was always clean and tidy, a club room where I could hang out with other soldiers and watch TV, staff that loves and cares for everyone, endless orders of pizza, fun weekends that were organized especially for us, and many other things.
Yitzchak, a lone combat soldier from Brazil: I am a new immigrant from Brazil and had the privilege of living in HaBayit shel Benji and getting to know the amazing people who work so hard on a daily basis. I was recently released from the Golani Brigade and since then every step I have taken has been with the help of my mentor from the Guidance Center in HaBayit shel Benji. I found a flat, furniture and work and I am planning to study next year. All these things were made possible with the assistance of the Guidance Center and my mentor. And this is just the beginning!
O.U., a lone combat soldier from Israel: I grew up in boarding schools and I can truly say that HaBayit shel Benji gave me something that no other place gave me – the feeling that I was HOME, a place where people cared about me, who were there for me but also knew how to give me my space.
For more information about HaBayit shel Benji, go to www.benjihillman.org or call 09-7712723.