Some 200 Diaspora Jews serving in the Israeli army have been quarantined to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a senior official responsible for their welfare.
To date, though, none of these so-called lone soldiers has tested positive for the coronavirus.
“They are either in quarantine because they returned from trips from abroad or because they were exposed to people who were infected,” Noya Govrin, director of the Nefesh b’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program, told Haaretz.
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution
Nefesh b’Nefesh is the organization responsible for immigration to Israel from North America. Its Lone Soldiers Program, however, assists Israel Defense Forces recruits from countries all around the world and is run in partnership with Friends of the IDF.
A special recreation facility on the northern Mediterranean coast, usually dedicated to army officers and their families, is now being used to house the lone soldiers ordered into quarantine, Govrin said. Under regulations enacted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, all Israelis returning from trips abroad must self-quarantine for 14 days.
Last Thursday, the Lone Soldiers Program held a first-of-its kind Zoom webinar for parents of the recruits to update them on how the pandemic is affecting army policy. Also participating in the webinar alongside Nefesh b’Nefesh officials were senior officers from the IDF’s human resource division and commanders specifically responsible for the lone soldiers.
“We did this because we know how challenging it is to be parents of lone soldiers, especially at times like these, and because of the many questions we were receiving,” Govrin said.
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Israeli soldiers stationed on bases away from home have not been given leave in recent weeks, in order to keep them as isolated as possible from the civilian population.
According to figures provided by Nefesh b’Nefesh, there are currently 3,048 lone soldiers in active service in the IDF. About one-third of them are from the United States, another third from the former Soviet Union and the rest are from other countries (the biggest contingent among them from France).
Despite the coronavirus crisis, Govrin said that plans to induct a relatively large group of Diaspora Jews into the army in April are still on schedule. “We have had intensive discussions with the recruits about what to expect, and they have undergone all the necessary preparations,” she said.
Typically, lone soldiers are allowed a 30-day leave each year to visit their families. Since the army has forbidden any soldiers from traveling abroad, these special furloughs for soldiers with families abroad have been suspended as well.
Last month, the army inaugurated a special support center dedicated to lone soldiers. Among other services it provides is a hotline that will operate 24/7 for those experiencing mental distress or suicidal thoughts. In 2018 and early 2019, four lone soldiers committed suicide; the death of a fifth lone soldier last year is also being investigated as a possible suicide. Their deaths drew considerable public attention to the plight of lone soldiers.
In addition, the new center is meant to serve as a contact point for parents of lone soldiers concerned about the well-being of their children and interested in reaching out to their children’s commanders.
During Thursday’s webinar organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh, parents heard from the directors of the new center.
Two weeks ago, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, sent a letter to parents of lone soldiers, hoping to reassure them that their children were in good hands.
“In the IDF, we pride ourselves in our commanders’ ability to deal with every issue regarding the welfare of our soldiers as well as the lone soldiers,” he wrote. “We will work together and update during every step, in order to reduce the anxiety and uncertainty in this challenging period as well as the upcoming holiday season.”