Coronavirus Drives Spike in Number of Diaspora Jews Volunteering for Israeli Army

Overseas applications to join the Israel Defense Forces are up almost 66 percent on the same period a year ago

Judy Maltz
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Israeli soldiers wearing protective face masks amid concerns over the country's coronavirus outbreak
Israeli soldiers wearing protective face masks amid concerns over the country's coronavirus outbreak. April 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Judy Maltz

Interest in joining the Israeli army has surged among young Diaspora Jews since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, an Israeli organization that assists so-called lone soldiers reports.

In April and May, the Lone Soldiers Program – a partnership between Nefesh B’Nefesh and the U.S.-based Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) – said it received applications from 282 army-age Diaspora Jews, an increase of nearly two-thirds from the same two-month period last year.

Although Nefesh B’Nefesh only handles aliyah from North America on behalf of the Israeli government, the Lone Soldiers Program includes participants from around the world. Typically, about one-third are from North America and another third are from the former Soviet bloc countries. The program provides support and guidance for soldiers who do not have parents in Israel, with its services including preparatory workshops and seminars before enlistment.

According to figures provided by the Lone Soldiers Program, more than three-quarters of the applicants in April and May did not reside in Israel, but more than half of them reported being interested in immigrating this year. Participants in the program are not required to immigrate. Several hundred participants each year are enlisted in Machal, a program for army volunteers who do not hold Israeli citizenship and are obliged to leave the country after they complete their military service, which is significantly shorter than the standard 32/24 months for Israeli men and women.

Asked how she accounted for the increase, Lone Soldiers Program Director Noya Govrin said it reflected a general surge in interest in aliyah since the outbreak of the pandemic in March.

Young North American immigrants arriving in Israel in 2016 prior to commencing their service in the Israel Defense Forces.
Young North American immigrants arriving in Israel in 2016 prior to commencing their service in the Israel Defense Forces. Credit: Hannah Korelitz

“There are many different reasons why many young men and women are now looking into making aliyah,” she said in an email. “Quality of life in Israel, especially for young people, is considered very good. The cost of universities and master’s degree programs are reasonable, and the cost of living here is comparable. Many of them are flexible and view the disruptions happening in the United States as an opportunity to do something significant with their lives and contribute to the Jewish state. Additionally, they are seeing a less restricted lifestyle in Israel as opposed to their native countries.”

Army-age immigrants are typically given a year to acclimate themselves and learn Hebrew before they are drafted. They are allowed, however, to ask to expedite their draft date – which many do.

In recent months, the number of young Diaspora Jews applying to gap-year programs in Israel has also increased dramatically. This has been attributed to concerns that college campuses in the United States and elsewhere may not open in the fall because of the pandemic, and perhaps not even next spring. Many young adults of college age, especially in the United States, are reluctant to pay the high costs of tuition when they cannot enjoy a full campus experience and are, therefore, looking for other options until the health crisis is resolved. For young Jews, programs in Israel – whether educational or military – appear to be attractive options.

According to figures provided by the Lone Soldiers Program, 3,054 Diaspora Jews are currently serving in the Israeli army. This includes 969 recruits from the United States, 472 from Russia, 463 from Ukraine, 173 from France, 108 from Canada, 88 from the United Kingdom, 71 from Brazil, 69 from South Africa and 40 from Australia.

Many lone soldiers come to Israel through Garin Tzabar, an offshoot of the Israeli Scouts movement. The organization brings them to Israel in large groups and, among other services, provides them with housing, typically on kibbutzim. Garin Tzabar brings groups twice a year, in the winter and summer, after participants have completed special preparatory workshops in their home countries. The biggest group comes every year in August. All participants in Garin Tzabar undergo vetting by officers from the IDF manpower division and are required to attend four weekend-long workshops before they arrive in Israel.

A spokesperson for the organization, Ronan Kaplan, said that close to 300 IDF recruits would be arriving in August – about the same number as last year. Because of the pandemic, he said, two of the workshop sessions were held through videoconferencing, as were some of the interviews with IDF recruitment officers.

Since members of the cohort arriving in August began their recruitment process before the pandemic broke out, it is still too early to speculate about how participation in Garin Tzabar has been affected.

The Israeli government has given recently discharged lone soldiers a special “coronavirus grant” of 4,000 shekels ($1,160), to help tide them over until they land jobs. Unemployment in Israel is currently running at over 25 percent.

The Israeli army set up a special center several months ago dedicated to helping lone soldiers and their families. This followed a Haaretz investigation that revealed serious failings in the recruitment process of lone soldiers and in the army’s ability to address their special needs.

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