Concerned by a string of recent tragedies affecting Diaspora Jews serving in the Israel Defense Forces, the army is opening a new support center that will address the special needs of these so-called lone soldiers.
The move comes after a Haaretz investigation revealed serious failings in the lone soldier program. It reflects the army’s seeming resolve to take full responsibility for the plight of these recruits rather than outsource their care to private organizations that rely primarily on donors.
The new center, which will be located at the Tel Hashomer military base outside of Tel Aviv, is scheduled to be officially inaugurated at the end of February. According to army officials familiar with the project, it will have staff specially trained to handle problems that typically arise among lone soldiers before, during and immediately after their military service.
Among other services to be provided is a hotline that will operate 24/7 for lone soldiers who are experiencing mental distress or suicidal thoughts. The hotline will be staffed by mental health professionals fluent in a variety of languages. Until now, the only hotline available to lone soldiers operated during a limited number of hours on weekdays and was staffed by Hebrew-speakers only. Many lone soldiers do not speak Hebrew fluently.
“When things are going bad for a lone soldier, I want them to call us, not a private organization,” said an army official involved in the project. “If they call a private organization, that’s a sign we’ve failed.”
The hotline will also provide solutions for lone soldiers who have nowhere to sleep when they are off-base, the officials said.
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In 2018 and early 2019, four lone soldiers committed suicide, and the death of a fifth lone soldier this year is being investigated as a possible suicide. Since soldiers whose parents do not live in Israel comprise only 2 percent of all recruits to the IDF, these lone soldiers accounted for a disproportionately high share of military suicides during this period. 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.
The plan for the new center was formally approved last month by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. According to the army officials, “tens of millions” of shekels from the Manpower Directorate budget will be earmarked for its operations in 2020. The decision to set up the center, they said, reflected a major shift in the army’s approach to lone soldiers.
More 'holistic solution'
In recent years, various private organizations, established for the express purpose of assisting lone soldiers, have assumed responsibility for many of their needs, providing a range of services that include housing, Shabbat meals, mentoring, laundry and fun days. The army officials said they believed a more “holistic solution,” in which all the services would be provided under one roof, was required. They said it was their intention to bring all the private organizations active in assisting lone soldiers under this one roof.
Assisting lone soldiers, the officials added, would be deemed a “top priority” of the IDF in the coming years.
Because lone soldiers come from different countries and have different levels of proficiency in Hebrew and familiarity with Israeli culture, they noted, not one solution could be applied to all of them — which was the historical approach. “At the new center, these soldiers will find solutions that fit their particular needs,” an official involved in the venture said. “Some may prefer to live on a kibbutz, some may prefer an apartment in the city. Some may need intensive Hebrew-language classes, some may speak Hebrew fluently.”
About 6,500 lone soldiers serve in the Israeli army at any given point in time. About half of them are Israelis — mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews who have broken with their families — and about half are children of parents who live in the Diaspora. Of these, about a third come from North America, a third from the former Soviet bloc countries and a third from the rest of the world.
The Haaretz investigation, published in August, found that Israel does not undertake adequate background checks before putting these young men and women in harm’s way; that many of the young recruits do not sufficiently comprehend what military life in Israel entails; that large numbers lack the proficiency in Hebrew and familiarity with Israeli culture required for successful adaptation; and that many see the army as a form of escape from difficulties and challenges they face back home.
In addition to providing lone soldiers with a one-stop center for all their needs, the army officials said they planned to introduce changes in the vetting process of recruits coming from abroad and improving the “mental preparation” they receive before joining the army. They did not reveal specific measures.
The army was also investing considerably, they said, in educating commanders about the special needs and rights of lone soldiers. To this end, and in a rather unusual move, the IDF’s Manpower Directorate released a special video several months ago created by lone soldiers:
Garin Tzabar, an offshoot of the Israeli Scouts movement, brings hundreds of lone soldiers to Israel every year, mainly from the United States. It provides them with orientation services in their home countries as well as housing on kibbutzim once they arrive in Israel. One of the largest organizations to work with lone soldiers, Garin Tzabar takes it upon itself to evaluate candidates for military service before they arrive in Israel, in order to determine whether they are physically and mentally fit.
Haaretz has learned that in two recent cases, candidates who had been rejected by Garin Tzabar came to Israel independently to join the army, where they were admitted into combat units. One of them committed suicide late last year and the other was discharged from the army after two attempted suicides.
The army officials with whom Haaretz spoke said they had no knowledge of these specific cases, but that this strengthened their conclusion that greater coordination was required between the army and the various organizations like Garin Tzabar that work with lone soldiers.
“There’s no doubt that we need to know more about what’s happening in Garin Tzabar,” said an army official who works with lone soldiers. “When they say something is wrong, we need to do our homework.”