Diaspora Jews serving in the Israeli army can now sign up for extra time without actually serving. The offer, being extended to soldiers who are close to their discharge date, is meant to provide them with a safety net until the job market recovers from the coronavirus crisis.
Unemployment in Israel is running at nearly 25 percent, with many sectors closed down because of the measures still in place to stem the spread of the pandemic. In the past week, the government has started easing restrictions, but the country is still far from a return to normal.
The special offer allows so-called lone soldiers to extend their service by three months. All lone soldiers who would have been discharged from early April until the end of May can qualify for the benefit. Compulsory military service for men in Israel is two years and eight months and for women two years.
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About 6,500 lone soldiers serve in the army at any given time. About half of them come from countries outside of Israel, and about half are Israeli-born but have no family to care for them.
According to a senior Israel Defense Forces source, some 150 lone soldiers had already accepted the offer to extend their service. “We understood that we are dealing with a unique type of event,” she said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic, “and that many lone soldiers were anxious about making a transition into civilian life at a time like this. This is a population that deserves special attention.”
During the three-month extension period, the soldiers will not have to report to their bases and will be able to collect all the benefits they would usually receive, including a salary from the army and rent subsidies.
“Kudos to the army for thinking about this,” said Noya Govrin, director of the Nefesh B’Nefesh — FIDF Lone Soldier Program. Nefesh B’Nefesh facilitates Jewish immigration from North America, but its program for lone soldiers includes participants from Diaspora communities around the world.
“Hopefully, this special benefit will prevent a situation where these soldiers fall into a vacuum because there are no work opportunities available and they have no money to pay rent,” Govrin said.
In February, the army inaugurated a special support center dedicated to lone soldiers. Among other services it provides is a hotline that operates 24/7 for those experiencing mental distress or suicidal thoughts. In 2018 and early 2019, four lone soldiers committed 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 who are interested in reaching out to their children’s commanders.