Recently my husband I visited our daughter, Lily, in Israel, where she is studying and volunteering in Tel Aviv. Before we left New York, though, we had decided we would spend our one Shabbat in Israel in Jerusalem, but that meant figuring out what to do for Friday night dinner.
The rabbinate doesn’t allow kosher restaurants to open, even if you prepay, which some kosher places do in other parts of the world. And dining in the hotel, well, it just didn’t seem like Shabbat.
So, what to do?
Surprisingly, my job presented an unexpected answer. I work for JCC Association, the national leadership organization for more than 350 JCCs, YM-YWHAs and camps in North America. And it turned out that our organization’s Israel Center was hosting a trip for JCCs participating in its Israel Enhancement Seminar, a program designed to strengthen the connection between JCCs and Israel, by encouraging JCCs to think creatively about their approach to the Jewish homeland. The trip was a culmination of that work and it was going to be overlapping my own personal visit to Israel.
It turned out that participants in this seminar would be having Shabbat dinner at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin in Jerusalem the same Friday I, my husband and daughter needed someplace to dine. We decided to join the JCC group, which included 20 lay and professional representatives from 16 JCCs across North America — including several cities in New York, Georgia, Texas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and Canada — and several young men and women who serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Lone Soldiers are those young men and women who have made aliyah, that is, have decided to immigrate to Israel and serve in the military. Those who have no close family to provide places for weekend visits, washers and dryers for laundry, and yes, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, are connected to the Lone Soldier Center, which serves as a surrogate family during the two or three years that these young men and women do their military service. Representatives from the Lone Soldier Center (LSC) will show up when these recruits complete their training and receive their corps beret, making a small party for them. This is something that their Israeli counterparts take as a matter of course, that family will show up that day for them. But the Lone Soldiers haven’t got that kind of network; and although Israelis may share their families and parties, the Lone Soldiers appreciate the center’s support, as well as other social events the center organizes while they serve. The center also provides guidance for Lone Soldiers during the military service and helps them get started with their lives in Israel once their time in the army has been completed.
I have written about the LSC in the past, and as a Camp Ramah family, had heard about it — and its namesake — even before that. The Center is named for Michael Levin, who had spent many years as a camper and staff member at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, made aliyah in 2002 and became a paratrooper. In 2006, while he was home on vacation, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah when terrorists from that organization crossed the border into Israel and ambushed an IDF patrol, killing five reservists and taking hostage Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser (or their remains). Levin cut his vacation short and rejoined his unit, dying in combat on August 1.
So the stakes are high. And it’s hard to grasp what would make young men and women up and leave comfortable lives to serve in Israel’s military, even though I know several who have done so.
That Shabbat we heard from them firsthand. They come from London, Toronto, Mexico City. One young man came from New York, another from Brazil, and one young woman, from Harlingen, Texas. They worked in a variety of units: Navy Seals, hasbara (communications), paratroopers, sharpshooters. One young woman works with soldiers who serve but who are not halachically Jewish, and she helps them in their conversion process. There are more than 7,000 converts, she said, in the IDF.
We found ourselves seated across from Izzy, who hailed from the Spring Valley area (of course!) because as I like to say, wherever you go, you find Rockland, the very Jewish New York county in which we live. Izzy grew up in a yeshivshe family, yet he always wanted to be a U.S. Marine. One of his friends joined the IDF, though, and made him think about his desire to serve a bit more.
American military go to other lands to work for democracy there, he said, standing before us in the LSC’s office, which had been set up for dinner. That was an OK mission in his eyes, but it wasn’t a cause that called to him. The way he saw it, that didn’t really involve defense. Being in the Israeli army means that he protects the lives and rights of Jews everywhere.
That was something — as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — that spoke to him.
He was not the only Lone Soldier descended from those who survived the Shoah. One young man from London said that his grandmother was one of seven children and the only one to make it out of the Auschwitz death camp alive. She always imagined going to Israel, he said, but she never made it, dying before she could realize that dream.
He was there for her.
One young man spoke in halting English and had trouble articulating his story. He grew up in Israel, in a haredi family – a stringently observant, black hat family. Those families tend not to serve in Israel’s military and it is a point of political contention, and even caused a riot in Mea Shearim, a chasidic neighborhood, a few days after this dinner.
When he chose to enlist in the IDF, his family cut him off for serving the state of Israel. Another Lone Soldier, Ari, explained further: “He is doing the right thing. Many of us are from the United States and Europe, and even though our families are far away, they are only a phone call away. He is only 10 minute from home, but he is completely on his own.”
And the Lone Soldier Center, which has locations in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, addresses that need. The monthly Shabbat dinners are one way, and this one was crowded, with more soldiers signing up for dinner than anticipated once they heard guests were coming. We sat at long tables crammed into the office, with a mish-mash of folding and office chairs crowded around them. The food was delicious but plain, not like the admittedly over-the-top Shabbat dinners I often post to Facebook. But there was a sweet sense of community from the soldiers, and a genuine sense of curiosity and respect from the JCC visitors.
It definitely was unique. I don’t think I had ever eaten Shabbat dinner before seated across from someone who had an assault rifled slung across his lap.
As a native Texan, I was taken with the girl from Harlingen, a south Texas city a little more than 30 miles from the Mexican border. According to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, Harlingen, like many small towns through the South, attracted Eastern European Jewish merchants who succeeded there as the town became a shipping and industrial center. The sole synagogue in the area, Congregation Beth Israel, was founded in 1927 in nearby Mercedes, and at that time catered to families in 16 nearby towns. The communities didn’t even build the actual synagogue until 1936, when there were 315 families in the congregation. It also served nearby servicemen from an air force base that has since closed. Today there are about 100 families, many of them Mexican converts who believe their ancestors were Jews forced to convert in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.
Despite the small size of the community, this young woman clearly had a strong sense of identity that sent her across the ocean to Israel, looking for her people. I can imagine Harlingen could be a pretty lonely place growing up Jewish. She had clearly found an antidote, and her people, in the IDF and in Israel.
And the Lone Soldier Center made that journey anything but lonely for them. And for us, too. Because for that one night, it provided food and family and a Shabbat we would not soon forget.