Three ways a lone soldier can join the IDF
There are three ways a lone soldier can serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
One is Mahal (mahal-idf-volunteers.org), which operates programs for non-Israeli citizens to serve in the Israeli military. Mahal is an acronym for “Volunteers From Abroad,” and its usage dates to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Short on experienced soldiers, the newly declared Jewish state fighting for its existence recruited fighters from abroad, many of whom had recently fought in World War II. Those soldiers were known as Mahal.
Mahal has programs for nonreligious and religious participants, and requires a minimum length of service of 18 months.
Young adults — men from 18 to 25 and women 17 to 20 — who have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) are required to serve in the IDF. Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps facilitate aliyah, making the bureaucratic process much easier, offers free chartered flights for olim (immigrants) throughout the year and runs a program for enlistees that partners with the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).
The Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program (lsp.nbn.org.il) was created with the “goal of providing assistance and support to new immigrants that are required to serve in the IDF,” according to the program’s website. Its funding comes from the FIDF and the Israeli government. Required service for a lone soldier who is an Israeli citizen is longer than for a lone soldier serving through Mahal.
Many young adults who make aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh also participate in Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a partner program of Nefesh B’Nefesh. Garin Tzabar provides a more guided experience for olim required to join the military, as it places the olim on kibbutzim — adopted homes — across the country.
Garin Tzabar (garintzabar.org) events take place for the olim in their cities of origin before they embark on their aliyah journey.
All lone soldiers in the IDF serve shoulder to shoulder with one another and with soldiers from Israel. Thus, they are expected to speak fluent Hebrew and are required to participate in intensive Hebrew courses, known as ulpan, before their service.
“Because the army is a unifying force … it’s an unofficial rule they all have to speak Hebrew,” Gayle Shimoff, co-founder of the Beit Shemesh Home for Lone Soldiers, said. “There are plenty of English-speaking bilingual guys who are regular soldiers in the army who you think would help the lone soldiers, but they are not supposed to talk in English. They are supposed to talk in Hebrew.”
The army offers ulpan for free to all lone soldiers. Adam, a current lone soldier from Rockaway, N.J., bemoaned how difficult Hebrew can be. Nevertheless, he said in an interview, lone soldiers are “strongly motivated to do the best they can do.”
Adam, 22, who when he is not on base lives in the communal home in Beit Shemesh with 11 other lone soldiers, comes from the state that is the most significant producer of lone soldiers, according to Mara Tannenholz, 24, a volunteer with the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, which oversees the Lone Soldier Home in Beit Shemesh.
More lone soldiers come from the New Jersey cities Englewood and Teaneck than from any other American cities, she said in a phone interview.
Many others come from Los Angeles, Tannenholz said, though she did not have the exact figures.
Michael Meyerheim, COO of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, said that about half of the more than 6,000 lone soldiers currently serving are from outside of Israel. The numbers, however, also include soldiers from Israel who are serving without family support.
More lone soldiers from abroad come from the United States than from any other foreign country, Meyerheim said.
According to FIDF, which provides lone soldiers with financial, emotional and social support, “950 new lone soldiers join the army each year.”