January 18, 2020

Sending Lone Soldiers Love from Los Angeles

Photo by M’ever Layam

Drew Leach was completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona during the Second Lebanon War in Israel in 2006. On her campus, she said her fellow students were saying horrible things about Israel, and especially about the Israeli army. Leach didn’t know how to defend the country or whether her peers knew what they were talking about. 

“I thought the only way I could know what was really going on was if I served in the Israeli army,” Leach told the Journal. “If what these people were saying was right, then I had to go and be a different kind of soldier. If they were wrong, I wanted to spread as much truth as possible about what it’s really like to be in the Israeli army.” 

When Leach arrived in Israel, she worked in the public relations department of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson’s unit, as well as the civil administration’s foreign relations department. She said she learned that there wasn’t any truth to the slander from her peers, and she saw sides of the IDF that were the complete opposite of what people had said on campus. 

While Leach had a positive experience in the IDF, being a lone soldier (a soldier from outside of Israel with no family in the country) was not always easy. She was the only American in her group, she was experiencing culture shock and she barely knew Hebrew. What comforted her was receiving care packages and letters from Congregation Bet Shalom in Minnesota, where her uncle was the rabbi. 

Receiving those packages inspired Leach, who now lives in San Pedro, to start M’ever LaYam (Over the Sea), a nonprofit that sends care packages to American lone soldiers in Israel. 

“Here’s an opportunity to continue personal connections with 25 soldiers. I’d love for our community to be able to support all the ones from L.A. this Hanukkah.” — Drew Leach

Leach, who worked for Hillel at UC Irvine and Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, started the organization in 2016. She said the lone soldiers respond to the care packages by saying things like, “This is exactly what I needed. This has given me the boost to keep going, knowing there is a community that cares about me.”

The care packages, which are sent twice a year — on Hanukkah and Yom Ha’atzmaut — contain around $60 worth of items. They are filled with American snacks, fuzzy socks and blankets. This Hanukkah, Leach put out a call to lone soldiers for specific items. She expected only 45 requests but received over 180, including 25 from Los Angeles. 

M’ever LaYam has partnered with organizations including Garin Tzabar, Families of Lone Soldiers, the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin and the Israeli-American Council in Washington, D.C. It has also partnered with local Los Angeles synagogues, schools and organizations including Sinai Temple, Or Hachaim, YULA, Hillel at CSUN and Valley Beth Shalom.

Yet despite all the local and national support, Leach said she still needs help fulfilling the orders this holiday season, so she is holding local packing parties and asking people to sponsor packages for $125 each. 

“Here’s an opportunity to continue personal connections with 25 soldiers from L.A. and more from around the country,” she said. “I’d love for our community to be able to support all the ones from L.A. this Hanukkah.”

Leach shared testimonials from a couple of lone soldiers including Letal from Beverly Hills, who has been in the IDF for nearly two years. She wrote, “When I saw the gifts, I realized how much people appreciate what I do and will always be there when I need someone. I have also received letters from the kids from Sinai [Temple] and it got me so emotional seeing little kids on my side and counting on me to protect them and be their hero.”

And Tova, who is from San Diego, is training to be an IDF officer. She received packages filled with blankets and face wash from Whole Foods. “M’ever LaYam is such a gift for lone soldiers, [and] it’s great to know that people are thinking of you from back home,” she wrote. “I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, but it’s definitely a challenging one, and just a simple box with a few items makes the world of difference.”

While Leach is focusing on the Hanukkah packages in the short term, in the future she said she’d love to expand by hiring staff and having a dedicated warehouse space for packing. Then, she could make even more of an impact on the lives of lone soldiers through M’ever LaYam.

“It’s been incredibly fulfilling and has opened my eyes to the tremendous gap in the Diaspora we need to fill when it comes to lone soldier support,” Leach said. “Each care package, letter from the community and connection really affects and increases the morale of the soldier who gets them.”  

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