(February 26, 2017 / JNS) By Lori Lowenthal Marcus/JNS.org
Part of the widely admired strength of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) comes from the military’s many “lone soldiers,” who leave their homes and families abroad in order to help protect the Jewish homeland. Now, some women in this group may receive a boost to their ability to serve.
Significant media attention has focused on Israeli lone soldiers in recent years, particularly after two American-born soldiers (Max Steinberg of California and Sean Carmeli of Texas) were killed in the 2014 Gaza war. There are currently three “homes” that provide lone soldiers with communal living quarters, camaraderie and support.
Yet there is one large segment of this group that doesn’t receive the same attention—nor some of the same resources—as the rest of their peers. Until now, female lone soldiers have not enjoyed the same type of group residential facilities as their male counterparts. But that is likely about to change.
“The IDF would not exist today as a functioning army without its female soldiers,” said Josh Flaster, national director of The Lone Soldier Center – In Memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit that assists lone soldiers before, during and after their army service. “Every soldier is taught to shoot or is taught other essential aspects of combat or military preparedness and fitness by female instructors.”
‘Behind the scenes’ contributions
Female soldiers’ existing key support role in the IDF was amplified during the past 18 months upon the creation of two new combat divisions that almost completely consist of women. The divisions comprise 2,000 soldiers. Previously, women could pursue combat roles through units such as the IDF’s nearly two-decade-old coed Caracal battalion.
“When people think of the IDF, they picture a guy with a gun in a combat unit, but they have no idea what happens behind the scenes,” said former lone soldier Dana Grob, a native of New York’s Long Island region who made aliyah at age 22.
What isn’t apparent to most observers, she explained, is the Israeli military’s vast combat support system—comprised largely of female soldiers.
“I was a search-and-rescue instructor. I taught guys in combat units. The girls get overlooked, although our role is critically important,” Grob said.
Lone soldier Nechama (whose last name cannot be published because she is still serving), who will be 22 next month, is part of a missiles unit in the Israeli Air Force. Originally from London, she made aliyah in 2014.
“I’m an Israeli with a British past, not a British person,” Nechama responds when asked if she plans to return to England after finishing her military service.
The challenges of being off-duty
When Israeli-born soldiers are off-duty, they can return to their families for home-cooked meals, and to have their laundry and shopping done for them. If they get sick or injured, they can visit their regular doctors with little hassle, and they have families to look after them.
But lone soldiers have no experience with the Israeli medical system and nobody to help them navigate it. There are no home-cooked meals or supportive parent-like figures waiting to greet them when they go off-duty. They do all their own shopping, cooking and cleaning in the short time they are not on their base. Israeli-born soldiers, meanwhile, can focus on what they need most—sleeping or socializing.
Grob broke her foot last year during a training exercise. The kibbutz where she lived while off-duty is not set up to take care of sick soldiers or soldiers with disabilities, and it’s extremely difficult to carry a bag filled with groceries or laundry while on crutches. After some tough months under those circumstances, Grob couldn’t wait to get back on her military base.
Prospects for a new home
To address these problems and to augment its own staff’s efforts to mitigate them, beginning in 2015, the Lone Soldier Center created an independent home for male lone soldiers, and has since added two more facilities. Women—who comprise 40 percent of the IDF and about one-third of the military’s lone soldiers, according to center head Flaster—have had no such home to date.
But the Lone Soldier Center is now actively engaged in the process of acquiring a private home to accommodate up to 10 female soldiers. The organization has a current fundraising goal of $60,000 for the project. The home will be fully furnished and stocked with everything necessary to sustain the troops when they are off base. Just as with the male soldiers’ homes, the facility for women will have a “house mother” who will prepare kosher meals and provide the kind of adult supervision and support that so many lone soldiers sorely miss.
“I really could have used the kind of support system a bayit l’chayalot (home for female soldiers) will provide,” Grob said. “People are wonderful about donating fleeces to keep us warm, or pizzas for those doing late-night guard duty, but having an actual home in a central location, with laundry facilities and an adviser who can help with practical or just emotional support, is even more important.”
Nechama added, “It’s so hard for a lone soldier to find a place that is affordable and in a central location—to have the camaraderie of other soldiers in the same home would make our lives so much easier.”
“We would not have the IDF, we would not even have our state,” said Flaster, “were it not for the females serving in our military.”