newsIsrael at War

‘We are never lonely on Shabbat'

Lone soldiers tell of sense of purpose during war

Five speak about their sense of mission, how society labels them, and the Israeli bureaucracy.

From left, lone soldiers Jonathan Lambert, Rachel Cohen, Ram Neumark, Hadar Shay Omram and Daniel Gerstein. Photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv.
From left, lone soldiers Jonathan Lambert, Rachel Cohen, Ram Neumark, Hadar Shay Omram and Daniel Gerstein. Photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv.

The war in Gaza brought with it countless stories of heroism. Split-second decisions altered lives, demarcating a clear divide between before and after.

However, many decisions evaded the spotlight. While they will not be enshrined in battle narratives, they bear witness to our existence here, the conflicts we wage, and the character of our military and people, particularly the younger generation.

In recent months, Israel Hayom has chronicled the experiences of lone soldiers—those without close family in Israel who can help them—associated with the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Foundation. The objective was to tell the stories of young people who chose to enlist in the army, sometimes against all odds. This final article in the series serves to encapsulate the resilience, camaraderie and profound sense of purpose that defines the lone soldier experience.

At the foundation’s welcoming Tel Aviv headquarters, I met five soldiers who perhaps best epitomize this group. Approximately half of all lone soldiers were born in Israel and must grapple with financial hardships. Others face linguistic barriers, coming from Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox communities or having not completed 12 years of schooling.

Jonathan Lambert is a former lone soldier lacking familial support. He joined the foundation during his military service. Today, at age 23, he is a reserve soldier who was called up for the Gaza war while living in Jerusalem, with the foundation continuing to assist him.

Rachel Cohen, 22, immigrated from the United States three years ago to serve in the army through the Mahal program, intended for Jewish youth from abroad who wish to volunteer for military service. 

Similarly, Daniel Gerstein also relocated to Israel from New York seven years ago, before turning 18, with the intent of enlisting in the IDF. An emergency call-up order summoned him from upstate New York. He did not hesitate and promptly returned to do battle.

Hadar Shay Omram, 24, also lacks familial support. The foundation has been accompanying her for approximately two months since she was called up for reserve duty.

Ram Neumark moved to Israel alone from Siberia five years ago, when he was 17 years old. He expects to enlist soon.

Q: Describe the moment you decided that becoming a lone soldier was the right choice for you.

Lambert: “I stopped being religious at 13. I still lived with my family. When I completed my studies, I enlisted. There were issues with my parents and family, but I continued living with them after enlistment. Later, during my service, when I became a commander in combat engineering, I realized I needed to leave home.

“Initially, the army did not recognize me as a lone soldier, as the circumstances differ for Israelis. However, the foundation assisted me, enabling me to commence my new life. It was a natural decision for me, despite all the difficulties.”

Neumark: “My brother came to Israel before me. I always hoped to immigrate and serve in the army, and my family accepted this. Although Siberia is distant, I felt this was the army I wished to serve in. I attended a boarding school in the Jezreel Valley and subsequently joined a lone soldiers’ apartment in preparation for the commencement of my service.”

Cohen: “When I arrived alone from New York to serve in the army, people looked at me strangely. However, I don’t recall ever contemplating not serving in the Israeli army, despite all the inherent challenges.”

Gerstein: “From the moment I came to enlist, eight years ago, I disliked the term ‘lone soldier.’ It implies I am alone with no one to help me. So, I told everyone that I’m an ‘independent soldier.’ I’m quite self-reliant. I never felt truly alone.”

Omram: “I grew up in a moshav until age 12. I left with my father when my parents divorced, and I lived with him until 17. At that age, I left my father’s home, and then I was alone. I wandered briefly. At 18, when I enlisted and was permitted to sleep at the soldiers’ hostel, this saved my life. Upon joining the foundation, I understood I had a family who understood me.”

Q: Describe what it’s like being a lone soldier in two words. 

“Shabbat meal,” everyone answers.

Omram: “We’re all defined as ‘lone soldiers’—but on Shabbat, we’re never alone.”

Gerstein: “When I say I’m a lone soldier, especially with an American accent, people immediately invite me to a Shabbat meal.”

Neumark: “I haven’t yet experienced it as a soldier, but at the pre-army program, for instance, there were 40 of us, and each week, someone else would insist I join them for a Shabbat meal.”

Q: Let’s talk about Oct. 7. Where were you that dark morning when the onslaught began?

Lambert: “I was already called up for reserve duty on October 7. There’s considerable discussion about lone soldiers, but lone reservists exist as well. Since the war, I’ve been grappling alone with the Israeli bureaucracy, which truly did not anticipate having to contend with so many lone reservists.”

Gerstein: “Yes, we lack official status. They called me up on emergency orders, I flew in from New York, arrived here, and was immediately thrust into combat. However, when on home leave—where is our actual home? It’s not as though we have families here.”

Cohen: “I was supposed to be discharged midway through the war in January, but I signed on for longer service and am now scheduled for discharge in May. I recently returned from a special vacation to the U.S. Suddenly witnessing my life juxtaposed with theirs was quite strange. They cannot even fathom the experience of being inside Gaza and then leaving Gaza, not even the people closest to me.”

Q: On the battlefield, there is no difference, but when you leave Gaza or come back home you really feel it.

Neumark: “I haven’t yet experienced the army, but for me, this war crystallized my sense of purpose. I realize that I made the right decision to come here, and certainly to enlist in the army. Do you think I would have felt the same had I enlisted in the Russian army? Absolutely not.”

Gerstein: “When you leave Gaza, you’re confronted with the challenges of the Israeli bureaucracy.”

Omram: “Any difficulty I encounter—I accept it with love, whether in my personal life or the army. “

Lambert: “People who met me as a regular soldier, or who meet me now in the reserves, still do not comprehend what it means to be a lone soldier. They fail to understand why I’m not with my family. This is a predicament for all lone soldiers originating from haredi families.”

“Ultimately, like any lone soldier returning from Gaza, we lack a family to return to. Individuals like us constitute our family or the Lone Soldier Foundation that caters to our needs.”

‘Life here has meaning’

The young soldiers were brimming with pride in the shared destiny and meaning that accompanies their choice to serve in the IDF.

Q: I sense that even though the state authorities do not quite appreciate your contribution, you do not regret it for a moment.

Gerstein: “It’s a challenging and tiring experience. When we completed our service, all my friends took the first flight out of here because they said, ‘Who will care for us now, how will we manage?’ I chose to stay and fight, and I believe overall they regret that decision.

“Life here has meaning, and when you cope with the difficulties that exist here, you suddenly understand that you can handle all the other challenges in life. It’s an experience that matures you and prepares you for life.”

Omram: “As a lone soldier, you have nothing to lose. I felt that way even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which in my view was akin to a war. Ultimately, military service only advanced me in life.”

Lambert: “In many respects, lone soldiers pay the price of the society they live in, even before they become soldiers at all. And if you’re an Israeli lone soldier, it usually signifies that you come from some form of hardship or difficulty, even before the army.

“Especially if you come from a haredi family or an economically disadvantaged background. And then there are the difficulties in the army and the reality there. After the army, you return to your challenging reality as a transformed individual and essentially commence a new life in the Israeli context.”

Q: In conclusion, what is one tip you would give future lone soldiers, male and female, who will read this article? 

Neumark: “Dare to ask for help. Many people want to help. People will truly meet you halfway and be there for you. Even if it seems like you’re alone—it’s never truly like that.”

Lambert: “The foundation we’re part of is a tremendous aid. Don’t be shy to come and seek assistance from these organizations. The ultimate goal is, of course, to learn how to stand on your own two feet and cope with difficulties independently, but also to know that you have a resource here, for example, regarding rights you’re not even aware of.”

Cohen: “When I arrive at the foundation’s apartment in Jerusalem, for example, and we’re all lone soldiers, then I’m reminded that there are people who understand me and speak my language because they’ve experienced things I’ve experienced too.”

Omram: “We must always recognize the positive aspects that come with enlisting in the IDF and the associated organizations and foundations. The lives of lone soldiers are inherently difficult, and the challenges will arise regardless. However, when we seek help from the army, the foundation, or friends—we not only feel that we received assistance but also that we have a family that will accompany us throughout our lives.

“It’s unsurprising to hear that lone soldiers, male and female, go on to marry and establish families together. At the end of the day, that’s our community.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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