by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
Since its rebirth 72 years ago, Israel has navigated a grim reality. “If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up the situation. For this reason, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) exists.
At any given time, tens of thousands of Israelis form part of the army that guards the Promised Land from those who seek her destruction. The vast majority of soldiers hail from cities, towns and communities anywhere from the Golan Heights on the northernmost border to the Negev Desert in the south. However, a small percentage of the servicemen and women in khaki are not originally Israeli and have not always called the Jewish state home. And while the duty of guarding the Promised Land is therefore not strictly theirs, they choose to leave the countries of their birth, move to Israel without their families and make the responsibility their own. These extraordinary men and women are the lone soldiers of the IDF.
According to the Lone Soldier Center, some 7,000 lone soldiers—servicemen or women with no family support in Israel—currently serve in the IDF. Nearly half are native Israelis who have no backing from their families. The remaining half are non-Israelis of Jewish background—new immigrants or volunteers born and raised in the Diaspora (the Jewish population outside Israel)—with no immediate family support in the Promised Land.
While the commitment to protect is certainly honorable, the option to serve as a lone soldier hardly seems like the most logical—let alone uncomplicated—path to choose. Those who opt to enlist bid farewell to the refuge of home, loved ones and a country at peace. They swap security, familiarity and a life of seeming ease for grueling training, rough sleeping, living off rations and following commands—all in a new language—to don the uniform of an army that defends the people in the crosshairs of every rough terror group and extremist nation in the neighborhood.
Faced with these options, what prompts thousands of Jewish youths to pack their bags for a future of uncertainty? A former lone soldier, Emanuel Miller, shares his story.
Miller grew up in London as part of an Orthodox Jewish family, surrounded by a community that holds the land pledged to their patriarchs by the Almighty in special regard. “Israel has always been part of my Jewish identity,” he explains. Being Jewish, he holds, entails an eternal heart connection with the Jewish homeland.
The Millers traveled to Israel often to visit family who had made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) and by the time he was a teenager, Israel felt like a second home. Then came the five bloody years of the Second Intifada (uprising), when Palestinian hatred turned Israeli city streets into raging infernos. While international visitors gave the Promised Land a wide berth, Miller’s family trips continued. The terrible time opened his eyes to a disturbing reality. “I realized there was a war going on and that the targets are Jews. I might not be in the direct firing line because I lived in London, but the terrorists’ hate toward me was no different from their hatred toward my fellow Jews.”
By the time Miller was 16, his mind was made up. “I felt strongly that I wanted to make aliyah and serve in the IDF.” His parents soon saw that their son’s vision was more than a 16-year-old’s dreams of adventure and rallied behind him. His proud parents came to every important army ceremony, Miller shares, and today, a picture of their son wearing the IDF uniform still adorns their fridge.
Miller moved to Israel as soon as he finished school and studied in a religious school for a year before drafting into one of the IDF’s tank units. “After a few month’s training,” he laughs, “I was given my ‘tank license’ and became a driver.”
The transition from British civilian to Israeli soldier went smoothly, he remembers. Since lone soldiers do not have parents in Israel welcoming them home on the weekend, home cooked meals on Shabbat (Sabbath) or a mother to wash dirty uniforms, the army goes the extra mile to help the soldiers settle. Lone soldiers receive subsidized rent, monetary grant, food vouchers, international phone cards, gifts on holidays and more time off than regular serviceman or woman to take care of personal affairs.
Miller admits that some Israelis react with disbelief to his decision of volunteering to serve in the IDF. “Sometimes they think I’m crazy. Why would I go through all that? But the majority response is usually ‘Kol hakavod!’ (well done!). They think it is incredible, inspiring.”
Despite the sacrifice of leaving the comfort of home and familiarity behind, Miller points out that lone soldiers aren’t the only heroes. “I salute the Israeli soldiers,” he explains. Numbers 8:1–3 speaks of “Aaron lighting the candles of the menorah [seven-branched candelabra] every day. He’s fastidious. The actions of someone who doesn’t need to do something, who volunteers, are admirable, but there’s also something admirable in somebody who must do something and finds renewed energy and fervor to do the same thing time in, time out. They can get tired, and yet they do it. Lone soldiers are inspiring. But Israeli soldiers are no less so.”
While Miller has completed his mandatory service and hung up his uniform, his drive to guard the Jewish state remains. Today, the young man who left London to come protect the Promised Land as a lone soldier works as a writer/researcher for HonestReporting, an organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the media.
Having faced the challenges, made the sacrifice and enjoyed the fruit of being a lone soldier, would he choose the same path again? “Absolutely!” he laughs. “No question. I live in a country where I’m not made to feel inferior or worried about expressing my Jewish identity. I feel safer here than I would in England. I’m happy here. There’s so much to be grateful for. I’m blessed.”
Within a year of completing his army service, Miller made aliyah and enrolled as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He describes this time as “a tough experience,” having to fend for himself for the first time in his life. Bridges for Peace came alongside this brave young man to help ease the burden by providing a monthly bus pass and weekly food packages. “I was lucky and remain deeply grateful to Bridges for Peace…”
You can help make a difference in the lives of new immigrants like Miller as they adjust to life in Israel by donating generously to our Adoption program.
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