Ari and Ruth Jungreis’s spacious Lawrence backyard is a long way from the Israel Defense Forces bases strategically positioned across the Jewish state, but no less connected: The Friends of the IDF held a fundraising barbecue in the Five Towns on Sept. 15, and raised more than $500,000.
More than 100 people attended, along with a young woman from Woodmere. Celia, 20, is a sergeant in an IDF combat unit who is also working with soldiers in basic training. Identified only by her first name for security concerns, Celia is a “lone soldier,” one of nearly 7,000 who serve in the IDF — a non-Israeli or a native of Israel whose family does not support his or her military service.
Lone soldiers come from 70 countries. Roughly 1,000 are from the United States, and 200 from New York state, a number of them from the Five Towns. Pninit Cole, the FIDF director of Long Island, noted that 50 lone soldiers have come from those South Shore communities in the past two years.
FIDF was established in 1981, by a group of Holocaust survivors, to help the soldiers. Steve Weil is its current chief executive officer. An ordained rabbi, he goes by Steve in the office. Recruited by a portion of the organization’s board, Weil, an FIDF donor, has been its CEO for the past year. “This community is an incredibly Zionistic community,” he said of the Five Towns, “and it’s a community that cares about all Jews.”
“Israel spends over 15 percent of its gross domestic product on military because of the challenges of the Shia and Sunni [Muslims], the enemies that are trying to destroy Israel,” Weil said before the fundraiser began. “No other country spends anywhere near that.” In comparison, Great Britain spends 3.5 percent, Germany, 2.2 percent, and Hungary, 1.1 percent, Weil said.
With Israel’s economy thus burdened, the FIDF fills a hole by providing an array of services, including guidance and support for lone soldiers — flights to visit family and friends in their countries of origin, a 24-hour call center for soldiers and their parents, grants and financial assistance, holiday gift packages and vouchers, Shabbat and holiday meals, social networks and gatherings for soldiers and parents, post-service scholarships for those who are eligible, fun and recreation days, and apartments across Israel.
There are also socio-economic challenges, Weil said, because roughly half of the lone soldiers come from families below or hovering at the poverty level in Israel.
The FIDF offers an educational program in which a soldier can earn a high school diploma and then fund a university or trade school education. In return, the soldier is obligated to perform 130 hours per year of community service equal to the number of years they attended university.
“It’s a feeling of giving back, of helping Israel, and ‘never again’ can only happen if we give back,” Cole said as she ensured that the details of the barbecue were being smoothed out. She added that eight Great Neck residents from the same street are lone soldiers.
Celia, a graduate of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway middle school and high school, headed to Israel for the usual seminary year before college. Then her life took an unexpected turn.
“I was supposed go to Stern College for Women in Manhattan, like most girls my age do after seminary,” Celia said as she sat at one of the tables set up for the barbecue, with white tablecloths. “It was always in the back of my mind to draft because my brothers drafted.” Her brothers became lone soldiers a few years ago. Both completed their service.
She grew up in a family that she described as very Zionist and religious, and they moved to Israel when Celia was in second grade. “We loved it,” she said of living in Ra’anana, in the central district of the country.
The experience was hard on the family, however, with her father continuing to work in Manhattan and commuting every 10 days to three weeks from Israel to New York. The family eventually returned to the U.S.
“Every year we would do something for the [Israeli] soldiers, like write them letters on the holidays,” recalled Celia, who has served for 20 months so far. “A couple of times, me and my family visited bases in Israel and would bring them snacks. We love the soldiers, we love Israel, but I always felt like, what are we actually doing? Not doing enough.”
That spirit is what IDF Reserve Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan, who recently became the FIDF’s national director, saw in lone soldiers in his 36 years of military service. “It is a very colorful group,” he said, noting that he had hundreds of them under his command over the course of his career. “There are a lot of people with different wills and vision,” said Padan, who is retiring from the military next month.
“But for all of them, the service is a greater challenge than any other,” Padan added. “At the beginning, it’s like a summer camp the first few weeks. After a few months it becomes quite hard. They came with a lot of energy — ‘We’ll do that, that, that.’ At the end of the day, they have to do their own laundry, make their own food, find out where to have Shabbat. It’s a different challenge.”
Celia, who has her own apartment and is visited by her family and friends, had to overcome language challenges, including learning Israeli slang. That helped her when she began training other lone soldiers, including a few Americans. “That was even more meaningful, because I know exactly what they’re going through,” she said.
Her friends who are nearing the end of their college years are proud of her, Celia said. “I just personally feel I’ll get to school, [but] right now was the only time in my life that I can do something like this,” she said. “I also decided to become a commander because personally, for me, the job is so meaningful.”
Meaningful enough that Celia, whose required service ends in December, might re-enlist through March. “After the army, I want to study in Israel, stay there, go to university — not sure which one,” she said, adding that studying business or psychology could be her future path.
For more about the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, go to www.fidf.org.