In the past few months, I have spent 3 Shabbatot with Israeli lone soldiers. For those who may not be familiar with this term, a “lone soldier” is defined as one whose parents live outside of Israel. These guys – and girls – are amazing people. They are all young, smart, energetic, highly motivated and, in most cases, not only do theirparentslive outside Israel but every sibling as well! These soldiers are literally all alone. Many of them have nowhere to go when the army gives them a few days off. Some crash on a friend’s couch while others have “adopted” families who take them in. These friends do their laundry (sometimes 3 weeks of nasty, army laundry that makes your kid’s post-camp laundry look and smell good!) and these friends also give them Shabbat meals. While this is an amazing act of chessed on the part of these friends, nothing can replace a mother’s or father’s embrace after weeks of grueling training and army service. Nevertheless, these soldiers love the decision they made and wouldn’t change it for the world.
The 3 Shabbatot I spent with them were all quite different. One of the Shabbatot was spent in my community of Herziliya with 12 of these lone soldiers. We arranged housing by different families and they all had a chance to meet my neighbors. They spoke in my shul, introduced themselves and made a wonderful impression on all who met them. The other 2 Shabbatot was reversed; meaning that my wife and I went to spend Shabbat with them. The most recent one was this past Shabbat which was so amazing… I simply did not want it to end!
I am sure that most of you are familiar with the Emek Refaim section of Jerusalem. This area has probably set some kind of world record with about 75 kosher restaurants in a 4 block radius. I am not sure that there is such a category in the Guinness Book of World Records but when there finally is one, “Emek” wins hands down. What you probably do not know, however, is that just a few months ago – in the middle of these restaurants, yogurt shops and waffle bars – a very important home opened up called “The Emek Lone Soldiers Center”. This center serves as a true home-away-from-home for these wonderful lone soldiers. There are 2 bedrooms for many of them to sleep, a fully stocked kitchen to make meals and a beautiful large room for them to learn, read and relax. The location can’t be beat and this center has become an instant hit among the lone soldiers who frequent Jerusalem. But there’s more… one major thing that sets this lone soldiers center apart from all others.
The Emek Lone Soldiers Center focuses – not only on the physical needs of the soldiers – but on their spiritual needs as well. I call this place, the “Aish HaTorah” of the lone soldiers world because in addition to everything stated above, they teach the soldiers Torah, give them a warm and heimish environment and help with cleaning their souls – not just their laundry!
The Shabbat we spent reflected these values. We welcomed Shabbat with a wonderful Carlebach davening and the young men were singing and dancing to all the tunes. Even though Shabbat starts late these days, nobody looked at their watches and the singing went on for a nice long time. When we sat down for the Friday night meal we all introduced ourselves and I was amazed at the wide range of young men who were seated before me. There was a soldier from Spain, one from Germany and one from… Zimbabwe. Yes, you read that correctly. In addition there were 2 young Lubavitcher chassidim from London, a few guys from California, Denver, Omaha and New York. All of these men are serving in very serious IDF combat units ranging from Golani to Egoz to Nahal Haredi. They all have smiling faces and are young in body and spirit. Every one of them has a story and listening to them is simply incredible. They invited me to spend Shabbat with them so that I might inspire them but in the end, they inspired me 100 times more! They left their families, their education and their friends just to join an IDF combat unit. I must stress that this is not a joke. In the last war in Gaza, 3 of the soldiers killed were lone soldiers. They are in the same army as the Israeli boys, with the same training. Nobody goes easy on them and their limited Hebrew makes things very difficult. Nevertheless, they don’t regret their decision for one second.
My wife and I enjoyed every second of each of these 3 Shabbatot. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the head and founder of the program, Rabbi Shalom Myers and told him that he is to bring his soldiers to Herziliya again since the entire community can’t stop talking about these guys! Rabbi Myers is a very interesting individual himself. He was born and raised in South Africa and won the Bible contest in that country back in 1973. He taught in Ohr Sameyach for 14 years and is the proud father of three sons who served in elite combat units in the IDF. One of his sons was also a top officer in the Paratroopers. Rabbi Myers uses his expertise in education, outreach and love for soldiers in everything he does with this center and the lone soldiers are like his children.
Here’s a suggestion: Next time you are in Jerusalem, spend some time in this Emek Lone Soldiers Center. Get to know the people who run it and the young soldiers who call this place home. Sing with them, learn Torah with them and daven with them. I promise you will be inspired and uplifted. And then, after you are motivated and energized, go to one of the stores on Emek and grab yourself a yogurt, or a waffle, or a bagel, or a milkshake, or a steak, or a burger, or a pizza…