When Stacie and Todd Stufflebeam of Squirrel Hill read the news that 13 Golani Brigade soldiers were killed in Gaza on July 20, their first thought was “call Mike.”
The Stufflebeams’ son, Adam, is a lone soldier in the elite brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, and they needed to know he was safe. Stacie Stufflebeam was sure that Mike Meyerheim could help her.
Meyerheim is the director of the northern branch of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an organization in Israel dedicated to providing support for about 6,000 lone soldiers — members of the IDF who do not have local familial support — as well as to their families abroad.
“When we heard that 13 Golani soldiers were killed, we didn’t know what the procedure was,” Stufflebeam said. She had no idea if there was protocol in place mandating that a soldier’s parents be informed of his or her death prior to press reports. “We called Mike right away, and he said, ‘It’s not Adam; Adam is fine.’ It was important to have that lifeline for us.”
While the Lone Soldier Center works to provide assistance for the soldiers — including help with housing, furniture, food and procedural information — the organization is also crucial to the families of these soldiers.
In Pittsburgh, there are at least seven families that have children serving in the IDF, so to garner support of the Lone Soldier Center, a local Chaverim (“friends”) chapter was launched last month at a meeting at the home of Iris and Phil Samson in Squirrel Hill.
Barb Feige, who has no biological children, is a huge supporter of the Lone Soldier Center, because two children of close friends are lone soldiers.
“I don’t have any of my own kids, so I’ve been ‘Aunt Barb’ to all my friends’ kids,” Feige said, adding that she has had many conversations with these children over the years around her Shabbat table about the importance of Jewish education and Jewish identity.
“I was proud to have two of my ‘Aunt Barb’ kids go to Israel in what turned out to be a crucial time,” she said. “I had never heard the phrase ‘lone soldier,’ and it turns out that now it’s personal.”
Daniel Cohen and Sharin Berman are Feige’s “kids.” Sharin has been serving in the IDF for over a year, and Daniel is beginning his training now, after having moved to Israel last February. Daniel is the son of Ilene and Steve Cohen of Mt. Lebanon. Ilene Cohen, along with Stacey Reibach, also of Mt. Lebanon, is heading up the effort to get the Pittsburgh Chaverim chapter off the ground.
“The Lone Soldier Center facilitated Daniel’s housing arrangements,” Cohen said, adding that the organization also provided him with specific information about entering the IDF — information that Israelis know but that foreigners have to learn.
Jen Olbum, whose son was also a lone soldier, held a fundraiser for the group last year.
“The Lone Soldier Center fills in the gaps for information,” Cohen said. “They tell you about the different units and the different tasks so that you can determine what you want to do once you’re in.”
The Lone Soldier Center also creates a community for the lone soldiers, so that Daniel has a network of resources, Cohen said.
“Having all these lone soldiers to ask questions helps him,” she said. “And there’s a clear bond between the lone soldiers, because their experiences are clearly different than the Israeli soldiers.”
Reibach’s son, Stephen, enlisted in the IDF in 2012 and finished his service this year. He recently returned to the United States and is matriculating as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute.
While in the IDF, Stephen was connected with a family in Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2Gether sister city of Karmiel that looked after his needs, his mother said, so he did not have to depend heavily on the services of the Lone Soldier Center. But Reibach nonetheless recognizes the intrinsic value of the organization and is anxious to raise awareness of its services here.
“When someone goes to Israel and joins the IDF and doesn’t have anyone there to rely on, the Lone Soldier Center will help them find housing, get a couch,” she said. “They will make sure they have somewhere to go for Friday night dinner.”
The launch meeting of the group at Feige’s home was “very successful,” Cohen said, noting that several thousand dollars were raised that evening.
Featured speakers were Berman, daughter of Lynn and Steven Berman of Squirrel Hill, who was home visiting for a few weeks, and Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation, who recently returned from a volunteer trip to the Jewish state.
Support for the Chaverim of the Lone Soldiers is critical, according to Wasserman.
“The young men and women volunteer for service in the IDF out of a sense of responsibility for Israel and the Jewish people or out of extension of them having made aliyah,” Wasserman said. “And they don’t have the support system other soldiers have to help them with their private and personal moments and to help them with the small things that sometimes make a big difference.
“No disrespect to the soldiers, but they’re kids,” Wasserman continued. “And they don’t have their families [nearby]. The Lone Soldier Center helps fill those gaps, and each of us has a responsibility, I feel, to reach out and support them.”
The Lone Soldier Center also coordinates a closed Facebook group for the families of the lone soldiers, enabling them to support one another, said Stufflebeam.
The Lone Soldier Center was founded in 2009 by a group of former lone soldiers and currently operates all over Israel, with centers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva.
There are now 18 Chaverim chapters in the United States, with others in formation in Canada and Great Britain.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.