You can find lone soldiers everywhere in Israeli society, Idan Ianovici said, which indicates just how great is the challenge he faces.
“A lone soldier is a soldier who can’t live in their parent’s homes, for whatever reason there may be, while they’re serving in the IDF. That’s the cold definition that the IDF has,” Ianovici said.
“About 50 percent of them are immigrants … another 50 percent — more or less — are Israeli,” he continued. “They’re either orphans or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds or come from ultra-Orthodox communities that, because they’re in the army, they’re shunned … and it’s becoming more and more of an issue as we go along.”
In fact, he said, there are lone soldiers in virtually every unit in the Israeli army.
What’s not so easy to find are the services needed to support these soldiers while they serve their country.
And that’s why Ianovici, as of January, the new director of The Lone Soldier Center in Israel, came to Pittsburgh last week. He was on a 15-day, 15-city tour of the eastern United States to drum up support for his organization.
Many of his hosts on the tour were themselves lone soldiers in Israel or are parents of lone soldiers currently on duty. In Pittsburgh, he spoke at the Squirrel Hill home of Robin Wertkin and Jennifer Olbum, whose son is currently serving in the IDF. And he stayed at the home of his friend, Gregg Roman, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who also was a lone soldier.
Established in 2009, the Center’s official name is The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin. Levin was a Philadelphia native who made aliya in 2002 and joined the Paratroopers. He died in the war with Lebanon in 2006.
The Center that bears his name is not the Israeli version of the USO (there’s a separate organization for that purpose). This Center specifically serves soldiers with no support structure in the country — men and women who have no regular place to do their laundry, find a bed, get a square meal — all things one finds at home.
In fact, while active duty IDF soldiers go home once every two weeks, Ianovcici said, the lone soldiers must fend for themselves.
The Center gives them a place to go — since there is currently no physical building where the Center calls home. That will change May 17, when it opens its first physical center — 1,000 square feet — in Tel Aviv across the street from the U.S. Embassy.
That opening was made possible by the Jewish community in the Netherlands, which raised the equivalent of $250,000 for two year’s worth of rent, taxes, utilities and programming.
There are approximately 5,700 lone soldiers serving in the IDF at any given time, said Ianovici, quoting an IDF figure. It may not seem like a large figure by American standards, but for a country Israel’s size, he said it is very significant.
Up to now the Center has only had office space in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it just managed to procure a bomb shelter in Beer Sheva.
The center gets no government funding, said Ianovici, who was also a lone soldier (he grew up in New York and made aliya at age 18). It survives entirely on donations.
The Center wasn’t even a tax-exempt organization until late last year. The Israeli government requires a nonprofit entity to function for at least three years, free of corruption or other irregularities, before it achieves that status.
“It’s like a stamp of approval from the government saying you’re kosher,” Ianovici said.
Tax-exempt or not, Olbum said her son Eli, who is currently on duty with IDF, has made use of the Center.
“They helped with information on housing but mostly was a place for him to meet other lone soldiers, and to know that there was a place of contact in case of emergencies,” she said.
“It was a comfort for him,” Olbum added. “I’m sure that even though he lives on a kibbutz he will join up with others at the Center for Shabbat dinners or other events. It’s a great and needed facility for these kids who give up so many comforts to be in Israel and really put themselves on the line.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)