Each year, young adults from around the world leave their homes and family behind to head to Israel to serve as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. Dubbed “lone soldiers,” they often have nowhere to go during Shabbat and holidays when their Israeli peers return home to celebrate with their families.
Lone soldier centers throughout the country step in and offer a place for these soldiers as a way to help alleviate their loneliness and establish connections in Israel by hosting Shabbat and holiday celebrations for these young men and women.
In 2019, there were about 7,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, with about 50 percent coming from outside of Israel.
There are also lone soldiers from within Israel who don’t have families in Israel, either who are orphans or who are from Haredi families who have cut off relationships with them because of their decision to serve as a soldier. One organization, Osey Chail: The Association for Haredi Soldiers, was specifically formed to serve these Haredi soldiers.
The East Valley JCC’s Lone Soldier Project was established in January 2018 to help provide support for lone soldiers and is led by volunteer coordinator Michael Cohen, MD.
“I view lone soldiers as modern Jewish heroes whose contribution to the defense of our Jewish homeland, places them in the annals of Jewish history as major contributors to the survival of Judaism, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
The story of their sacrifices, courage and dedication needs to be told, leading to our support of their very demanding efforts.”
– Michael Cohen, coordinator of the East Valley JCC’s Lone Soldier Project, pictured in 2019 with a box of Hanukkah greetings ready to be mailed to a lone soldier center in Israel.
In addition to raising funds and spreading awareness for lone soldiers, Arizona volunteers knit hats for soldiers who are on patrols during cold winter nights. Osey Chail soldiers recently sent a note of thanks to the Lone Soldier Project after receiving a box of knitted hats.
I wanted to say thank you for the Lone Soldier Project, and especially for MIchael Cohen! Thank you very, very much for the perfect hats and thank you for all your support you sent us in the past.
Also, I wanted to say that it gives us a lot of energy and happiness to know that good Jews from the world think about us.
Thank you so much!
Gamliel, soldier, IDF
Send Hanukkah Greetings to lone soldiers
One of the Lone Soldier Project’s largest efforts is the Hanukkah Greetings Campaign, which is currently underway.
In 2018 and 2019, Cohen and his group of volunteers visited Jewish preschools, day schools, synagogues and Jewish organizations to teach about lone soldiers and to ask children and adults to write or draw Hanukkah cards that are then sent to Israel to be distributed to lone soldiers. Last year, more than 700 cards and letters were sent and the volunteers spoke to more than 550 students.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted these educational visits this year, the Hanukkah Greetings Campaign is all digital this year. Parents are encouraged to submit their children’s artwork and notes on the EVJCC website and there’s also a place for adults to submit their personal messages of support.
An afternoon of laughs, live from Israel
This month, the Lone Soldier Project is holding its first fundraiser, a virtual comedy show with comedian Joel Chasnoff, a former lone soldier who currently lives in Israel. Proceeds will go toward Shabbat and holiday celebrations for the lone soldiers.
Chasnoff, who grew up in Chicago before heading to Israel to serve as a lone soldier, will perform live from Israel at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22. During his performance, he will share some of his experiences as a lone soldier, which he compiled for his memoir “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.” Tickets are $10. Able Financial Group is the event sponsor.