Center provides home away from home for expat soldiers

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JERUSALEM (RNS) When Passover begins on Monday (April 18) at sundown, Roxanne Fogelman, a 22-year-old Israeli combat medic, won’t be attending a seder at her family’s home in Oregon.

Instead Fogelman, who moved to Israel on her own in 2009 after visiting the country on a Birthright Israel youth program, will join 600 other “lone soldiers” for a communal holiday meal.

Israel is home to an estimated 5,000 lone soldiers — men and women who come to serve from other countries, or who are newly arrived immigrants to Israel, or whose families live elsewhere, or those with no family at all.

The Jerusalem-based Lone Soldier Center was formed in 2006 after Philadelphia native Michael Levin was killed in action at age 21 in a battle with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border.

“Mikey, like many of our soldiers, didn’t have to serve in the Israeli army,” said Tzvi “Tziki” Aud, the center’s founder and resident father figure. “They risk their lives because they love Israel. He died defending it.”

The center helps the lone soldiers procure everything from washing machines to apartments, and arranges weekly Shabbat dinners with local families and, during Passover, seders that offer a home away from home.

“We have more families to host on Pesach than applicants,” Aud said, using the Hebrew word for Passover. “Holidays, which are traditionally family times, bring up feelings of loneliness for lone soldiers.”

That’s especially true in Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, where the front lines are within driving distance and even combat soldiers get to go home at least once a month.

“The military does all it can to support lone soldiers,” said Capt. Barak Raz, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman. “The military has protocols and rules in place to offset the challenges.”

Lone soldiers receive a special IDF stipend to cover rent, food, and utilities, and a day off every month to run errands. Some receive army housing or are “adopted” by a kibbutz or an individual family.

“IDF commanders are very aware of their lone soldiers’ needs,” Raz said. “Normally, a soldier with family comes home on Friday, drops his dirty bag of laundry on the floor, and eats a home-cooked meal. By Saturday night, the laundry is miraculously clean.”

While lone soldiers give the IDF high marks for effort, “it’s so big, it can’t do everything,” said the center’s director, Josh Flaster, a 2006 graduate of Yale University.

And that’s where the Lone Soldier Center tries to step in.

“When a lone soldier, especially an immigrant, comes home, he’s alone,” Flaster said. “What we’ve tried to create is a community.”

During a pre-Sabbath gathering at the center, Ruth Stukalov, a 21-year-old shooting instructor from Baltimore who began her IDF service as a volunteer, said her broken Hebrew can also be an obstacle.

“Sometimes your Hebrew isn’t sufficient to explain what you need, and you can get stepped on,” Stukalov said.

When the army was unable to provide the furniture she’d requested, Stukalov turned to the center, “which set me up within a week.”

Adam Schwartz, a 23-year-old soldier in the combat engineering unit, asked the center to call his commanding officer to request a four-day furlough when his younger sister was visiting from Tennessee.

“I was entitled to the time off,” he said, “but was encountering some bureaucracy.”

The young soldiers acknowledged that being so far from home can be equally hard on their parents.

“My parents are shocked, amazed, scared but very supportive of my decision to be in the army,” Fogelman said of her folks living 9,000 miles away.

To help compensate for the soldiers’ relatively small support system, Aud makes a point of showing up at their military milestones with a cold drink and a camera.

“I go when I know no one else will be there,” Aud said. “It’s hard to be the only soldier without a cheering section.”

Aud said that he founded the center with Levin’s family and friends “to make this most difficult time” in the lone soldiers’ lives “a little less lonely.”

Levin “dreamed of a place like this,” Aud said, a place to do his laundry and to watch the Super Bowl. “This was all Mikey’s idea.”

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