“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2-3)
Emily Young, originally from Scarsdale, NY, is one of many lone soldiers who served in the IDF. Breaking Israel News spoke with Emily in an exclusive interview to find out what the life of a lone soldier was like.
Emily, who was recently released from the IDF Foreign Affairs Unit, begins her story with the enlistment process. She explained that enlisting in the IDF as a lone soldier is not all that different from that of other soldiers. However, while many soldiers enlist in groups such as Garin Tzabar or Machal, which are units that group lone soldiers together and send them to a variety of units in smaller groups, Emily chose to enlist on her own without being part of a larger group on December 19, 2013.
“A lone soldier has much the same experience as a regular soldier in terms of responsibilities while in the army,” Emily said. However, outside the army, the story is completely different.
Emily talked about the different attitudes and struggles a lone soldier experiences during his or her service in the army. What makes a lone soldier “lone” is that he or she has no family in Israel on which to rely. These soldiers brave coming to a new country, a very different country, and dedicate several years of their lives serving in the army.
“A lone soldier needs to run all their own errands and take care of whatever else is going on in their lives during their vacation or breaks from the military. Banking, laundry, paying rent—all of that becomes an issue when you only have one or two days off per month,” Emily explained.
“We don’t have a family to come home to who can take care of us. They have roommates, and that is a very different situation. Lone soldiers don’t have a parent who can guide them who has been through the army who can teach them how to optimize their experience. Learning from friends is great, but it is still more lonely and challenging, and often decisions need to be made on a trial and error basis,” she said.
When asked what the biggest challenge facing a lone soldier was, Emily immediately responded by pointing to the language barrier. “Learning Hebrew is definitely the biggest challenge. I am the only one in my squad that speaks English. I’m 24 years old and because of the pressures and the difficulties it often gets to be too much, and I end up alone and on the outside trying to deal with the situation while the 18-year-olds are fine, because they understand what is going on. It’s all worth it when you want it bad enough though.”
As often happens with lone soldiers, the IDF helps navigate them through the unchartered territory that is the army. The IDF helps lone soldiers understand tests and classes that soldiers need to take, even offering Ulpan [immersive Hebrew language program] for soldiers who do not speak Hebrew.
“People have been helpful to me in terms of helping with tests or understanding classes or specific words, but the time when it really hits is the down time. That is the most difficult in terms of talking with people. Whether it is while in the barracks at night, or at the lunch table, I sensed that it was a burden for the other soldiers to talk to me just because it was so difficult to communicate. That made me not want to force it, and built a sense of loneliness” she said.
While the first few months of service can be daunting, Emily explained that being a lone soldier is one of the most rewarding things she could have ever done with her life. Working with The Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center, which she said “has had a tremendous amount of positive influence,” Emily has been able to network with other soldiers who have completed their service as lone soldiers and those who are currently serving.
The Lone Soldier Center sat down with Emily and spoke to her before her enrollment. When they asked her what job she wanted, she mentioned something very specific that most of the people she had spoken to before enlisting told her to forget about. With no lack of ambition, Emily aimed for her dream job in the IDF and thanks to connections the center has, Emily got her job of choice.
Having recently completed a Masters degree in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, Emily wanted to put her knowledge to good use and therefore requested a job in the IDF Foreign Relations office. More specifically than that, Emily wanted to focus her work on Jordan.
“I wanted to work with a neighboring country, as it is more of a hands on experience than working with a distant foreign body such as the EU, US, or Russia. Jordan is the country that we have an actual relationship with currently and I wanted to help build and foster that,” Emily explained of her choice.
Emily pointed to two major life lessons that she learned in her service.
“The first lesson you learn is to go with the flow. As much as you think that you are in control of things, in the army you really aren’t, and sometimes trying to control them will get you into much more trouble and make things more difficult than they need to be.”
The second lesson, Emily explained, is “how much I can pretty much bond with anyone when I put my mind to it.”
“I bonded with my fellow soldiers. It took me a long time to do so, and at first it was quite hard to find things in common with 19-year-olds. I am on the opposite side of the spectrum from these young girls who are just out of high school. Learning to find a connection with anyone no matter how different they are, is now something that I know I can do. After you work with someone, sleep next to them, shower with them, and pretty much be with them all the time, you build a relationship with them.”
As a lone soldier originally from the US, Emily says that now, as a soldier of the IDF, does she really understand the magnitude of importance the army receives from foreign sponsors. Coming from the outside, knowing that people all over the world were supporting her and her fellow soldiers left a deep impression on Emily.
“I come from a family that donates to the IDF. As American Jews living in the Diaspora, it was important for us to donate in any way we could. I now see that these donations are much more important to me than they have ever been.”
“Seeing buildings and equipment donated by people who don’t even live in this country gives us a sense of appreciation for those who feel connected, and a lot of amenities wouldn’t be available without their help. It is really gratifying that there are a lot people out there who want to help us and help the Jewish State and their military. I know that serving in the military is not the only way to help out, and we appreciate all the help from our friends who donate to the IDF worldwide,” Emily added.
“I think for the native Israelis, who see the plaques and the names on buildings of people from around the world who donate money to the IDF, it strikes them as a little bizarre. It is strange for them to try to understand the connection that the Diaspora Jews and Christian Zionists have for them. These ideas are very atypical and distant for them, but they are all equally grateful for the donations and the help in any shape or form.”
One organization, LIBI, works tirelessly to provide for soldiers of the IDF. Whether it be donating winter clothing to soldiers or handing out mishloach manot [traditional baskets handed out during the Purim holiday], LIBI wants soldiers to know that they are not alone. With donations from all around the world, LIBI’s mission is to make soldiers their number one priority.
Emily explained that donations to the IDF teach another important lesson to the soldiers.
“Sometimes Israeli soldiers grow up learning the narrative that ‘the rest of the world hates us.’ The biggest lesson we, as soldiers, take from these donations and outside support is the proof of the falseness of this narrative. Many of the soldiers are shocked to see these donations, which are living proof that there are voices in the world who support us.”
Emily, who was off base for a mid-week vacation over Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, spent the time at a memorial ceremony in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the IDF, and will be “bbq-ing like a real Israeli” on Independence Day.
From the viewpoint of this reporter, nothing more can epitomize the spirit of the “real Israeli” than someone who comes from abroad and chooses to defend the Land of Israel to make it a safer and better place for all.
By Raphael Poch, Breaking News Israel