What It Means To Be A Lone Soldier
Sitting in my kitchen shirtless with a Star of David necklace hanging on my neck, gingerly resting on what I would embarrassingly call a not hairy enough chest for a man of Russian background, I am busy trying to take off my army boots when the door opens and my roommates burst in excited to tell all of their stories from their previous month in the army. I hug each one, exchange pleasantries and then head to my room for some peace and quiet.
As I am walking to my room, a thought pops into my head: my grandparents have been bugging me for years to write down my life adventures on paper because for some reason, I always find myself in interesting situations.
I will never forget how they laughed when I told them how I once found myself being beaten with tree branches by Russian friends of my father in a steam room at the JCC fitness center. The whole time I was being beaten they were explaining to me in thick heavily accented mafia voices that this was good for me, good for my immune system (whatever that might mean…). To this day I can’t understand what good came out of that terrible and nightmarish experience. My grandparents were excited about the whole ordeal, claiming they used to do that when they were kids, ‘back in the day’. To this day, I wonder who in the world has a childhood memory like that besides true Russian grandparents.
Heading to my room, I made the decision to follow through on my grandparent’s advice and finally decided to write something to be published, and this is it - I do promise to try to make it interesting.
My name is Nathan Altshuler, I’m a 23 year old Oleh Hadash from the United States. I am the oldest of 9 children from a family of Russian immigrants. I moved to Israel in 2012 and was drafted into the IDF as a paratrooper and as I was alone in Israel, I was designated a ‘Lone Soldier’. After completing my service towards the end of 2014, I rejoined the IDF in November 2014 as the coordinator of pre-army leadership programs for the Ministry of Defense.
A lot of people might know what is a lone soldier is - we can use Wikipedia’s description, or I can be typical and write about how it’s a bunch of teenagers following the same dreams my ancestors in the villages of Belorussia had, the dreams of the victims of the Holocaust and the current dreams of Jews in France but simply knowing a definition is not enough.
I like going into vivid details, so here it goes:
Being a Lone Soldier means getting on the bus, in full uniform, and not knowing how to say the name of city you live in properly. I can't imagine what goes through everyone’s mind on the buses at that moment…a driver once asked, “How are you an IDF soldier and you don’t even know how to say the street you live on in Hebrew?” My answer was always the same, a shrug and a loud “ken” or ‘yes’ (I had no idea what he had told me in Hebrew...).
It means coming home not to my mother's delicious cooking or my father's scolding, or hugs from my siblings, but rather to bills, ants (sometimes), lovely roommates who slowly become family, random lone soldier buddies who decided to crash on the couch, more bills, an empty fridge and the occasional leftover beer from the last Shabbat that you were home.
It means having random people invite you over for Shabbat with smiles on their faces, genuinely taking offense when you say no, proving to you that Israeli society not only loves Lone Soldiers, but also puts in a sincere effort to take care of them.
It means going to a local pizza shop, getting free food and then having the owner hand you 100nis bill and say, “buy your lone soldier friends something nice” (true story).
It means having your friends from back home look at you differently. Some understand and some don’t. Although in spite of the fact that you are doing something absolutely insane, they all respect you for it. It means receiving many letters of support and love from amazing and inspiring kids across the globe.
It means getting rejected by tough Israeli girls one too many times.
It means you get to wear an IDF uniform everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I won’t lie, it’s fun to have people on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem take pictures with me and to bask in the attention from American girls checking out your uniform - the kumta (beret) to the freshly shined boots. You even become an attraction for birthright groups and ‘popular’ takes on a whole new meaning.
It means becoming part of a family that’s not your own. Only a lone soldier can understand the happiness of bumping into another fellow lone soldier, be it on an army base, at a bar, or simply waiting in line to pay the water bill. You are instantly connected.
I feel it’s only appropriate to finish off this blog post with this message to past, present, and future lone soldiers that people around the world can appreciate this message as well:
Serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as a Lone Soldier means you are part of something extremely important for the Jewish people as a whole, you are helping protect everything we believe in for the next generation to come.
It is an experience of a lifetime, one that you will be talking about from the day you put up your first IDF uniform picture on Instagram, to the day you are a senior citizen sitting in a lobby waiting for the swimming pool to open so you can do water aerobics to help your arthritis.
It will be a crazy journey, full of ups and downs, including sometimes doubting your choice to do it in the first place. These doubts will nevertheless be washed away as you don an ‘Aleph’ uniform with pride when you return home on a Friday morning.
Being a Lone Soldier is not being the next Jewish Rambo. Joining the IDF is not a game and should never be considered as one. It is a very serious choice made by individuals whose ideals are the same as those of our Zionist pioneers who marched into Israel after the Holocaust looking to make a safe homeland for their people, our people.
Being a Lone soldier is a difficult task but if you join with the right attitude, mindset and an open mind, once you complete your service you will emerge a transformed person – mature, confident and ready to take on life.
Most of the time a Lone Soldier comes with a specific unit in mind, often in combat platoon but I challenge you to keep your options open, as the most important thing to remember is that every single job in the army is important.
Another aspect of the responsibility you take on being a Lone Soldier is that you serve as an example of what Israel is to your friends all over the world. Fighting Israel’s enemies is not only done on the battlefield but also on the internet, through conversations, and through personal example.
I want to thank all the readers of this blog and the Israel Forever Foundation for the priceless support they and the rest of the pro-Israel community give us.
Hope you enjoyed this and Shabbat Shalom!