For Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate everything we are thankful for in life – and no one knows that better than the many American Jews serving in the Israel Defense Forces as lone soldiers, who have no family to share the holiday with.
To honor the service and sacrifice that is being made by Israel’s lone soldiers, not one but two mega events are being held in Tel Aviv to give these brave volunteers from across the globe the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving.
The first event is being held in the Beit HaChayal in Tel Aviv, and is being sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael, and the Jewish National Fund. They are expecting to host 200 Lone Soldiers who are olim (immigrants) from North America.
The Lone Soldiers will enjoy a festive meal catered by chef Idan Ianovici. Ianovici is himself a former Lone Soldier from New York and is the owner of Vici Deli in Raanana.
“Thanksgiving is a very family-oriented holiday,” said Marc Rosenberg, Director of Pre Aliyah at Nefesh B’Nefesh. “We wanted to give new immigrants who arrived alone, including Lone Soldiers, the opportunity to celebrate this American holiday with other Anglo immigrants here in Tel Aviv.”
“When I was a Lone Soldier, I celebrated Thanksgiving with only a few friends,” said Ianovici, who served in the IDF’s Armored Corps and has worked at restaurants in New York and Israel since he was 16. “I’m so happy to be able to help give these young immigrants the opportunity to experience a proper Thanksgiving in Israel.”
The second event is being sponsored by the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, and is expected to host over 1,000 lone soldiers from all parts of the world, including lone soldiers who are Israeli. (Many of the IDF's lone soldiers are native-born Israelis who for various reasons do not have regular contact with their parents.)
Josh Flaster, Director of the Lone Soldier Center told Arutz Sheva that this event “is our largest event of the year in one space.” The organizaton also hosts a Israel Independence Day Celebration, but that takes place in multiple locations.
The soldiers will also be partaking in a meal that is largely donated by communities from around the country, and will have a chance to leave their operational worries behind for a few hours as they enjoy their furlough with friends from other units in the military who are all also Lone Soldiers. In addition to the festive mea, the Center has organized one of Israel’s finest microbreweries, Jem’s, to provide the beer.
“The meal is important as this is the holiday when people miss home, as the family meal is one of the biggest parts of the holiday,” Flaster said.
“The meal we offer the soldiers is a pick-me-up. It gives them a lot of comfort to have their meal together with other lone soldiers and friends from other units, and people they knew before they made aliyah,” he said.
When asked how the meal plays a part in their military service, and why the soldiers are often released from duty to attend, Flaster responded: “Our purpose to is to help lone soldiers succeed in the army. If we can give these lone soldiers a positive experience, and help them build a social group, it helps them build a community, which means that they are more likely to be happy in their service. That in turn means that they are more likely to be better at their service.”
Flaster added that there is an inclusive atmosphere that permeates the Thanksgiving meal – it's not just American citizens who join in. “Our meal is open to all lone soldiers, wherever they are born from. Even Israeli lone soldiers come. Our meal is not jut dedicated to soldiers from a North American background, It is for everyone. If you are considered a lone soldier by the army, then you get to join in one of the biggest parties of the year.”
Currently over 6,300 lone soldiers actively serve in the IDF. Surprisingly over of them over are Israeli born. Israeli born lone soldiers come from either the Ultra-Orthodox community, or from families that do not function as a family, and can therefore qualify for the special status. “We of course include all of these lone soldiers in all of our events, and there will likely be a large Hebrew speaking contingent at tonight’s event as well,” added Flaster.
Flaster said that mingling at these events is highly encouraged. “We want the soldiers to meet each other and have a great time. One of the biggest factors in a lone soldier’s decision to stay in Israel when their service is over, is whether or not that soldier has a strong social support system. If a soldier has a lot of close friends, or if they have a significant other that they met while they were in service, they are much more likely to stay in Israel and be successful after their service is over.”
Flaster waxed philosophical toward the end of the interview and described what he feels is the important service that a lone soldier provides for the country. “A lone soldier who comes here from outside of Israel – they are the glue that holds together the Jewish people. For 2,000 years we did not have a state, we did not have a home, we were not capable of looking after each other. Now we have a state, because we realized that we and only we can look after each other.”
“Lone soldiers get that,” Flaster said. “Whenever their Jewish family is in trouble, they are willing to drop everything and head into trouble in order to protect their fellow Jews. That is who a lone soldier is, and that is what they mean to the Jewish people.”
The majority of the work and preparations being done for the Thanksgiving event with the Lone Soldier Center is done by volunteers. Many of whom are former lone soldiers who offer to cook and donate food and help organize the event. It is largely run on a “pay it forward mentality, and the credit certainly goes to the volunteers” said Flaster.