"Somewhere deep inside me I knew that my feeling for Israel was too powerful to be satisfied with just visiting occasionally – I had to be there on a permanent basis.” For Sam Sank, who grew up in Stanmore and attended JFS, that meant making aliyah after leaving school and serving in the IDF as a Lone Soldier — a conscript in the IDF who has come to Israel to serve while the rest of his immediate family live overseas.
There are more than 3,500 lone soldiers from Jewish communities outside Israel serving in the IDF — with some 10 per cent of them from Europe. In 2009, a group of former lone soldiers, aware of the struggles that they had faced during their time in the IDF, launched the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin, It became the first organisation dedicated solely to meeting the needs of this large but very disparate group. The Centre, which has offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, offers practical advice and assistance to soldiers before, during and after their service. Sank volunteered there for several years while he was studying for his degree after his army service.
“I was on the social events committee, arranging Friday night dinners for people who had no places to go,” he explains. “We also arranged regular movie nights and parties for Yom Ha’atzmaut. It’s really important that places like the Lone Soldiers Centre exist. I know from my own time in the IDF that one of the hardest things is when all the Israeli guys go home to get pampered by their mums and get their washing done. The Lone Soldiers need that home away from home too — being on your own can be a real mental challenge.”
Sank hadn’t used the services of the Lone Soldier Center during his two and a half years in the IDF, serving as a combat soldier and then a commander in a paratroopers’ unit. He drew his support from another programme known as Garin Tzabar, which is open only to Lone Soldiers who have made aliyah. Conscripts are placed on kibbutzim around the country; the kibbutz members “adopt” them and become their home away from home during the period of their active service.
“I lived on Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan. We were based there for three months before drafting, and then I went back whenever I had leave.”
Having grown up attending FZY and holidaying in Israel with his family, Sank’s connection to the country was always strong. But the “clincher” for him was going on the JFS Poland Trip when he was 17. While all his friends were busy completing Ucas forms, Sam was filling in his aliyah paperwork and by the August following his A Levels he was on a plane to Israel.
“None of my friends made aliyah with me,” he recalls. “Out of my year group of 250 I was the only one to do this. My mum sent me a copy of the graduation booklet they gave out at the annual ceremony, which I obviously missed. At the back it listed where everyone had gone onto after school – with only three exceptions, All my classmates were on gap years or at university, and then there was one plumber, someone else who had gone straight to work — and me.”
Eight years after his aliyah, Sam is completely integrated into Israeli life, though he advises young people contemplating a similar route to learn the language before they get on a plane. “I learnt Ivrit from sharing a room in the army with ten Israeli guys — despite GCSE Modern Hebrew my conversation skills weren’t very strong!” he laughs.
“I was really thrown in the deep end. But the most important thing is to research as much as you can beforehand, and try to focus on the day-to-day joys of living in Israel. You’ll come because of idealism but this isn’t going to be what gets you through the day; you’re not going to be able to wake up every morning feeling deeply inspired! Essentially, it’s all in your head – you can do anything if you set your mind to it.”
Another former Brit, Keren Hajioff, is the living proof of this. An ex-Hasmonean student from Finchley, Hajioff also made aliyah and joined Garin Tzabar a year after finishing her A Levels.
She recently became one of the IDF’s youngest conscripts to achieve the rank of Major – and is one of only two currently serving Lone Soldiers that she knows of to have attained this status.
“It was during my gap year that I realised I needed to do something about acting on my feelings towards Israel,” she recalls. “My decision to join the IDF was a bit of a shock for my family — it wasn’t anything they would ever have predicted that I would do.”
Hajioff, who is now 27, returned to London for just two months after her gap year with FZY before “stepping into the unknown”, drafting as an instructor in the artillery core. Garin Tzabar placed her on Kibbutz Lavi, where she says that her adoptive family was ‘a real help’.
“You go alone but quickly find out that you are surrounded by people who just want to help you and look after you — from your adoptive family to random taxi drivers!” she laughs fondly. “The army provides lone soldiers with so much support too; anything you could possibly need, they give you — financial support, leave — they recognise that this is a contingent that deserves to be treated a little differently and has extra rights accordingly.”
While Hajioff explains that nothing could fully have prepared her for life in the IDF — she was serving during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and says she found it particularly difficult (“you don’t sleep, you’re dealing with sensitive and important things – and you’re there all alone without your family”). But at the same time she revelled in the experience.
“I would finish every day covered in sand and bruises — high school PE prepared me even less for the physical side of it than GCSE Ivrit did for the language — but I loved every second.”
After a year in the artillery core, she joined the Officers’ Training School. Despite the physical challenges meaning she was nearly unable to finish the course, she fought back and graduated Exemplary Cadet of her company, an incredible achievement she describes as one of her highlights From there, she moved into the Foreign Relations division, before joining the IDF Spokesperson Unit as Deputy Head of Public Diplomacy — she is now the Unit’s Head. During this time, she moved from Officer, to 2nd Lieutentant, to 1st Lieutentant to Captain, before being made a Major earlier this year. She intends to remain in the IDF for the foreseeable future.
“I want to spend more time defending my country,” she says.
The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin www.lonesoldiercenter.com
Garin Tzabar www.garintzabar.org