The lone soldier program in Israel is not just for service and adventure – it has changed local young people forever.
In an interview, one said you gain a “different understanding of service and sacrifice.”
A lone soldier is a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces who does not have family in Israel to support them throughout their service. The program helps the soldiers with everything leading up to the aliyah flight and moving. It is the soldiers’ connection to the army, helping them get the units and jobs they desire.
These three young Wisconsinites left their comfort zones behind and headed into the program and the Israeli army.
“Being a lone soldier has been one of the most definitive experiences of my short life.”
Idan Ben-Yitschak joined up for Israel because he wanted to solidify his Israeli identity. He wanted to protect the “little homeland we have in this world,” he said.
Idan grew up in the Galilee region of Israel until he was 10 and then moved to Bayside until age 19. He attended Nicolet High School and was an active member in BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
He served for four years in the IDF – started as a private, then a corporal, followed by a sergeant and second lieutenant. Finally, for the last year-and-a-half Idan was a first lieutenant. The hardest part of being a lone soldier for Idan was missing family and having to take care of things by himself.
“It’s different than coming home, throwing your bag on the floor and having your mom do your laundry and cook for you,” Idan said. He missed his family especially after ceremonies. Idan’s parents visited once or twice a year.
However, this experience made him independent. “You are really on the other side of the world where you get thrown into a scary system by yourself. You learn how to take care of yourself and others and come out at age 22 very independent.”
Idan is now 25-years-old and a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studying geography and statistics. Israel takes care of soldiers, he said, so he gets university and housing benefits. He plans to live in Israel after graduating.
“The most difficult part for me was being the second oldest person on base.”
Avi Nutkis grew up in Milwaukee and attended Lubavitch Nursery School, followed by Hillel Academy.
He was a lone soldier from January 2011 until November 2012 when he was 27-years-old.
Birthright reinforced his love for Israel. The IDF defends not just the state of Israel, but the rights of Jews, according to Nutkis, so he knew this was something he had to do.
Nutkis was one of the oldest people on his base. All of his peers were 18 and his commanding officers were 19, 20 and 21. Serving with 18-year-olds who have never lived outside of their house or traveled anywhere was challenging, according to Nutkis.
Nutkis started off in the search and rescue unit, but he suffered from a minor injury and was transferred to the International Relations Unit of Homefront Command. He helped facilitate and run tours and set up joint military operations. In one instance, a mall collapsed in Ghana and part of his role was to send units abroad to Ghana to assist with the rescue effort.
“This unit ended up being more meaningful to me than the search and rescue unit. I was able to use my high-level English and world knowledge,” Nutkis said. People took him seriously because he was in his late 20s.
Being a soldier taught him discipline and responsibility. Being a lone soldier was challenging at the time but what really impacted his life was serving Israel.
“When you come out of the military, you have a different understanding of service and sacrifice and because of that, I have a bigger appreciation for U.S. soldiers than I did before.” Nutkis said.
“I wanted to join the IDF because I felt more connected to the land and the people.”
Maya (Idan’s sister) moved to Bayside from Israel when she was 4. At Nicolet High School, she was involved in the Hebrew club, the stage crew for the theater department and was in the National Honor Society. She enjoyed eating at the Pancake House and Water Street Brewery.
Maya has only been in the IDF since late in 2019, but according to her, it has already changed her life so much. She is becoming a more confident and assertive person as well as self-advocating. Maya is the only lone soldier in her course, so there are a lot of language barriers.
“I learned very quickly to fight for myself to get the extra help because help comes to those who ask for it in the end,” Maya said.
This 19-year-old is part of an effort where she educates soldiers, plans trips and reminds soldiers the reason they are in the army. She’s stationed at a training center for combat search and rescue soldiers. She felt that is was her duty to fight for Israel because after generations of not only her family but millions of others who sacrificed so much for the country and Jewish people to have a land called their own.
In the beginning, it was very hard to be without her parents. Seeing everyone go home to their parents with hugs and kisses made Maya miss her family. However, her brother Idan is in Israel right now. They saw each other on Maya’s draft day.
“At the end of the day, I am enjoying learning new things, meeting amazing new people and finally being immersed into Israeli society,” she said.
What’s a lone soldier?
A “lone soldier” is a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces without much immediate family in Israel. Some Americans, and others, volunteer as lone soldiers. The Jewish state and various agencies work to provide support for lone soldiers in Israel.