During the week, the Lone Soldiers’ Home in Beit Shemesh mainly sits empty, lovingly filled with all sorts of cooked foods and nosh, waiting for the “boys” to return. Around noon on Friday, they appear. One by one, they drop their dirty laundry, take a shower, grab a snack, and go to sleep. Shortly before the Shabbos siren, the madrich will gently wake them so they can get themselves ready for Shabbos. On Shabbos evening, they may eat at the home of a local family – many want to host them. Shabbos day, they have prepared foods and cholent available in their house, with the understanding that sleep for them is more important than an organized Shabbos meal.
Lone Soldier G. S. from Maryland loves coming “home” for Shabbos. “The Shabbat experience in the Beit Shemesh house is amazing. I get off base and I come home [on Friday]. The house is clean; it looks nice; there is food ready. We can eat what’s made, we can make whatever we want and the fridge is packed with food. And if you want to, you can go to sleep, hang out with your friends…It is a very welcoming and amazing atmosphere. ”
Early Sunday morning, the soldiers depart – some by bus, some by train – to various locations throughout the country. Sometimes they can share where they go, often they cannot.
These boys are just a few of the many thousands of “lone soldiers” who serve in the Israeli army. This term is applied to the young men and women who do not have parents living in Israel, yet have joined the Israeli army. As these soldiers have no one at home waiting to help, their time off is often more of a challenge than a break. They have no family to help them do laundry, run errands, or shop for food.
Just over a year ago, a group of parents, ex-soldiers, and students in Beit Shemesh resolved to create a house in their neighborhood that could host 12 lone soldiers. They knew that their community, the Anglo-Saxon community, understands the difficulties of making aliyah first-hand and would contribute to the home. Starting in August 2014, they began by contacting and visiting organizations affiliated with lone soldiers. During the course of the next year and a half, they partnered with an established organization (The Lone Soldier Center), raised money, rented, renovated, and furnished a home, hired live-in counselors, and chose 12 soldiers to become part of their community. The first group of boys moved in a few months ago, hailing from Canada, South Africa, England, Australia, and the United States.
Two women have spearheaded this initiative: Wendy Serlin and Gayle Shimoff. One of them explains, “As mothers of soldiers, we know how much love, support, and care all soldiers need during their service. The deaths of three lone soldiers during Operation Protective Edge [the war in Gaza during the summer of 2014], highlighted the difficulties lone soldiers face. Therefore, we decided to establish a home for lone soldiers in our community of Beit Shemesh, to take care of them.”
As for the boys, they feel at home because they are home. L.I., the youngest soldier in the house – a few months shy of his 19th birthday – is from Los Angeles. Over two years, he actively, carefully planned to join the IDF. “The house gives me a sense of family in Israel. We have everything a regular house would have – even a dog to play with! Most lone soldiers are on a kibbutz, which gives them friends and a social scene, but does not give them a meal at a family table with a mom and dad. We get the full meal, just like every other family in Beit Shemesh. It is beautiful.” He was just informed that he was accepted into the Tzanhanim unit – the paratroopers, one of the most elite units in the IDF. He still has 21 months left to serve, and he feels secure in the knowledge that his home in Beit Shemesh will be his until he leaves the service.
Beit Shemesh residents have raised money for the soldiers’ food and to pay for the young married couple who cares for them on site. Other community members cook Shabbos food weekly to keep in the kitchen, hold fundraisers (like bake sales) to help offset the cost of food and utilities, or offer their homes and a listening ear.
For more information about the Lone Soldiers Home in Beit Shemesh, visit the website lonesoldiercenter.com/homebeits