There was nothing like this when Tzvia Wexler served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) more than 30 years ago.
Wexler, who used to sing at various IDF air force bases, and her colleagues didn’t have groups of eager Americans showing up to hand out gifts and show how much they cared and appreciated their service.
But thanks to the Friends of the IDF (FIDF), which actually came into existence on a much smaller scale when Wexler was still in uniform, the soldiers patrolling Israel’s borders have a true support system.
Or, as FIDF’s motto proclaims: “Their job is to look after Israel. Our job is to look after them.”
For years, the FIDF mostly centered on its New York and Los Angeles chapters, but a Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey chapter was formed in 2011, with Wexler as executive director. Since then, it has evolved into a driving force in the local Jewish community.
Never was that more apparent than last month when 58 young Jewish leaders from across North America — five from the Philadelphia area, including recently engaged Remi Frieze and Grant Schmidt — went on the FIDF National Young Leadership mission to Israel.
While there was some general touring, the journey featured visiting IDF bases throughout the land, where participants not only met with soldiers but got a firsthand taste of what their lives are like.
“We were on the Gaza border one day visiting the base, and we saw one of the teams operate a drone,” said the 26-year-old Schmidt, ghostwriter of Crisis of Character, Gary Byrne’s book about his life as a Secret Service officer. “We were actually watching people at the border on the security cameras.
“We were on the Syrian border and at a Haifa naval base where an American aircraft carrier [the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush] was docked.”
While FIDF has supporters of all ages, Wexler said it’s critical to develop young leaders like Schmidt and Frieze, who met on a Chevra-sponsored Livnot trip to Israel three years ago.
“We’ve created a bond with all ages trying to build a bridge between the U.S. and Israel. What we’re aiming at is students and young professionals who’d like to connect,” Wexler said. “They go there to get a better understanding by going to the bases and meeting the soldiers, who are most likely a little younger or the same age.
Schmidt and Frieze, who were joined on the trip by Philadelphia chapter representatives Alison Ederer, Deena Frankel and Shenice Evans, got hooked on joining FIDF shortly after its annual gala last November.
“We were at the gala and it was very touching hearing the stories and seeing how the soldiers interact with their benefactors,” Frieze said. “Now our goal is to build the young leadership.”
“A lot of Jews grow up in an insular bubble,” Schmidt said. “Based on my personal background, I know how fickle the Jewish presence is.
“I know that if we don’t take care of Israel and the IDF, there isn’t a guarantee it lasts. We all have our different twists and views, but for those my age — some who are Jewish and some not — we can all agree an existing Israel is a good idea.”
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