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Philadelphians Join Record-Breaking Group of Lone Soldiers

August 9, 2012 By:
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Incoming "lone soldier," Ben Weitz, pictured above at Mitzpe Ramon in fall 2009

Rafi Glantz wanted to join the Israel Defense Forces since he was 10 years old.

At that time, according to the 18-year-old, his parents didn't take him seriously. But there's no denying his commitment now as he prepares for an Aug. 13 flight that will bring him to basic training in his new home.

"Israel's really the only safe place for us, and that's the place I want to be," the Elkins Park resident said simply.

Glantz is among at least five young adults from the Phila­delphia area who will join a record-breaking group of 130 North American "lone soldiers" entering the Israeli army this fall, according to Nefesh B'Nefesh, which assists those immigrating to Israel. Collectively, those incoming recruits, who don't have family in Israel, account for almost 30 percent of 450 olim traveling on a charter flight to the country on Monday.

Glantz said he would have gone sooner, but he was only 17 -- too young to enlist -- when he graduated high school. Instead, he spent a year at American Jewish University in California.

It's no wonder that Glantz, the oldest of four siblings, feels connected to the country. He grew up attending Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park where his father serves as cantor, and has visited the country five times already -- twice through teen programs, the others during family vacations.

His parents, he said, are very proud of his decision, though of course they're worried, too.

"Despite all of the statistics that show it's more dangerous to drive in America," Glantz said, "it's not an easy thing for a parent to let their son go 4,000 miles away and serve in an army."

Glantz said his mom, Dayna, blamed herself, saying, " 'I taught you to love Israel; this is what I get.' "

Once in the army, he hopes to enroll in a paramedic program, which would take about three and a half years to complete. After that, he said, he'll probably go back to college, though he's not sure where.

The United States is a "nice enough place," Glantz said, but "I just don't have a connection to America the way I do to Israel. It makes me feel like I'm at home. When you're in Israel you're family. When you go to shul or something, they'll ask you, 'Do you have a place for Shabbas?' and they're not saying it to say it, they actually mean it."

Like Glantz, 24-year-old Ben Weitz, also of Elkins Park, said his parents aren't thrilled about his move, but they're supportive.

"If they had their choice, I wouldn't be doing this," said Weitz, who leaves behind a twin brother in Boston and a 19-year-old sister. "No Jewish mother wants her child to move across the world."

After spending a year studying at the University of Haifa, Weitz said he knew he'd eventually like to make aliyah. He waited another year after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont just to be sure, teaching high school English in Washington, D.C., while he researched his options.

Like many of the soldiers-to-be on the Monday flight, he enlisted through Garin Tzabar, a program run by Tzofim, also known as the Friends of Israel Scouts. In the months leading up to the move, incoming soldiers attend a handful of seminars held around North America. Once in Israel, the scouts assign them to live on a host kibbutz. Some take a few weeks of Hebrew and other classes at an absorption center before entering basic training.

In partnership with Friends of the IDF, Nefesh B'Nefesh last August also started its own initiative to assist lone soldiers. About 700 young adults from all over the world have taken advantage of their financial and support services so far, said communications director Yael Katsman.

Growing interest in the army complements a small but steady increase in the number of single young professionals making aliyah. Families still comprise the majority of new immigrants to Israel; however, the percentage of singles has increased from 7 to 26 from 2004 to 2011, according to Nefesh B'Nefesh data.

The young professionals also tend to be more religiously diverse. Katsman estimated that more than half of them are not Orthodox, the opposite of trends among immigrating families. Of the families, about 65 percent are Orthodox, she said.

Both Weitz and 21-year-old Mollie Goldstein said they wouldn't have felt comfortable living in Israel as a citizen without serving in the military.

It's an obligation there, said Goldstein, so "it would've been very hard for me to assimilate to Israeli society if I hadn't done the army."

Aside from developing a love for Israel at day school and summer camp, Goldstein spent a semester of high school there and then studied twice at Hebrew University before and during college. She's also not the first of her three siblings to make aliyah. Her oldest brother lived there for a few years, though he didn't go into the army.

"It would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity I have," Goldstein said, speaking from her parents' home in Elkins Park, where she spent the summer finishing online classes toward her bachelor's degree in Jewish studies from the University of Maryland.

Goldstein said she's in this for the long haul. If she can't find a job in Israel after the service, she'll go for her master's degree at an Israeli university. Ultimately, she said, she hopes to raise a family there.

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