Israeli families help 'lonely soldiers'

Gideon and Miriam Kadmon sit catching the last rays of the evening sun outside their farmhouse in the quiet pastoral community of Kfar Aviv. Several of their small grandchildren play beneath a treehouse, while the adults sip fresh lemonade and eat Miriam's homemade chocolate cake on the porch.

It's an idyllic family scene as dusk slowly descends. But it hasn't always been this peaceful. In 1990, the Kadmons' youngest son, Amnon, then 19, was killed while serving his compulsory military service in southern Lebanon.

For the thousands of Israeli families of "fallen soldiers" such as Amnon, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) provides an impressive system of support. An officer is appointed to assist them personally , offering them guidance through the network of psychological counseling, and to the practical and financial assistance provided by the army.

But there is another type of program run by the IDF that can be just as valuable to such bereaved families. It's known as the Chayelim Bodedim (Lonely Soldier) program, and allows families to informally "adopt" IDF reserve soldiers who have no family or home in Israel. For families of soldiers killed in action, it can be comforting to take another soldier of a similar age into their home.

Because of the stressful nature of army service, it is recognized that some soldiers need extra support. Currently there are about 6,000 young men and women in this category. A "lonely soldier" may be an orphan, or his family may have been killed in a terror attack. She might be a new immigrant, or estranged from her family. What he or she needs most are the simple things many other Israeli soldiers take for granted: a home-cooked meal, a welcoming place to go to on weekends, and someone who understands the tremendous pressure of Israeli military life.

Sean Anderss (who now goes by Sharon - pronounced Sha-RONE - a common masculine name in Hebrew) remembers this well. After Amnon's death, the Kadmons "adopted" him.

"They changed my life," he says emphatically. "I came from a bad neighborhood and a broken home. I went around with really bad guys, got into fights, took drugs, the whole thing."

He left school at 16, and at 18 he was called up for compulsory reserve duty. He joined the army as an ambulance driver in the Givaati Brigade, the same brigade in which Amnon had also served.

"I was renting an apartment," he recalls. "But as a reserve soldier making less than $100 per month, it was impossible to pay the rent. I spent my weekends working to make extra money. I ran up lots of debts and had to leave the apartment. I had nothing, and nowhere to go."

Unexpectedly, Mr. Anderss met the officer in charge of supporting families of fallen soldiers. She told him of the lonely soldier program and of a family who was considering participating in it. She arranged a meeting at their home.

"I was very nervous," recalls Anderss. He had no idea what to expect from this family, or, indeed from family life at all.

The Kadmons, too, had their doubts. "Could we bring a new young man into our home?" says Miriam. "Would he be honest? Would he fit in? How would the relationship grow?"

"But," says Anderss, "I was excited enough to try." The family felt the same, and thus the young soldier finally found himself with a place to call home.

Over the next few months, both parties discovered that it wouldn't always be a smooth ride. "I was used to being self-reliant, not having to think about anyone but myself," says Anderss.

"We like to do things as a family," says Gideon. "Everyone has responsibilities and chores. [Sean's] was to look after the lawn," he says, glancing around at the acre of garden that surrounds the house. "But it was hard for him to be at home rather than out somewhere, or tell us what time he'd be coming back. And he couldn't understand that Miriam wanted him to call her from the army base, just to say he was OK."

"I wasn't used to having someone who was worried about me," agrees Anderss.

For the Kadmons, the adoption of a soldier from the same brigade as their late son occasionally caused emotional moments. "Once, after the weekend, we took him to catch the bus back to the base," Miriam remembers. "I saw him through the back window, and it was exactly as I'd seen Amnon in the past. It all came rushing back."

On another occasion, they went to visit Anderss, who was ill in bed at his army base. "It was the first time we'd been back there after our son's death," she recalls. "It was very, very hard for us."

With time, however, Anderss became part of the family. "Before them, I'd never thought of education," he says, as he sits across the table from the Kadmons and while his 18-month-old son, Idan, runs up for a hug. "But Gideon talked me into going back to school."

Today, he works in life sciences, teaching physicians how to handle complex medical equipment. "Once, he even got a call from a surgeon in the middle of an operation, asking him what to do next," says Miriam, glowing with pride at Anderss's achievements.

Not every experience for a lonely soldier attempting to assimilate into an adoptive family is so successful. Some attempts by the IDF to pair soldiers with families fail at an early stage. Although still teenagers, these soldiers are going through a powerful experience as they enter military service. It's not easy for them to fit into army life and also into a brand-new family, however much they might actually need it.

Recognizing this, the IDF nowadays also provides several other options for Israel's "lonely soldiers."

They are paid double the salary of a regular reserve soldier (around $286 per month) and offered a basic accommodation stipend. They also are given two or three extra days leave per month, and there are hostels in several major cities that provide a bed and sometimes a meal for off-duty lonely soldiers.

Several charitable organizations also work alongside the IDF to provide support. Sara Cooper, head of the activism department of Merkaz Hamagshimim, runs one such program. "We send packages of treats and goodies to lonely soldiers," she explains, "for whom these small luxuries go a long way. We also arrange pen-pals for them, so that families from overseas can also informally adopt a soldier. Many end up meeting afterward. One lonely soldier recently flew over to meet his adoptive pen-pal family in the US. He gave talks in schools about his experiences in the Israeli army, and it worked out wonderfully for everyone."

Jewish communities in the US provide much of the support for Merkaz Hamagshimim.

Another foundation, Beit Kobie, provides a homelike hostel and support network for lonely soldiers, staffed by members of the community in the town of Givatiyim. Beit Kobie was founded by the parents of Kobi Ichelboim, a 19-year-old IDF sergeant who was killed in 2002 while serving in Gaza. Kobi, say his parents, always made a special effort to care for the lonely soldiers under his command, so this seemed a fitting tribute. Beit Kobie plans to create similar centers throughout Israel.

But for many lonely soldiers like Sean Anderss, becoming part of a family for the first time is an irreplaceable experience, which changes the rest of their lives for the better.

Although the Kadmons didn't adopt a soldier specifically to help them recover from the loss of their son, the experience of helping a needy young soldier enriched their family. "We gained a son," says Gideon. As Idan toddles past, he adds, "And a grandson."

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