Lone soldiers in the Israeli army and US marines celebrate Thanksgiving together at the First Station in Jerusalem, November 28. (Yonit Schiller)

Alone Together: A Lone Soldier Thanksgiving

US marines and Israeli lone soldiers celebrate the holiday together with a decidedly American bent

As millions of Americans sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, Arab-Israeli Sgt. Y. from the city of Umm al-Fahm, who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns, sat down to his first celebration of the ultimate American holiday at the Lone Soldier Center Thanksgiving dinner at the First Station in Jerusalem. According to Lone Soldier Center CEO Oren Hason, there are 6,700 lone soldiers, members of the Israeli military that do not have parents or access to them in Israel, although the government rounds up the number to 7,000.

Sgt. Y., though, is unique because his service in the Israeli army put his family in danger.

“My family has paid [a heavy] price because I was drafted. I was educating people about Israel before the army. A lot of people in my town didn’t like [that] and we started getting death threats,” Y. told The Media Line.

His family kicked him out of the house after he was drafted into the army.

Sgt. Y. grew up being taught that the Israel Defense Forces were “occupation forces” and he believed that until went to Tel Aviv to work as a waiter and the Jews he met were not like what he was taught.

“That’s why I decided education was the road to peace. I want education for both sides about both sides,” Y. said.

In a night of many firsts, Y. was joined by US marines in Jerusalem who are also away from their families during Thanksgiving. The event attracted a strong US showing.

“We don’t get invited to many other countries’ armed forces especially for lone soldiers and we would never show up with our marines,“ Aryeh Lightstone, senior adviser to US Ambassador David Friedman, told the crowd.

“The relationship between the US and Israel is not based upon politics, it’s based upon people and it’s based upon young people, and you saw marines here tonight who have all volunteered to risk their lives and to become better people, to serve our country, and you also have lots of other people who have volunteered to serve with our greatest ally, Israel, to also protect Israel,” Lightstone told The Media Line. “When Israel is stronger, America is stronger. They work hand in hand in order to make the world a safer place.”

For one of the musical acts of the evening, Rami Even-Esh (stage name Kosha Dillz), performing for the mixed audience made the night particularly meaningful. Even-Esh, an American rapper who has played in such venues as Coachella, immigrated to Israel in September.

“It’s my first Thanksgiving outside of America and getting to play for American soldiers and Israeli soldiers at the same time was a real special moment,” Even-Esh told The Media Line. “I don’t think I could ever recreate that moment of Thanksgiving in Jerusalem.”

The dinner, which has an average attendance of 500 to 600 people each year, was sponsored by the Lone Soldier Center, which was founded 10 years ago in memory of Michael Levin, a fallen American lone soldier, to assist those in the military who do not have families here.

Although all lone soldiers are invited to the feast, Thanksgiving is particularly hard for the American lone soldiers, who grew with the holiday.

“To be honest, celebrating Thanksgiving with my family was always a great experience but having something like this, where the Lone Soldier Center has a gigantic thing … it definitely helps me adjust a little bit,” 20-year-old Eli Usprich, who immigrated a few months ago from St. Louis, told The Media Line.

This is something that Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and Knesset member, understands.

“If they’re Americans, it’s hard because you know: family time, Thanksgiving, football, Turkey… It’s a hard time of year … for Americans, this is a toughie,” he told The Media Line.

With a football game projected onto the walls of the tent set up in the First Station in Jerusalem, the decidedly American cultural aspects of the evening might have helped cheer some of them up.

“Thanksgiving is pretty awesome [in Jerusalem] because all my friends in the army are here and I get to see them,” Jake Tokayer, the 22-year-old volunteer from Boca Raton, told The Media Line. He was drafted in December 2018 and decided to join because he “felt a calling to help out the [Jewish] state.”

Senior adviser Lightstone delivered greetings to the crowd from US President Donald Trump, who made a surprise Thanksgiving day visit to US troops in Afghanistan, and from Vice President Michael Pence and US Ambassador Friedman.

Israeli officials also expressed their appreciation to the lone soldiers.

“These kids, with values in their heart who made the tough but right decision to come home to defend Eretz Yisrael [and] the only home of Jews in the world,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s defense minister, told The Media Line. “They instill in me a faith and power and confidence as minister of defense of Israel.”

Bennett is talking about people like Dafna Wiesel, a 20-year-old from New Jersey who immigrated four year ago.

“Part of what makes you Israeli is serving the country,” she told The Media Line.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told The Media Line: “Lone soldiers are extremely special to every Israeli because … there’s conscription in this country so people who live here have to go to the army but the [lone soldiers] were born miles and miles away from this country yet they chose to put their lives on the line to fight for their people.”

“I’m here tonight,” she continued, “to give them my thanksgiving.”

The evening’s festivities fall on the backdrop of four lone soldiers committing suicide this year, raising concerns that not enough is being done for this vulnerable demographic.

“Suicide among lone soldiers is also a danger because people are cut off from their support systems … and a certain number of lone soldiers come to Israel having experienced emotional problems as well,” Ambassador Oren said.

Founder of the Lone Soldier Caucus in the Knesset, Oren said that circumstances for lone soldiers are different now than when he first emigrated from the US to Israel.

“I look at this and I want to cry because I can’t believe they have these things. We had nothing remotely like this … so it’s pretty amazing,” he said.

Still, he believes that the government is not doing enough for lone soldiers, particularly for the Israeli-born ones who compromise half of the population. He explained that there are 40 organizations that help lone soldiers, with more sprouting up, but most of them are designed to help soldiers from abroad.

“The [Israeli lone soldier] gets the short end of the stick,” Oren said. “It’s maybe more attractive for an organization to support some [immigrant] from New York who puts on a uniform and fights than someone who, come Friday, doesn’t have family to go home to, doesn’t have food.”

“I heard cases in the Knesset,” he continued, “of soldiers who were getting out of the army and sat on the street and some of them fell into prostitution and drug use because no one’s doing anything for them.”

Former MK Dov Lipman agrees that the government is falling short of meeting the lone soldiers’ needs. “I think the government could do a lot more [for lone soldiers] … but the government doesn’t realize the extent of the problem,” he told The Media Line. “We have to make sure that every single lone soldier has the infrastructure they need to give them family support in Israel, friend support in Israel.”

Not all attendees agreed that the army was not sufficiently helping lone soldiers.

“I think the army does every single thing it possibly can to be able to help the soldiers,” Lone Soldier Center CEO Hason told The Media Line.

This sentiment was also echoed by lone soldier Wiesel: “Obviously you could always be doing more … but there’s definitely support out there.”

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