Emotional Hanukkah Lighting Honors Lone Soldiers

Chayal el Chayal, a home away from home for lone soldiers, hosted a candle lighting ceremony at Mamilla Mall Saturday night.

Cynthia Blank ,

Chanukah Menorah in Jerusalem
Chanukah Menorah in Jerusalem
Ben Bresky

Over a thousand people gathered Saturday night as lone soldiers lit a huge menorah at Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem. 

The ceremony was hosted by Chayal el Chayal - an organization whose aim is to serve as a home away from home for lone soldiers living in Jerusalem. 

Chayal el Chayal arranged for over 50 lone soldiers to attend the event. Following the lighting, the soldiers enjoyed spirited dancing, a barbecue on a Mamilla Rooftop and received special Hanukkah gifts. 

Chayal el Chayal houses a lone soldier center in Jerusalem which provides sleeping accommodations and caters to lone soldiers’ every need. Besides hosting the soldiers for Shabbat and holidays, the center's doors are open around the clock.

The organization also advises and advocates on behalf of lone soldiers, smoothing their transition to army life and their eventual return to civilian life. There is a mentoring program between past soldiers and new recruits to learn the ropes and all soldiers enjoy care packages throughout the year.

Mordy Botnick, a former lone soldier himself, is the founder and Director of Chayal el Chayal. 

He arrived in Israel in 2009 with just enough money to get from the airport to Jerusalem. With no family or friends, he spent the first night sleeping in the Shuk. A rabbi eventually took him until his enlistment. 

When he had a weekend off from the IDF, he and a friend rented a tiny apartment in Jerusalem “so they would they would have a place to crash.” 

They slept on mattresses on the floor and subsisted on bread, cookies and  a few cans of coke. “It was depressing,” he said, “but I just accepted that this is the life of a lone soldier.”

Two months before he got out of the army Botnick organized a group of fellow lone soldiers to chip in for proper Shabbat meals in a bigger apartment.

From these humble beginnings, Chayal el Chayal was born “so no one will have to go through what I went through.”

And the experiences of the soldiers Chayal el Chayal serves are certainly more positive.  

Avrom Kugel, who grew up in Brooklyn, expressed nothing but gratitude to the organization.

“I came here 15 months ago and have no family so this really is my home away from home. When I sit at the Shabbat table, it really feels like I am back with my own family,” he said.

Fellow lone soldier, Mendel Friedrich echoed Kugel, saying, "When you have a Shabbat off you want a warm atmosphere, you want to feel like you’re home.” 

For Friedrich, who came to the IDF from Manchester not knowing anyone, Chayal el Chayal was able to provide him with the support system and military education he craved. 

"They really taught me the ropes about being in the army. There is a whole system of how you get what you  need and Chayal el Chayal help makes things happen," he said. 

According to the Israel Consul General in Los Angeles there are currently about 2,000 Anglo men and women serving as lone soldiers in the Israeli army. Chayal el Chayal is already in touch with almost half of them.