So, what do lone soldiers thank G-d for on Thanksgiving Day?
Do you get it? Why they celebrate Thanksgiving Day? They volunteer to put themselves in danger, to spend several years away from their family, friends and comfortable rooms, to try to make themselves understood in Hebrew (especially challenging if they are working with kids or the elderly in Sherut Leumi, National Service). They are ready to be cold and wet and bone tired in IDF combat training - and to watch everyone else go home to be spoiled by mom when there is a free weekend.
Is that what they are grateful for on Thanksgiving Day? Huh?
For those of them from the USA, this is not exactly the Thanksgiving Day to which they are accustomed. Most Israelis don't even know what it is. In fact, when we came on aliya decades ago, we wanted to continue celebrating Thanksgiving and I had to search Jerusalem for a place to purchase a whole turkey, which I finally found at the Mataam Chofetz Chaim butcher near the Machane Yehuda market, a store that caters to Americans, but the turkeys had to be ordered in advance. (Israelis do eat turkey, lots of it, but it is sold in parts or ground).
This past Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, I decided to find out what these young adults are celebrating and went, for the first time, to the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner sponsored by the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, having been invited to attend by Chairman of the Board Eric Sirkin. He informed me that prominent community members and representatives from the US Embassy would be attending, among them Deputy Defense Minister Alon Shuster, Jon Medved (CEO OurCrowd – a hi tech tycoon who gave the soldiers his private email address and promised to help them find a job when they make aliya! ) and Robyn Kessler (Commercial Attache at US Embassy). And that he expected 300-350 people in attendance.
The dinner took place in a lovely courtyard at Beit Shmuel in downtown Jerusalem, with a turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing dinner to die for. All around me young adults in and out of their uniforms were laughing and chatting, watched by a group of us oldies just kvelling to see them. On one large screen we could see football, on another childhood scenes from soldiers' lives and the pupils at the Katz Hillel Day School in Boca Raton wishing everyone a happy holiday.
And I got my answer, the same one over and over again. It's not the turkey and it's not only wanting to continue a custom they kept at home. "This is my country and I want to defend it" said a young man from Los Angeles. His New York friend agreed. Then Tzvi and David, from New York and Rhode Island (hope I did not confuse who is who) explained that they came to Israel on a Masa program and decided that they were going to live their lives in the Jewish State, so decided they "may as well start by joining the army which we would be doing anyway since we are making aliya. Defending our country is a privilege." The girls I spoke to, just like the boys, said they were in Israel to try to make a difference in their own homeland. They all said that being here and fighting for Israel gave their lives significance and meaning.
The Lone Soldier Center memorializes Michael Levin Hy"d, a 22 year old lone soldier with those very same Zionist ideals who lost his life tragically in the Lebanon War. If you watch the video about him, you will see his mother say that she is no different from all the other mothers who lost what is most dear to them defending the Jewish state.
She added that unfortunately, this is the price our sons are still called upon to pay for having our own land. Eliyahu Kay Hy"d's parents and family paid that terrible price just this week. The young soldiers talked about it soberly and a chapter of Psalms was recited in his memory by a friend. The memory of these sacrifices hovered silently overhead, but it seemed to me that the souls of the fallen lone soldiers, whose lives were cut short but whose mission carries on, were smiling broadly, looking down from Gan Eden.
So what are they being thankful for, then? Being thankful to Hashem for everything we have, for everything around us is called for everywhere in the world, but these young people are thanking Him for the real thing – for giving their lives extra significance, for serving the country where putting their lives on the line or working to exhaustion to help those who need them is meaningful, is benefiting the Jewish people.
What a lucky nation we are! Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu! After 2000 years of exile, with all the problems and dangers involved, these are the responses I received from young women who could be shopping with girlfriends, hanging out, watching movies, gaining two years of going to college, and young men who could be doing the same – well, maybe not the shopping. And they are here instead. And they are happy and fulfilled.
So if you are reading this from overseas, ask yourself: Why aren't you here too? They are so young and willing to give their all, can't you give up familiarity to make a go of it in the longed for Jewish State?
Why should there still be lone soldiers –yes , a good many families come on aliya after their sons and daughters serve here without them, but why not let them have the luxury of a family to come home to now?
Not everyone serves in the IDF here and Israel also welcomes those who want to learn Torah full time, it welcomes older families for whom the IDF is not relevant – Israel wants every Jew, Israel needs you. Now. Don't wait. Antisemitism has reared its ugly head all over the world, and Diaspora Jews feel re-assured knowing that there is an Israel, but wouldn't it be better just to come?
Are you an observant Jew and worried about the religious issues, or one preoccupied with complaining about everything that is wrong in the Jewish State – and no question, there is plenty that is wrong and going wrong in Israel just as there is plenty that is wonderful and becoming more wonderful– remember that we will never promise you a rose garden because you have to decide all by yourself to see the roses as well as the thorns (those we can promise you).
If you are concerned and upset about relations with the Israel Arab citizen minority and the current government's decisions placating the Bedouin and the Palestinian Authority, you can add your voice to the parties that agree with you.
If you are observant, note: Observant Jews in Israel want all Jews to make aliya, but in particular need the Torah true Jews living in the Diaspora to come now. Do you realize that if the Religious Zionists and the hassidic and litvish yidden filling the yeshivas in the USA, eating in mehadrin restaurants and paying steep tuition for their children's Jewish education made aliya, that would result in more Knesset seats for those who want Israel to remain an obviously Jewish state?
Now, when this is a burning issue, it boils down to a matter of numbers. It could mean another seat for Agudah, another for Shas, another for Smotrich's Religious Zionist party, perhaps a stronger Bennett who would opt to join the now strengthened pro-tradition Right.
Instead of criticizing from over there and leaving us to fight to preserve values such as the family, Shabbat in public venues and the Chief Rabbinate's authority in the Jewish State, these principles could be voted for democratically. By your vote.
You could make the difference. This is your chance to add significance to your life, to make a difference with or without being a lone soldier or national service volunteer. Where are you?
(Note: Similar events were held for hundreds of Olim and lone soldiers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, some of them sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh,)
Rochel Sylvetsky made aliya to Israel with her family in 1971, coordinated Mathematics at Ulpenat Horev, worked in math curriculum planning at Hebrew U. and as academic coordinator at Touro College Graduate School in Jerusalem. She served as Chairperson of Emunah Israel and was CEO of Kfar Hassidim Youth Village. Upon her retirement, Arutz Sheva asked her to be managing editor of the English site, a position she filled for several years before becoming Senior Consultant and Op-ed and Judaism editor. She serves on the Boards of Orot Yisrael College and the Knesset Channel.