Lev LaChayal advertises itself as “a yeshiva home base for lone soldiers.” Founded 18 years ago, Lev LaChayal – which is part of the Lev HaTorah Hesder Yeshiva – is headed by Rabbi Dudi Winkler and, to date, some 160 lone soldiers have passed under his tutelage and guidance.
According to the Lone Soldier Center, a lone soldier is “a soldier in the IDF with no family in Israel to support him or her: a new immigrant, a volunteer from abroad, an orphan or an individual from a broken home.”
Lev LaChayal services lone soldiers who prefer to serve in the army under the hesder framework: 18 months of learning followed by 18 months of army service. The yeshiva maintains four “homes” for its lone soldiers with volunteer families looking after their needs.
When The Jewish Press spoke to Rabbi Winkler, he was busy taking care of a student who was suffering from a complication after a mild bout of Covid-19. In addition to teaching would-be soldiers at the yeshiva, Rabbi Winkler often plays the role of father, friend, counselor, and medic when needed.
What kind of people join Lev LaChayal?
Rabbi Winkler: Generally, there are three types of students. One group consists of guys filled with enthusiastic spirit and ideology – religious Zionists from birth, many with yeshiva day-school backgrounds and years in the Bnei Akiva movement. They are motivated by a dream to serve in Tzahal and live in the Land of Israel. They help set the tone of the yeshiva and inspire the students who lack their passion.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have kids who are searching for their way in life, some from broken families, some from families with whom they don’t get along, some who dropped out of school. They all have big souls which haven’t found the environment needed to promote their development and path of self-discovery.
The third group are guys in the middle who haven’t resolved issues of identity and life options. Some come for the challenge, some for the opportunity to get away from home, and some because they aren’t yet ready for college.
The miracle is that after their year and a half in the Lev LaChayal program, they all merge into a cohesive and spirited group, eager to join the IDF and do their part in building the Jewish nation in Zion.
Are parents generally supportive of their child’s decision to become a lone soldier?
In the idealistic group, yes. With the others, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Often parents will be initially opposed because of lack of knowledge about our program. We speak to them by phone and explain the details of the program and its goals. In most cases, parents come to view the program as a life-building experience.
What’s the course of learning like in Lev LaChayal?
Along with traditional Gemara and halacha shiurim, we offer courses in Tanach, Jewish thought, and Jewish history; extensive field trips; a fundamental Hebrew ulpan; and sports. I myself keep careful watch over each boy to make sure he is given all the support he needs.
In addition, during the learning, the students are connected to families who host them for Shabbatot and holidays and who volunteer to take care of their domestic needs, both before and during their IDF service, whether it’s filling out forms, making sure their apartment refrigerators are full of food, or that the water, gas, and electric bills get paid.
We also prepare the guys physically and spiritually for the army along with teaching them the tools needed to deal with the often frustrating bureaucracy in Israel.
Do your students all serve in the army together?
No. It isn’t realistic. For example, some boys want to be paratroopers, others want to serve in the tank corps or in engineering. Also, as lone soldiers, they enjoy certain privileges. One of them is a month-long vacation to visit their families abroad. Obviously, if everyone were in the same unit and they all took off, no one would be left to man the fort. But we try to place at least six to eight in the same unit.
Do you have students with charedi backgrounds?
Sometimes a student from overseas will transfer from a more charedi yeshiva program to ours. Other times, Israeli boys from the charedi community join our program when they want to enter the army but find no support at home. They mix in very well.
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Yehudis Schamroth has been a volunteer housemother for the students of Lev LaChayal ever since its founding. A grandmother herself, she says her home is like a wing of the Lev HaTorah Yeshiva. Year round, overseas students can get a warm bowl of soup in her kitchen, even if the family isn’t at home. Her telephone is also available for calls to the States.
The Jewish Press: How did your residence become a home to Lev HaChayal students?
Schamroth: I discovered that the yeshiva wasn’t geared to deal with small medical problems like running noses, coughs, and blisters. And many times the guys were too independent to complain and ask for help. So my home became a makeshift clinic.
Since then, I’ve helped organize a long list of volunteers and services in our Beit Shemesh community, everything from rides back and forth from the train station, repairing torn clothes, Shabbat and holiday hospitality, social workers, shidduchim for army graduates, and an attentive ear to listen to grumblings when a teenager feels lonely or down.
This family relationship continues throughout their army service. When they get off for a Shabbat or a three-day furlough, they have a home to return to. Luckily for me and for them, my husband is a saint.
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After completing the Lev LaChayal program, Meir Blum enlisted in the IDF’s Kvir Division. Presently, he is part of a platoon based near Shechem, patrolling the busy intersection leading to the Jewish communities of Har Bracha, Itamar, and Elon Moreh.
Often, he reports, his platoon is called upon to back up special anti-terrorism commando units during round-ups and arrests in the volatile city. The Jewish Press spoke to him at the beginning of the week as he was eating dinner at the Schamroths, and absorbing the feeling of home and belonging that dozens of lone soldiers find there.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background like?
I had a charedi education in Los Angeles, but I always knew that I would one day serve in Tzahal. After I completed shiur alef in a charedi yeshiva in Jerusalem, I checked out Lev LaChayal, wanting to find a course of study that would lead me to give of myself, both my body and my brain.
When I told my parents I wanted to continue in a hesder yeshiva program, there was silence on the other end of the phone. Now they are much more relaxed about the decision I made, but at first they refused to support me.
Fortunately, Rabbi Winkler worked things out so that I could learn in the program. For me, it was a dream come true. He set me up with the Schamroth family, and from that moment on, I not only became absorbed in a new and exciting framework of learning, but I had an adopted family in Israel.
What has been your greatest challenge?
The IDF training for sure. Even though there was a special course at the yeshiva to prepare us, the actual eight months of training were murder. Plus, they took away our phones throughout the course of the day, so I felt cut off from my parents in a really hard way.
More than anything else, the love and support of the Schamroths pulled me through. I could talk about my problems with one of their sons who had served in a top combat unit, Mr. Schamroth is a fountain of wise advice, and Yehudis is the mother of all mothers – not just for me, but for dozens of guys and, at the same time, for her own tribe of children as well.
I don’t know how she does it. If I had to be at the train station at 5:00 in the morning, she was the one who took me. If I didn’t manage to do my laundry, she made sure it was ready for me by the time my leave was over. If there is a female counterpart to Reb Aryeh Levine, the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” it has to be her.
I had a lot of high moments in the army, feeling that I was adding my small part to the long line of Jews who, throughout the generations, have risked their lives in defense of the Jewish homeland, but just meeting a person like Mrs. Schamroth has been the climax of my time in Israel. For sure, she is one of the big reasons why, b’ezrat Hashem, I am here to stay.