The annual Atlanta gala dinner of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces will pay tribute to the Lone Soldiers, those individuals from other countries who volunteer to serve in the IDF.
That’s appropriate because Atlanta proportionally sends so many Lone Soldiers to Israel, said Maj. Gen. Meir Klifi-Amir, the FIDF national director and CEO.
“As a major general, I salute Atlanta,” Klifi-Amir said during a visit to Atlanta on Wednesday, April 13. “For me, it’s a noble act when those kids decide to leave all that they have — their parents, their neighborhoods, their homeland, their country, their good lives — and they come to serve as part of the chain of protectors who come to protect Israel year after year.”
In this era of Islamic State and other Islamist terrorist groups, those Lone Soldiers are standing on the front lines to protect all of the free world, not just Israel, the general said. “It’s amazing. It’s something that I cannot really explain. It’s illogical. … It’s only about their hearts.”
He said those volunteer soldiers understand their own history and that of Israel, which is a tribute to their parents, who never complain about their children leaving to serve in one of the world’s most tense areas. FIDF provides support services to the soldiers and to their families.
For example, FIDF makes arrangements and pays for the Lone Soldiers to fly home for visits. An FIDF-built weekend home for Lone Soldiers offers them a place to go on leave for a bed and meals.
Working with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, FIDF distributes 500-shekel ($130) gift cards at Passover and Rosh Hashanah to Lone Soldiers and to regular IDF troops in need — more than 13,000 soldiers in all.
Some of the Lone Soldiers stay in the army to become commanders, and others make aliyah. But those who complete their service and return to Atlanta and other parts of the United States are crucial as living answers to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and others who want to the delegitimize Israel, Klifi-Amir said. “When they come back, I believe they become the best ambassadors not only for Israel, but for the IDF itself.”
FIDF works with more than Lone Soldiers, of course. Klifi-Amir said the group, the largest support organization for the IDF, touches at least 70,000 soldiers a year.
“When we support the soldiers, we are not dealing with ammunition, not with weapons, not with anything that has any connection with the battlefield or anything that has to do with war,” Klifi-Amir said. “We are taking care only of the soldiers.”
FIDF committed to building all of the morale-boosting support facilities, such as gyms, synagogues and health clinics, when the IDF decided to move eight bases from the center of Israel to the less populated Negev. That was a commitment of $45 million to $50 million, but it was worth it because nothing is more important for the troops than keeping up morale, the general said.
Largely thanks to the leadership of Chairman Garry Sobel and Executive Director Seth Baron, Klifi-Amir said, the Atlanta chapter has grown rapidly the past several years to become one of the strongest of the organization’s 16 U.S. chapters and to raise more than $1 million last year.
“It’s something that they work with their hearts. It’s not work; it’s a mission,” he said.
For Sobel, part of that heart goes into sponsoring a former Lone Soldier from Kazakhstan through FIDF’s Impact scholarship program. For $4,000 a year, a donor can send a former IDF soldier to college.
Sobel said he committed to the program after participating in his first FIDF mission to Israel three years ago. During that trip, the organization presented a check for $16 million for the project, and he felt as if he was missing something by not being one of the Impact sponsors.
Now, because he is sponsoring a specific ex-soldier, has gotten to know her and sees her like family, donating is personal, he said.
The program also makes a powerful impact on Israel. Klifi-Amir said 97 percent of the participants get their degrees, and, under a requirement to do 130 hours of community service a year, scholarship recipients have contributed almost 4 million hours since the program began in 2002.
“That’s an impact. That’s an immediate return,” Sobel said. “That’s where this takes us to a higher level.”
What: FIDF Atlanta gala dinner
Who: Keynote speaker Col. Richard Kemp, former British commander in Afghanistan
Where: InterContinental Buckhead, 3315 Peachtree Road
When: 6 p.m. Monday, May 2
Tickets: $250 ($118 for 35 and under); www.fidf.org/ATLGala16 or 678-250-9030