Spending time in Israel between high school and college, Three 2018 Farber Hebrew Day School graduates enrolled in a program where they spent time studying in a yeshivah and then provided months of service in the IDF.
Metro Detroit natives Daniel Selesny, 21, and Elijah Wolfe, 20, had a bit too much time on their hands in January as they quarantined for two weeks off their Israeli army base following a vacation with family and friends back home.
They spent the days and nights in separate rooms in a makeshift quarantine center for Lone Soldiers in the coastal town of Hadera. They passed the time reading, FaceTiming with friends and family, and binge-watching Netflix shows like The Queen’s Gambit.
All meals were prepared and left by their door, causing them to crave the food back on base, which they said was quite good. Though they could not see the ocean from their windows, they enjoyed spending about 20 minutes a day outside.
Soon, though, they would be reunited on base with the rest of their unit and with Yossi Nadel, 20, a third young Detroiter currently serving in the IDF in its Lone Soldier Program. All three soldiers are graduates of the 2018 class of Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield.
According to the Lone Soldier Center, more than 7,000 Lone Soldiers serve in the IDF. Some are young Jews taking gap years abroad before entering college, others are immigrants or youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds with little to no family connections. The Lone Soldier Center provides those with no social or family network in Israel with financial assistance, community connections and programming as well as Shabbat and holiday meals.
Spending time in Israel between high school and college, the three enrolled in a program where they spent time studying in a yeshivah and then provided months of service in the IDF.
While visiting in Michigan, Selesny spent time Up North with his family and hung out with high school friends who in ordinary times would be away at college but instead were taking online classes at home. He even dined in a heated “igloo” at Prime 10 restaurant in Southfield. Speaking in quarantine, Selesny expressed that he was back in Israel and looked forward to being back together with his unit.
The hardest part of quarantine: spending Shabbat completely alone.
“It was a full 25 hours of no electronics,” said Selesny. “There was no minyan I could attend, and I don’t see anyone. But Shabbat spent this way is a good time to reflect and spend time working on yourself.”
Selesny began IDF service last March, right at the onset of the pandemic. He was supposed to fly back to Detroit for a visit, but all flights were canceled. So, after finishing studies at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, he and Wolfe reported to base. In an unusual situation where soldiers usually get leaves for Shabbat or holidays, they spent the next 35 days on base, including Passover, with no break, with 1,000 soldiers.
Selesny said that during this time, there was no social distancing among the soldiers. A few working in the office tested positive for COVID and were put into quarantine but as for the rest, they generally went about life, and no one showed any symptoms.
Selesny explained that in the initial months of training, one needs to get in the mindset that “you are not in control” of your day-to-day routine. That control is given to one’s Mefaked, or commander.
“For four months, you are on a clock from the time you wake, brush your teeth and get dressed,” Selesny said. “Even the laziest of us got up right away because we didn’t know what would happen if we did not listen to the Mefaked. They do all this so they can mold you into a good soldier.”
Selesny said since childhood he has always wanted to live in Israel. He feels proud to give back by serving and has befriended many Israelis as well as Jews from Brazil, Argentina and Kazakhstan.
“I have had a connection to Israel since I was very young,” Selesny said. “Many times, I visited here when others served in the army to make sure I was safe. Now I can give back, and I am honored to have taken on this responsibility. I have met people from all over the world. It truly feels like Am Yisrael is coming together.”
After he completes his service in August, he will most likely remain in Israel and go to university there.
Wolfe does not describe himself as a “die-hard Zionist” like Selesny. Now four months into a 10-month tour of duty, Wolfe plans to return to the United States to study at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Wolfe became a Lone Soldier because he desired to do something to contribute to the Jewish people and the Jewish State.
“I studied in Yeshivat HaKotel for 18 months and, while I studied, others were protecting me,” Wolfe said. “I enjoyed that privilege and wanted to give back. Later on in life, I want to look back and have no regrets that I did not take this time in my life to take on this opportunity. So far, I’m a better person for it.”
Training for Wolfe has been a “formative experience” filled with long-night treks weighted down with a full pack, sometimes in the rain and mud. He said he worked hard to prove himself to become the best at his gun in his brigade. After basic training, his service during the pandemic included working at checkpoints located not along the West Bank but in Jerusalem neighborhoods to help enforce one of the country’s several nationwide lockdowns.
“IDF training is a lot of hard work,” Wolfe said. “As you go through the daily routines, it may be painful, but you come to understand that this service will make you a better person for yourself and the Jewish people as you work to protect the Jewish State. Through training, you become a more capable person for yourself and those around you who are depending on you. Even if you are marching in the rain through mud, you are with your best friends, and that makes it worthwhile.”
Yossi Nadel, 20, grew up in Southfield where his family belongs to Young Israel of Southfield, as do the families of Selesny and Wolfe. He also attended Bnei Akiva youth group. Brought up in these Zionist circles of the Jewish community and having close family ties in Israel, it was only natural that he wanted to serve in the IDF when he became of age, Nadel said.
“Each week in shul, we said a prayer for the IDF, and the rabbi would announce anyone in the community who was serving,” said Nadel, whose older brother and other friends also served in the IDF and made aliyah.
Nadel said serving in the IDF is not always about weapons training but contributing to the base community such as staying behind to clean up or work kitchen duty. While not every mission is “grand,” he said the power of positive attitude he learned in his service will stay with him for a lifetime and will allow him to meet any challenge that will arise.
“What impresses me so much is how much the army cares for its soldiers,” Nadel said.
“As a Lone Soldier, they were so supportive of me spending extra time with my family after not seeing them for a year. They really care for a Lone Soldier’s personal and financial well-being.”