Bringing a taste of home to those protecting Israel this Purim, Chayal el Chayal (“Soldier to Soldier”) brought mishloach manot, personal holiday letters written at Chabad centers around the world, along with general Purim joy to “lone soldiers” in the Israeli Defense Forces from the north to the south.
The organization, which connects with lone soldiers and their units throughout the year, hit the road a full week before Purim to start delivering the packages and notes, which had been worked on for months at Chabad centers internationally.
Agency officials estimated that some 3,000 gifts of food, beverages and other treats were given out this year to between 800 and 1,000 lone soldiers—defined as those who come to serve from abroad, and consequently have no parents in Israel—as well as to fellow troops in their units. Three cars with five people each were dispatched for the deliveries, with routes varying from all the way down south to Eilat, and all the way up north to the Lebanon and Syrian borders.
Menachem Olensky, 22, a former soldier who also helps orchestrate a “Big Brother” program for lone soldiers who finish the army, pored over the logistics, carefully mapping out the delivery routes. “Our plans for this year are to take six shifts over the course of 24 hours, from Metula to Eilat, and visit more than 75 army bases and outposts,” he said.
The crews included other pre- and post-army lone soldiers, added Olensky, out there with a clear target in mind: “Our goal was to bring happiness and laughter, as well as mishloach manot, to those protecting us on this day of celebration.”
Rabbi Ari Abramowitz, 25, a native of Monsey, N.Y., went to Israel in 2007 at the age of 18 for yeshivah studies. While there, he said he made it a point to go to army bases, handing out mishloach manot for Purim.
When he joined the army himself in March 2009, he saw how much acts like that meant to soldiers just like him—also in Israel from other countries, and away from home and their families.
“It was something I realized was very special,” he said. “I was on both ends of it, so I knew what it was to give it out and also knew what it was to receive, knowing what it was like not having family on Purim.”
After he finished his service in the army, he became ordained as a rabbi in Monsey and then got married. In October 2013, he moved with his wife, Rochel Shira, to Israel to give back full-time to soldiers there.
‘They Have Family Over Here’
Mordy Botnick, 23, of Ottawa, Canada, served in the IDF from 2009 to 2011. He related that one week, he found himself without an invitation for Shabbat dinner, so he and a friend decided to host a meal for fellow soldiers. The program grew from there.
Today, he and Abramowitz co-direct the organization, with the assistance of Botnick’s wife, Malkah Esther.
The broader Chayal el Chayal program, among other community-building efforts, serves Shabbat meals to soldiers from abroad, with three “lone soldier homes” in the center of Jerusalem where they can come to relax, eat and connect with other soldiers.
Specifically for Purim, this year’s project started in earnest a few weeks back—by getting in touch with the lone soldiers they knew and their commanders, and acquiring permission to stop by as part of their holiday tour. All the while, Abramowitz’s house was stuffed with the makings of these 3,000 special mishloach manot.
Before he came to Israel, he said the organization was giving out a few hundred packages a year. But last year, they decided to expand the delivery program and wound up distributing many more food gifts than planned—a whopping 1,400 of them. This year, they aimed for 1,500; however, it doubled to a 3,000-package endeavor.
The gifts contained soup, wafers, energy drinks, Pringles potato chips and chocolates, evocative of home for the Americans. Also included as part of a joint effort with the organization Standing Together, based in Efrat, Israel, were useful army-equipment items.
Said Abramowitz: “I want them to know that they have family over here, that someone will come all the way to visit them.”
The mission, which cost about $15,000 this year, was funded by global donors who contribute online, sponsoring mishloach manot for the soldiers. Chabad communities and soldiers’ parents also contributed in supporting the holiday program, which also includes letters from Jewish children to the soldiers.
“People around the world care about them,” said Abramowitz. “They are not alone.”
Once the gifts were delivered, the drivers returned to Jerusalem—where Shushan Purim comes a day later, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month ofAdar, and where Chayal el Chayal hosted nonstop Megillah readings for Israeli soldiers and their guests Thursday night and Friday morning. About 130 people heard the Megillah there, according to Olensky.
And now, it’s on to Passover, as the organization prepares to bring a taste of the eight-day holiday to the troops.