By Mary Markos
Every month or two, Bruce Mendelsohn drives young Israeli soldiers from one gathering to another as they meet Americans and build support for the defense of Israel. “This is my favorite part of the job, spending time with the soldiers both in uniform and out,” he said. Sometimes, the soldiers he’s accompanying are young women.
Mendelsohn, the New England regional executive director of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, recently hosted two female Israeli soldiers in their early twenties. One was a company commander of 50 men and women in Judea and Samaria, the other a lone soldier from Rochester. “They call themselves girls, and people who see them call them women. They’re neither. These are warriors. And they transform,” said Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn excitedly described the car ride with the girls on their phones, doing their nails, talking about shopping, talking to their friends on the phone and sleeping. “As soldiers, if you ever have a minute to sleep, you’ll sleep,” he added. But he emphasized that they are just like an average girl. “I have a daughter, she’s 14. This is what she does,” Mendelsohn compared happily.
But then, they do something that your average girl wouldn’t do. They arrive at a meeting dressed in uniform to address large crowds of people. To see that and to see the effect that it has on the people listening to them is transformational, according to Mendelsohn. “The support that people have for the soldiers, and the manifestation of that support, is transformational.”
Mendelsohn, a U.S. army veteran, felt a visceral calling to his position at the FIDF. “As a former leader of soldiers, I can understand the life of a soldier and the vital importance of morale, welfare, recreation and wellbeing.” The FIDF, established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, is a nonprofit humanitarian organization with the mission of providing educational, cultural, recreational, and social services programs and facilities that provide hope, purpose, and life-changing support for the soldiers who protect Israel and Jews worldwide.
“It is important to know that we don’t provide any military or material support to the soldiers,” Mendelsohn emphasized. There is a common misconception that the FIDF is providing the Israeli soldiers with bullets and body armor. “But we’re not. It’s really morale, recreation, educational, and wellbeing support,” said Mendelsohn. The FIDF, a 501c3 non-profit corporation headquartered in New York City that operates in 15 regional offices in the U.S. and Panama, provides support through their donors that compliments the hard support that the Israeli government provides.
“The program enables soldiers who come from an economically disadvantaged background to go to college,” said Mendelsohn. He describes it as a transformational program, and also a very affordable one. An Impact Scholarship for an Israeli soldier is $16,000 for four years of college, whereas in America you will pay an average of $129,620 for four years of private college or $37,640 for four years at a public college as a resident of that state.
“They send a kid to college who would otherwise not go, and this improves not only the life of the soldier, but it improves the educational quality of the country, and it improves their prospects for future earnings potential, thereby improving the entire people.”
From a spiritual standpoint, Mendelsohn believes that the FIDF improves the connection that communities worldwide have with Israel. “Donors who support FIDF become investors in Israel and therefore in our people,” said Mendelsohn. “You don’t just write a check for $16,000 [to sponsor a scholarship for an IDF combat veteran],” he added. The IMPACT! Scholarship Program is unique because when a donor writes a check they will receive a letter from the students twice a year, including pictures and updates on their studies, and how the donor has influenced their lives. “I’ve read some of these letters and they’re incredibly powerful. They establish and strengthen a personal connection that people have to their soldiers,” said Mendelsohn.
Furthermore, if a donor goes to Israel, the FIDF will connect them with the Impact soldier. “These are lifelong relationships. When the kid was 18 years old, they went to college. Well, now they have kids of their own,” Mendelsohn said. “It’s an opportunity for people to connect in a meaningful way rather than just writing a check and not knowing where the check is going.”
Other impactful ways in which the FIDF supports the soldiers are the many donors who will build projects at the military bases. If a donor is inspired by a spiritual motivation, he or she may rebuild or refurbish a synagogue. A donor could be interested in recreation, and will build or refurbish a gym or a recreation center with TVs, computers, and places for the soldiers to relax in their down time. The FIDF also has a DIGNITY program that provides financial assistance to soldiers in-need, and a program for wounded IDF soldiers and the families of fallen IDF soldiers.“These are very meaningful ways to connect with the soldiers in a non-military way,” said Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn believes the Jewish community has an obligation to support Israel first as a Jewish people, but also as lovers of liberty and freedom and the essential components of democracy. “I love the mission; in many respects it transcends politics because, bottom line, we all agree on Israel’s right to exist, and if we agree with that then we need the means to defend that right to exist.”
“I have one supporter who is so passionate about the soldiers that she’ll do anything. I have to restrain myself from calling her sometimes,” he said with a genuine smile spreading across his face. One day, he asked her why she is so passionate about the cause. Her response to him, “Well it’s simple. No IDF, no Israel. No Israel, no Jews. No Jews, no me.”