Lone soldier Jacob Wiesenfeld loves both his hometown and his ancestral home.
“People who spend time with me know that I jokingly call Pittsburgh my house and Israel my home,” said Wiesenfeld. “I feel deeply passionate about Pittsburgh, but this is my destination.”
The 20-year-old technical assistant in the Northern Command left the Steel City after graduating from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh to study Judaica and the Talmud for two years in an American program at an Israeli yeshiva.
While in Israel, Wiesenfeld decided to join the Israel Defense Forces through Hesder, an Israeli yeshiva program that combines advanced Talmudic studies with military service.
“A lot of Orthodox men and women decide to take a gap year in Israel to expand their knowledge of Jewish history and texts and grow their Jewish roots into our thousands of years of history,” Wiesenfeld explained. “I came here for one year and stayed for a second. During that second year I decided I wanted to join the army.”
Wiesenfeld is considered a lone soldier, defined as serviceman or woman without immediate family in Israel. The soldiers serve in regular army units with Israeli troops.
The Squirrel Hill native’s parents and his three sisters all supported his decision to study in Israel, as well as his choice to make aliyah and join the IDF.
“It’s 100% of the values they inculcated within me when I was a child,” Wiesenfeld said. “Our home was very Zionist and pro-Israel. It was hard for them to separate and be so far away and acknowledge that I would be living 6,000 miles away, but they completely supported my decision.”
Although the label “lone soldier” implies a sense of solitude, Wiesenfeld said he is lucky to have friends that accompanied him when he joined the IDF.
“I drafted with 10 guys who I spent the last two years within the yeshiva, some I was even friends with in high school,” he said. “We all live together in a dormitory-style apartment. There’s a whole community of lone soldiers there.”
The building that houses Wiesenfeld and his friends is located at the yeshiva where they attended school. This makes celebrating Shabbat and other holidays easy, allowing them to celebrate together with other students.
The dedication of lone soldiers to Israel “cannot be taken for granted,” said Tzvia Wexler, executive director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Force’s Pennsylvania and South New Jersey chapter, which provides educational, cultural, recreational and social services programs and facilities to lone soldiers.
“They leave everything behind, they leave their family, their friends, their schooling, sometimes they don’t go to college, they give it all up to join the IDF and protect the state of Israel,” Wexler said.
The FIDF supports soldiers like Wiesenfeld, connecting them with Israeli families they can be in touch with, offering vouchers for Shabbat meals and holidays and providing trips home to see their families once a year at no cost. It also provides housing and laundry facilities for the soldiers, among other services and amenities.
Wexler’s branch of FIDF has been open for a decade and currently assists 47 soldiers serving in Israel. The chapter also offers encouragement and backing to parents of lone soldiers and hosts an annual program to honor the nearly 150 mothers and fathers of servicemen and women.
Wiesenfeld’s mother, Ronit, a speech therapist, admitted that the distance can be difficult.
“Obviously, it’s hard as parents to have a child that far away but we’re very proud of him and we support and love him,” she said.
She believes that, like his father – Harold Wiesenfeld, who is a physician – her son has a drive to help others.
“He’s always been very, very thoughtful and considerate and caring about other people’s feelings and situations,” she said. “He has also always felt a strong commitment to Israel and Israel’s wellbeing. I think that’s a big part of what pushed him to do this.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiesenfeld was unable to visit his family as he planned earlier this year. It is a “weird time” to serve in the IDF, he said, noting there are new rules to follow to prevent the virus from spreading.
“There are many restrictions,” Wiesenfeld explained. “We have to wear masks and there are rules about how many people can congregate in an area and reminders about hand hygiene. The army really does not want people mingling and contracting the virus. We stay on base for longer periods of time.”
Wiesenfeld cites his family and “familiar faces” when asked what he misses most about Pittsburgh.
“It’s so warm and tight-knit,” he said of his hometown community. “More than the shops or movie theaters, I really miss walking down the street or in synagogue and seeing my friends and people I grew up with.”
As for his passion for Israel, the Tzahal soldier appreciates “the sense of brotherhood that is here,” he said. “I don’t think you get that anywhere else on earth. Especially since I’m a proud Jew and this is literally the land of proud Jews. This is the Jewish state.”
That pride is what first drew Wiesenfeld to Israel.
“I think every Jew has some sort of connection to the land of Israel and the State of Israel. I felt that tug. It’s part of the whole picture, the land, the people and the Torah.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org