While many 18-year-olds around the world are heading off to university, their Israeli counterparts are putting on their uniforms. They are about to begin an intensive term of military service: a huge transition from schoolwork and soccer games with friends. The responsibility is overwhelming – in addition to the typical worries of young adulthood, such as finding a job and getting an education, these young people are preparing to defend their country.
The army can be a challenging experience for young soldiers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Friends of the IDF (FIDF) aims to make their lives a little easier and turn their military service into an opportunity for personal and professional development. Established in 1981, FIDF is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that sponsors social, cultural, and educational programs for soldiers during and after their service. With branches around the world, reaching from San Francisco to Panama, FIDF is an anchor for soldiers during and after their service.
FIDF’s projects cover a wide range of needs, from the first day on the army base to the complicated reentry into civilian society. The nonprofit’s flagship initiative, the IMPACT! Scholarship Program pays for the academic tuition of former combat soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Participants receive a full university scholarship in exchange for 130 hours of community service. IMPACT! is only one of several FIDF initiatives designed to help discharged soldiers lead a successful and happy life, ensuring that they can get an education and find satisfying work no matter their background.
In addition, FIDF provides a variety of services for current soldiers. Many soldiers from underprivileged homes have to stop working and supporting their families when they join the military. Naturally, they worry that their families will struggle financially without them. The DIGNITY Program furnishes basic household needs for these soldiers and their families so that the household doesn’t suffer from their recruitment.
FIDF also offers courses in ethics, philosophy, and Jewish studies, giving soldiers an opportunity for intellectual exploration and self-discovery. Other projects for current soldiers include the SPIRIT program, which sponsors recreational activities for combat soldiers, and the construction of “soldiers’ homes” throughout Israel for young men and women who may not have a home to return to.
Perhaps the most ambitious of FIDF’s initiatives is the Adopt-a-Brigade Project. In partnership with the Israeli nonprofit Ametz Lochem (Adopt-a-Soldier), FIDF invites business leaders, influential companies and international organizations to “adopt” an IDF brigade. Adopters host holiday celebrations for the brigade, arrange sports days and outings and sponsor events for outstanding soldiers. They are a continuous source of financial and emotional empowerment for the soldiers in their brigade and often maintain a supportive relationship with them after their service. Since its foundation, the FIDF and Ametz Lochem have facilitated the adoption of more than 20 IDF brigades.
Among these noteworthy adopters is Israeli businessman Meir Shamir, the CEO of the Mivtach Shamir investment company and head of the Israeli Taglit (Birthright) society. Having fought in the 69th Squadron of the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War, he knows firsthand the difficulties facing young soldiers – and so he chose to give back, adopting the squadron in which he once served. “The air force’s ground crews who get up at 3 in the morning in the middle of the winter… need to know that there are other people who see them, who appreciate their work, and who do not take them for granted,” he says.
In the end, this is the aim of Adopt-a-Brigade and FIDF: to remind these 18-year-olds that, even with so much responsibility on their shoulders, they are not alone in the world.