Philadelphia-Native IDF Soldiers Keep Their Heads High

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Lizzy McNeill of Newtown
Lizzy McNeill of Newtown (Courtesy of Lizzy McNeill)

Pvt. Segev Yarden, 24, calls the trips he makes off base to teach English to children in a Bedouin village an “exceptional opportunity.”

The Wynnewood native plans to start a career as a teacher in Israel at the conclusion of his Israel Defense Forces service, and already has Hebrew school stints at BZBI and Society Hill Synagogue under his belt. It’s not many soldiers, he said, who are so lucky as to bring parts of their outside life into the army.

But like everyone in Israel, Yarden’s dealing with the social distancing requirements instituted to combat the spread of COVID-19. Though his teaching has moved to video for the time being, he’s still pursuing the mission with the same passion.

“It’s above and beyond what I expected out of my service,” he said.

According to Friends of Israel Defense Forces, there are 41 lone soldiers from the Keystone State who will be celebrating Pesach from the comfort of an army base this spring.

Yarden is trying to make the best of it, just like everyone else, he said. The product of Perelman Jewish Day School, Camp Galil and Temple University knew he wasn’t signing up for something easy when he made aliyah a little more than a year ago. So, he’s back to work, with the International Cooperation Unit, cleaning the computers a little more often and looking forward to being let off the base some time in the near future, to get back to teaching in person.

“I don’t feel like we’re being distracted by this,” he said.

Cpl. Lizzy McNeill feels the same way.

McNeill, 24, is from Newtown and, like Yarden, graduated from Temple. She made aliyah in 2018, inspired by a 2015 visit to Israel and an Arabic immersion study abroad session there in 2017. Her parents were committed Zionists, and she was, too. It’s only appropriate, then, that when she finally entered the army, she began her training at Michve Alon.

Michve Alon, which McNeill called “the most Zionistic base there is,” is made up almost entirely of olim, immigrants to Israel who receive intensive Hebrew instruction alongside the typical basic training. It was there that she gained a greater appreciation for what everyone on the base shared with one another; she’d stand guard for hours at a time with a Russian girl who spoke little English, both of them straining their Hebrew to try and connect with one another. Her accent could still use a little work, McNeill said, but she’s made huge strides with the language.

And that’s been out of necessity. It was important for McNeill to be a part of the Search and Rescue Unit, to be a part of extracting civilians from dangerous situations like building collapses and natural disasters. To be in that unit required McNeill to get her Hebrew up to snuff and, after seven months of training, she passed muster. In addition, she patrols Ariel, a settlement in the West Bank.

The last few weeks have been difficult for McNeill, who was set to move into a new apartment on March 15 alongside a few other lone soldiers. Back on base, it’s three people to a table for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all meetings take place outside. But she’s trying to keep her head up, like everyone else.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem, but it’s a problem,” she said.

Ian Schwartz is a little younger than McNeill and Yarden, just 21.

Schwartz, a Bala Cynwyd native who attended PJDS and Kohelet Yeshiva High School, had been studying at a yeshiva in Israel since right after high school, and was drafted about a year ago, serving now in the Nahal Brigade.

Schwartz is also engaged. Not being able to see his fiancée since he returned to base a few weeks ago has been difficult, he said, but oddly enough, life on base has changed little compared to civilian life.

“The normal way that you’re living is basically the same,” he said.

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