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Their ‘fifth son’

A lone soldier in JUF’s Partnership region

Lone Soldier by Ofer Bavly image
From left: Yehuda Oren, Chairman of the Partnership Together Steering Committee, Gordy Tcath, and Amir Ellenberg at Tcath’s basic training graduation. (Photo credit: Ofer Bavly)

Every year, hundreds of young diaspora Jews make a dramatic, life-altering decision. At age 18, they leave behind their family, their friends, and usually their acceptance letter to a good university, uproot their lives, and move to Israel to join the Israel Defense Forces as "lone soldiers."

The military service these men and women go through is the exact same service completed by their Israeli peers-no shortcuts allowed. Their sense of Zionistic duty compels hundreds of them to move to a country-with a different culture, a new language, and no friends or family support system-thousands of miles from their parents.

Deerfield native Gordy Tcath came to Israel as a lone soldier in 2013 after graduating high school and getting accepted to the university of his choice. He chose to do a pre-army preparatory course with Israeli teens, spending a year and a half studying and volunteering in Lachish, part of JUF's Partnership Together region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir. He then joined the IDF as a combat soldier, and volunteered to the prestigious IDF Officer Academy, graduating as a Lieutenant. Ultimately, Tcath ended up serving twice as long as the obligatory service, completing his active duty in the Oz Unit, known as the Commandos' Brigade.

His decision to relocate to Israel, as he puts it, "was a long time in the works." He was planning his move as early as his sophomore year in high school. For him, there was no question that the Zionist ideal can only be fulfilled in Zion. His great-grandfather from Lithuania had visited Jerusalem in 1966 and regretted that, due to Jordanian restrictions, he never made it to the Western Wall.

Tcath said he believes that the desire to live here was in his genes. "I have no other way to look at the world but from a Jewish point of view and from the perspective of the son of a Jewish and Zionist family in the modern era," he said.

Fortuitously, Tcath, who spent his last summer of high school living in JUF's Partnership region through the Kefiada Summer Camp Counselor program, befriended the Ellenberg family.

The Ellenbergs-Amir, Yael, and their four young sons-immediately decided to "adopt" the lone soldier from Deerfield, inviting him to live in their home in the Lachish community of Eliav. Soon, the temporary living arrangement became a five-year life-changing experience for Tcath and the Ellenbergs. Now, he had an Israeli family, and the Ellenbergs had a fifth son.

For Tcath, coming home dirty, hungry, and tired from his rigorous IDF service once a month to a loving family made all the difference. Having left behind a brother and a sister in Chicago, he said he misses watching them grow up. But with his adoptive brothers, he got to experience being a mentor, a role model, an advisor, and a friend. In dealing with the bureaucracy and systems of his new country and in managing the intricacies of IDF life, Reserve Colonel Amir Ellenberg-who has served on JUF's Partnership Together Steering Committee for a dozen years-proved to be an invaluable asset, advisor, and friend.

For Amir, taking Tcath in brought home the importance of the bond between the people of Israel and diaspora Jewry. "It is a bond that we don't always understand, but is nevertheless iron-clad, influencing both sides," Amir said. "Once I realized that, it became vital for me to introduce the connection with diaspora Jews into my home and to my kids; the only way to impart values is through example."

Tcath admitted that he misses being in Chicago with his biological siblings, but said that had he remained in the U.S. he would have felt "less than a complete person."

For the Ellenbergs, he is a fifth son, a natural part of the family. JUF's Partnership Together has created an unbreakable personal, familial connection-one that embodies the values and the heart of the Partnership-that will live on forever.

JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that links communities in the diaspora with communities in Israel. Chicago's P2G region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir is located in Israel's northern Negev. Through P2G, nearly $1 million of funding from JUF's annual campaign supports projects that promote the region's development, improve the quality of life for its residents, and connects them with Chicago Jewry through "people-to-people" programs. This story is one of a series titled "25 stories," celebrating 25 years of partnership between JUF and Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.

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