Monique Elliot talks with Tobin Kaiman,
a young man from Ottawa who recently
returned home after serving for two years
in the Israel Defense Forces.
Tobin Kaiman said he is afraid of heights, but he still jumped.
As a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Kaiman completed four daytime jumps and two night jumps from an airplane as part of his training.
To be accepted as a paratrooper, soldiers first have to pass both a mental and physical evaluation.
“Before the test, I knew I was afraid of heights. I thought this would be a good way to overcome that fear. [It] didn’t work at all,” he laughed. “I’m still afraid of heights. I can’t go to the edge of a balcony in a hotel room, not even close.”
Kaiman, 24, was a “lone soldier” from Ottawa. Typically, lone soldiers are young Jews from the Diaspora who volunteer to serve in the IDF, a military that has national mandatory conscription for most Israeli citizens at age 18.
Growing up in a house where even toy guns were not welcomed, Kaiman said it was still an obvious decision for him to enlist in a combat role as he became more aware of the political and military situation in the region.
“There’s [the option of ‘other’ roles] but, you know what, combat’s the real stuff,” he said. “That’s where all the heroes from the Israeli army came from. When anyone thinks of the Israeli army, everyone thinks of combat: a soldier with a gun in olive green camouflage. And that’s what I wanted to be.”
He served in the IDF for two years – from December 25, 2011 until December 24, 2013.
While most lone soldiers in the IDF sign up as a volunteers from abroad, the term also refers to all soldiers who do not have their biological parents in Israel, including new immigrants and orphans – as well as Israeli soldiers who are estranged from their families.
There are currently about 3,200 lone soldiers serving in the IDF according to a December 2013 report in the Jerusalem Post. About 1,500 come from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, while the second highest number of volunteers come from the United States. The rest, like Kaiman, come from other countries around the world.
Back at home in Ottawa, his mother, Janet Kaiman, said naturally she worried about her eldest son and the “what if” scenarios, especially during the communications blackout when the officers took soldiers’ phones away as the conflict with Gaza escalated in November 2012.
“Honestly, the scariest thing for me was during the couple of weeks he was jumping,” she said. She added that she and the family could not be more proud of Kaiman for devoting himself to Israel, which ultimately strengthened the whole family’s connection to the Jewish homeland.
Kaiman said he had “mixed emotions” about returning to Ottawa after his service in order to complete his studies. Before going to Israel, he had completed two years at Carleton University and is now back as a third year economics student.
Kaiman said he considered staying in Israel to complete his studies, but that the credits he had earned at Carleton would not count toward his degree if he transferred, so essentially he would have had to start his degree over.
“If I could’ve, I probably would’ve done it there,” he said of his decision. “It was easier to come back, finish my degree, and go from there.”
Kaiman said he is fidgety in class because he is used to having multiple responsibilities, but that he is still able to help out his fellow soldiers even when he is far away.
“They’re watching over the country and I’m over here, relaxing and having coffee with everyone, while they’re not sleeping, not eating, and just [enduring] the terrible conditions of winter,” he said, bothered by the fact that he is unable to be with his unit, which is now stationed along the cold border with Lebanon.
In an effort to keep his fellow soldiers comfortable while working in harsh conditions, Kaiman organized an online Go Fund Me campaign in December to raise funds for warm winter gear, which is not a top priority for the IDF.
“All money raised from abroad goes to keep the troops comfortable” while the top budget priorities for the IDF are for “life or death” gear and equipment, he said.
The campaign ran for two months and raised only $400 out of the $5,000 needed to outfit Kaiman’s company with gloves, hats, and thermals, at a cost of $50 per solider.
Kaiman said he plans to start another campaign in the hopes of raising at least enough money to support his unit, which is typically made up of about 16 soldiers.
Kaiman is also working with the pre-army program he completed to create a charity called the Jerusalem Lone Soldier House, which is in the process of getting registered in Canada and the United States, and is slated to be registered in Israel next week.
The charity would own property in Israel, provide room and board and take care of the daily chores in an effort to ease the burdens lone soldiers can feel when away from their families.
“A place where stuff is taken care of for the soldiers is what we’re looking for,” he said.
It is that sense of connection that keeps him dedicated to Israel and to each lone solider serving in the IDF, he said.
“We don’t have to join, we want to join. We also have to remember that Israel is not the home of the Israelis; it’s the home of the Jews … that’s my family. The entire nation is my family.”