Lone soldiers, young men who give up comfortable lives abroad to join the Israeli army, have found a home away from home with a young couple in Jerusalem who dedicate their lives to helping them.
Mordy and Malkah Esther Botnick, 22 and 20 years old, founders of Chayal el Chayal (Soldier to Soldier) rent a three story house in the Nachalot section of Jerusalem. Their Shabbos meals are a tour de force of home cooking, from challah to homemade ice cream, with all the traditional Shabbos fare in between, dips, chicken soup, chicken and different kugels.
The passion that goes into the cooking is felt by every guest and attracts 40 -100 soldiers per Shabbos. On Yom Tov the couple served over 700.
Both Botnicks come from Lubavitcher families and the atmosphere is filled not only with camaraderie but also the stirring singing of niggunim.
Some young men from observant families who thought they were running away from Yiddishkeit have blossomed once again in their feeling for Torah and mitzvahs.
“Our organization, Chayal el Chayal, Soldier to Soldier, is exactly that,” says Mordy Botnick. “Soldiers helping each other.”
On any given weekday, you may see a young man helping another to put on tefillin.
Experiencing the warmth of a Shabbos at Chayal el Chayal has also inspired some soldiers with no background in Yiddishkeit. “One of my best moments was when a soldier who had never kept Shabbos came to me and said, ‘Mordy, I’m keeping Shabbos for the first time,’” says Botnick.
There are beds for six soldiers to sleep on the premises, but often the couches and floors are host to more. The Botnicks have installed three washer/dryers . Since lone soldiers have no families to go to, and with laundromats expensive, the machines are in constant use. There is no charge for any of this, neither the machines or the Shabbos meals, or the use of the lounge where soldiers can play video games or just talk.
As a former lone soldier, Mordy guides the newcomers through the ins and outs of the IDF bureaucracy, including helping them obtain stipends for their own apartments. He has also mounted a campaign to get fleece sweaters for the soldiers in the cold weather.
Until now, the Botnicks have fundraised from families and friends. Recently they hired another couple and are renting another house. The expansion has increased the need for funds. Hence they are now in the United States and will pitch their cause here in New York City, in Stamford, CT, in Los Angeles, Miami and Baltimore.
On Thursday, October 31, the Betzalel Gallery at 567 Empire Blvd. in Crown Heights, will host a fundraiser for Chayal el Chayal that will feature a new video of their work.
Ultimately, the Botnicks want Chayal el Chayal to have a building that would house a shul, a pool, a gym, a laundry room, and studio apartments.
Chayal el Chayal (Soldier to Soldier) alludes to Psalm 84, verse 8, which which says, “Yalehu may chayil el chayil,” “They go from strength to strength” which incorporates the blessing of growth and prosperity in their name.
Donations can be made on the web at ChayalelChayal.org.