Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli may have been born and raised in South Padre Island, Texas, and moved to Israel when he was 16, but it quickly became clear after the announcement that he was killed in Gaza along with the 12 other members of his Golani brigade overnight Saturday that he was far from a “lone soldier.”
The term “lone soldier” refers to those in the IDF whose parents live overseas. Traditionally, lone soldiers are Jews who choose to immigrate at army age, leaving behind their families who either have no interest in immigrating to Israel or plan to do so at a later date. But Carmeli, 21, was an example of a new and increasingly common breed of lone soldier — a native Hebrew speaker with Israeli parents who chose to move abroad in pursuit of business opportunities, but instilled a strong sense of Israeli identity in their children, so strong that they choose to return to Israel and serve in the IDF rather than attend university overseas.
In Carmeli’s case, his family moved to the city of Ra’anana when he was 16, with his parents, Alon and Dalya, returning to Texas for months at a time to tend to their business, leaving their son in the care of older siblings.
So while Carmeli may have officially been a lone soldier, he wasn’t alone. In addition to his two sisters, Or and Gal, who also lived in Israel, he had many friends in the city of Ra’anana, home to numerous immigrants to Israel from English-speaking countries, where he went to Ostrovski High School and studied in one of the school’s classes designed especially for immigrant students, which acts as a magnet for many “returning Israelis” from around the United States and the rest of the world.
Roy Elisha, 17, grew up three blocks from him on South Padre Island, where he said they were, together with one other friend, “pretty much the only Jewish boys in our community.”
Elisha’s family moved to Ra’anana just a year after Sean’s — he also attends Ostrovski — and when Sean was on his own, would join his family for Shabbat.
“I’ve known him my whole life — we were like family, we spent time together, took trips together,” he said. “Sean was an amazing person. I always looked up to him. He never fought with anyone, never had an argument. He was a great person, he would always smile, he saw the good things in life and he was optimistic about everything. He was such a Zionist, he was so proud of his country and what he was doing. He loved his unit. I am going to the army next year, and he would tell me, ‘Come to Golani – it’s the best unit in the army.’”
Elisha said Monday he still had a hard time believing that his friend was gone. “I still couldn’t understand that it had really happened until I went to his sister’s house today. I heard the rumors yesterday in the morning but I heard in the news that we shouldn’t believe what was being said on social media and WhatsApp, so I was optimistic and I prayed. Now, I’m just heartbroken.”
In high school, Carmeli regularly played pick-up American football — according to his Facebook page, he was a Dallas Cowboys fan — with a group of U.S. immigrant boys that included Eitan Moed, 18, who had also moved to Ra’anana from the U.S. and attended Ostrovski. “We would play on the weekends for fun. I didn’t know him well, but he was a kid who always smiled and he just came off as a happy sort of person,” said Moed.
Another part of Carmeli’s unofficial family was the group of fans of the Maccabi Haifa soccer team. After his name was made public, a photo of Carmeli sporting the team’s green scarf appeared on the team’s Facebook page and other social media outlets along with an appeal for fans to attend his funeral. The post expressed concern that since Carmeli had spent most of his young life abroad, attendance at his funeral would be sparse. The post on Facebook read: “We don’t want his funeral to be empty. … Come and pay final respects to a hero who died so that we can live. It’s the least we can do for him and for our people.”
In addition to the Haifa fans, scout groups planned to send hundreds of young people to the funeral.
Back in Texas, the local Chabad chapter expressed its condolences in an article on its website.
“Sean was a gentle kind boy,” says Rabbi Asher Hecht, co-director of Chabad of the Rio Grande Valley in the report. Hecht said he met Carmeli in the summer of 2006 when he and a friend ran a day camp for local Jewish children. “He was the oldest of the local boys in our camp, and was a sweet and kind example to everyone else.”
The Chabad report said that Sean’s father, Alon, purchased the San Padre Island community’s first Torah scroll and dedicated the synagogue in memory of his father-in-law, Nissim, whose name Sean shared.
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