Among the names of the 13 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza on Sunday, one of the bloodiest days so far on both sides of the current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, were Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, and Max Steinberg, 24. Both were dual American-Israeli citizens, and both were “lone soldiers” in the Israeli army. This term refers to those who move to Israel from abroad, serving in the army with no immediate family in the country.
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Steinberg, a Los Angeles native, is described by friends as having fallen in love with Israel on a 10-day Birthright trip. He left his parents, brother and sister in California in 2012, signed up for Michve Alon, a program aimed at getting immigrants ready for the IDF, and started training for the Golani Brigade, one of the army’s most highly-decorated infantry units in July 2013.
Carmeli, who grew up in South Padre Island, Texas, was a less typical "lone soldier." The son of Israelis who moved from Israel to Texas, at age 16 he moved with his family to the central Israeli city of Ra'anana. His parents returned to Texas periodically for business, leaving their son in the care of his older siblings. After studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, he enlisted in the IDF, where he served in Golani.
Around 800 to 1,000 foreign lone soldiers join the Israeli military every year, according to the IDF spokesman’s unit. There are currently some 4,600 foreign lone soldiers serving in the army, says Dar Iwler of the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin.
There are also about 1,300 Israelis currently classified as lone soldiers, according to the center, many of them ultra-Orthodox Jews whose parents disapprove of them joining the army.
“We lone soldiers really have our own community here, and when you hear a lone soldier died, it makes it as real as it could possibly be,” says 27-year-old former lone soldier Benji Davis, an L.A. native who currently works for the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh. “It’s like hearing about someone dying from your neighborhood,” said Davis, who did not know Carmeli or Steinberg personally. “A lone soldier is like a blood brother — our family and our friends are other lone soldiers.”
Plurality of Americans
More Americans join the Israeli army than citizens of any other country. Some 35 percent of lone soldiers serving in the military are from the United States, the Lone Soldier Center estimates.
“Lone soldiers are under a tremendous amount of stress,” says Saul Rurka, founder and chief executive of Habayit Shel Benji (Benji’s Home), a home for lone soldiers in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana. The home, dedicated to the memory of Benji Hillman, Rurka’s cousin who was killed in action during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, provides housing and a surrogate family for 50 lone soldiers serving in Israeli combat units throughout their army service.
It has been a tense two weeks at Habayit Shel Benji since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Dozens of the soldiers who call the place home are currently deployed in Gaza. Many are from overseas, and their families are a long plane ride away in places including Brazil, France, the United States, Australia, Canada, and the former Soviet Union.
Unlike lone soldiers, “every Israeli kid has their mother waiting with schnitzel when they go home and someone to do their laundry,” says a 27-year-old American lone soldier who asked not to be named.
The 27-year-old, who hasn’t been called up for reserve duty as part of Operation Protective edge, but who was called up in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and served in Operation Cast Lead in 2008, describes his family watching the news back home, terrified.
“My parents aren’t Israeli, even though, as American Jews, they identify with Israel. It’s a whole other country, so they can’t really understand what’s going on here, and the fact that I could be called up to fight is foreign to them.”