This week, two Americans serving in the Israel Defense Forces were killed in Gaza. Max Steinberg, from Los Angeles, was 24. Sean Carmeli, 22, came from Texas. Both were Lone Soldiers—Israel’s term for troops with no immediate family living in Israel. I used to be one of them.
In July 1997, when I was 23, I moved to Israel from Chicago and joined the 188th Armored Brigade. I was one of two Lone Soldiers in the platoon. Six months later I deployed to Lebanon for operations against Hezbollah.
For me, serving in the IDF was the culmination of an upbringing that included Jewish day school, summers at Camp Ramah, an Israel teen-tour, and countless Israeli exchange students who slept in our basement. After all those years learning about Hitler and Haman, concentration camps and pogroms, I was enthralled by the idea of the Hero Jew who fought back. I decided it was unfair to call Israel my homeland unless I, too, helped defend it.
But everyone has their own reasons for volunteering as a Lone Soldier. In Carmeli’s case, his parents are Israeli. Steinberg, on the other hand, had never even been to Israel until he was 22. His 10-day Birthright trip sparked a sense of belonging that compelled him to serve. Tim Bailey was the other Lone Soldier in my unit. He was raised Baptist, but on his 18th birthday his mother told him she’d been Jewish when he was born, which made Tim a Jew in the eyes of Jewish law. Joining the army was part of Tim’s search for his own identity.
Whatever motivates us, the one thing Lone Soldiers have in common, is that we’re motivated. Lone Soldiers request combat units in greater proportion than native Israelis, according Garin Tzabar, an organization that helps American Lone Soldiers acclimate to the IDF. (Why immigrate to be a paper-pusher?) Often, we choose the most elite (read: dangerous) units, like Golani—an infantry brigade that was home to Sean and Max.
Army life is tough for anyone, but the Lone Soldier faces extra challenges. There are international phone bills to pay. Laundry to wash during a Sabbath furlough. The lack of family is especially difficult on weekends, when most soldiers go home to doting mothers who spoil them with home-cooked meals. The Lone Soldier, on the other hand, returns to an empty apartment or a rented room on kibbutz.
Hardest of all, at least for me, is the cultural difference. As any Lone Soldier quickly learns, Israelis aren’t just Jews who happen to live in a different country. Israelis have a no-nonsense, in-your-face character that would make even the most brazen New Yorker shudder. Israelis shout, argue and speak their minds—good qualities when you live in a pressure-cooker country like Israel, but shocking to a polite Midwesterner like me.
Nor do Israelis apologize. Ever. Because to apologize is to admit you’re vulnerable—and no one wants to be vulnerable in the Middle East. On my first visit to the Induction Center, I received my dog tags and noticed that my last name, instead of “Chasnoff,” had been engraved “Shitznitz”. “You misspelled my name!” I cried out to the soldier making the dog tags.
“So don’t die,” he said.
Welcome to the Israeli Army.
These days, Israelis appreciate the sacrifices Lone Soldiers make. But it took the death of one of our own for that to happen. His name was Michael Levin. Michael was raised in Philadelphia and went to Camp Ramah, like me. After high school he studied in Israel and decided to join the army for reasons similar to mine.
When Michael, all of 125 pounds, showed up at the Induction Center, the army told him to go home. So in a display of true Israeliness, Michael scaled a fence, snuck into the Induction Center and earned himself a spot in the Paratroopers. Two years later, he was killed in a firefight during the summer of 2006 war with Hezbollah. Today, the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem is a dormitory, hangout, and all-around resource center for Lone Soldiers, and a reminder to Israelis that some of its best soldiers come from afar.
People ask me if I’d do it all over again. I had a rough go in the army, particularly in Lebanon, when Hezbollah attacked us from farms and schools, knowing we’d hesitate to fire back. Those moments, I questioned my decision to join. In basic training, when I nearly died in a training accident, my faith in the IDF was shaken.
But to be blunt—that is, to be Israeli—my answer is, yes. I’d do it again. The camaraderie was incredible, and I feel connected to Israel in a way that can only happen when you serve. I bet that if you could ask them, Max and Sean would do it all over again, too.