By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
Piercing war stories depicting Israel’s 50-day conflict with Hamas last summer continue to surface. Some soldier accounts reveal battlefield heroism, others the tragic loss of life. Then there are stories of those who, unlike the Israeli-born soldiers who are subject to compulsory conscription, volunteered to risk their lives in Gaza.
The stories of “lone soldiers”—the term used for soldiers whose parents do not live in Israel—offer a unique perspective on the Jewish state during a time of crisis and on the culture of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). These accounts also explain why, despite the trauma of war, joining the IDF remains an attractive opportunity that many young people born outside of Israel choose to pursue.
The reality of war “hits you immediately through gunfire or a friend covered in blood,” Sgt. Sahar Elbaz, a lone soldier originally from California’s Orange County, tells JNS.org.
“It was quite a surprise to me to see how ruthless they (Hamas terrorists) were. They would do anything to capture or kill an Israeli soldier,” Elbaz says, describing the vicious guerrilla tactics and the fierce fighting he encountered when his unit first entered Gaza last summer.
During one firefight, Hamas fighters hid in a mosque and ambushed Elbaz’s unit, throwing grenades. In the heat of battle, Elbaz became stranded. Then his weapon malfunctioned.
“Five terrorists were sprinting toward me,” he recalls. “I forget the malfunction, I knew how to fix it. The whole engagement lasted only 30 seconds.”
Thanks to the expert training he received in the IDF, Elbaz was able to act fast and fend off his attackers. Later, he was awarded the IDF Chief of General Staff’s Medal of Honor for bravery. Last month, he was also honored at the New York City gala of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), a non-profit organization supporting programs that enhance Israeli soldiers’ wellbeing.
Fighting in Gaza took a toll on Elbaz, but he is confident that the war was both necessary and well-executed by his superior officers.
“I felt safe walking behind them,” he says. “We didn’t knock down buildings and we were very careful, offering protection to civilians.”
Elbaz views his experience in Gaza as affirmation that it is worth acting on “a call to the land.” He says that being in Israel “is a true feeling of being home,” and notes how recent terrorist attacks on Jews across the Western world have left him feeling uneasy.
The IDF, he says, provides lone soldiers excellent opportunities for professional and personal development.
“The morals and values they instill in you are top-notch,” Elbaz says, recounting his transition from civilian to soldier. Enlisting in November 2012, he entered Garin Tzabar, a volunteer program designed to help lone soldiers settle in Israel.
“You spend the first three months living on a kibbutz,” says Elbaz. “These are the best months of your life and the people you’re with become your best friends and family.”
When basic training began, Elbaz says he was ready to embrace physical and emotional challenges. He says the cause of defending Israel against clear and pressing threats was inspirational for him.
Rona Hadari, a lone soldier from Germany with a German-born mother and Israeli-born father, visited Israel every summer as a child and always identified with the country. Even though enlisting in the IDF wasn’t mandatory for her, Hadari essentially views it as such.
“If you call yourself Israeli, part of it is to join the army,” she tells JNS.org.
When Hadari witnessed rocket attacks against Israel while living in a moshav (village) three miles from the Gaza border, the choice became clear.
“They can do pretty good damage with one rocket, but the danger is also emotional,” she says, referencing the traumatic existence shared by the residents of southern Israel, where unprovoked Palestinian rocket attacks are frequent.
“Why should we keep living with that threat?” Hadari asks.
Both Hadari and Elbaz had a family connection to Israel that prompted their initial curiosity and, later, their commitment to the IDF cause. This was not the case, however, for Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Los Angeles who was killed during last summer’s war in Gaza.
“Max connected [to Israel] from a cultural perspective,” his father, Stuart Steinberg, tells JNS.org.
At the age of 22, Max visited Israel for the first time along with his brother Jake, and sister, Paige. “When [Max] went to the [military] cemetery, Mount Herzl, I think that really… impacted him,” Max’s mother, Evelyn, recalls regarding her son’s admiration for Israeli history and the country’s defenders. That was the first time Max openly expressed his desire to return to Israel and join the IDF.
Although Max’s decision made them nervous, Stuart and Evelyn were happy to see their son passionately engaged. “Max had a strong-willed dynamic personality,” says his father, remembering the inspired 22-year-old who came back from California and only three months later set out again to enlist in the IDF.
“At the time, there was no active war,” Stuart says. “We were certainly concerned, but far more optimistic about the opportunities for growth.”
Indeed, Max’s calls home from Israel were demonstrative of his enthusiasm for the work and his lifestyle as a lone soldier.
“Evelyn spoke to him two to three times per day, and we had a lot of info,” Stuart says. It seems that nothing was censored during the war last summer. Stuart and Evelyn were aware that Max’s Golani Brigade battalion was on the move toward Gaza. They knew the details. Max had been sick. There was an accident prior to Israel’s ground operation in Gaza in which he suffered slight injuries. But Max wanted to go to Gaza anyway.
“Anger would be the wrong emotion to describe what we felt. We were in shock,” Stuart says, recounting how Israeli agents showed up at his home at 7:30 a.m. to inform him of 24-year-old Max’s death in battle. Since then, he says, “Our lives have been turned upside down. You get immersed in everything.”
Stuart and Evelyn made their first trips to Israel under the tragic circumstances. They attended Max’s funeral and later his unveiling. The crowd of more than 30,000 Israelis who joined in mourning Max offered a glimpse into the compassion Israelis have for lone soldiers and the culture of which Max was so enamored. Similarly, the funeral for Nissim Sean Carmeli—a 21-year-old lone soldier from South Padre Island, Texas, who died in the same round of fighting as Max—was attended by 20,000 people.
American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) approached the Steinbergs about establishment of the eventual Max Steinberg Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund, a program that will commemorate Max’s service by providing full scholarships to BGU for IDF combat reservists in perpetuity, with first preference going to lone soldiers.
“Their reach-out was timely and their sincerity on point,” Stuart says of AABGU. The Steinbergs, he says, have always valued education highly, and this was an opportunity to honor their son’s legacy by collaborating with a prominent institution in the country Max loved.
A young person’s decision to leave a comfortable “bubble,” as Elbaz describes the American lifestyle, may seem difficult to understand. What’s clear from the accounts of lone soldiers and of their parents, however, is that joining the IDF can be a fulfilling experience that strengthens character and leads to unique career paths.
“You do your service, and afterward they take care of you,” Elbaz says. The decorated sergeant continues to serve in the IDF and is increasingly on the public stage, talking about his experience. Hadari, likewise, is now an officer in the IDF’s aerial defense school.
Max Steinberg won’t have such an opportunity. Yet Stuart and Evelyn are both reflective as well as energized while they embrace opportunities to honor their son’s legacy. For them, there is some comfort in knowing that before Max died, he had truly found his calling—and that as parents, they were able to encourage his interests.
“I [had] put a personal letter [in his suitcase] in which I expressed how proud I was about his journey,” Stuart says, recalling his son’s initial departure for the IDF. After Max’s death, he says, “The biggest gift I received was when I went through his things and found the letter.”
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