Two great transformations that occurred in the life of the Jewish people with the establishment of Israel are that Jews from around the world can now immigrate to a Jewish state, and that the Jewish people now have the power to defend themselves.  Lone soldiers, individuals serving in the Israel Defense Forces whose families live abroad, embody both of these remarkable transformations.

Often driven by their commitment to Zionism and the Jewish people, thousands of young men and women come to Israel to serve in its military, enduring the additional hardship of not having a loving family waiting close by at home and whenever they are on leave. While lone soldiers come from all over the world, a very large group of them are consistently from the United States, which remains a testament to the fact that support for Israel and the IDF in American Jewish communities continues to be vigorous.

Lone soldiers are soldiers in every sense of the term, serving in units throughout Israel’s armed forces, including special combat units and intelligence. In additional recognition of their status, lone soldiers enjoy a number of benefits, such as financial assistance and subsidized housing. Immigrating to a new country is difficult in any circumstance, and lone soldiers often arrive with very limited Hebrew-speaking abilities. Through sheer will and perseverance, they often overcome all manners of adversity to go on to become exemplary soldiers who inspire their Israeli-born colleagues with their idealism.

Lone soldiers have fought in all of Israel’s conflicts. Tragically, a number of them have fallen in battle. Most recently, Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg were killed in the Gaza operation in 2014.

While the loss of any young soldier is an unbearable burden for any family, there is an additional level of suffering for the family of a lone soldier so far away. To express their support for these courageous soldiers, Israelis of all stripes took to social media to ensure that as many people as possible attended their funerals. On July 21, 2014, some 20,000 mourners came to accompany Texan Sgt. Carmeli of the Golani Brigade to his final resting place.

In this way, ordinary Israelis show that they readily acknowledge the sacrifices that so many lone soldiers have made in serving in the IDF. “It’s our national pride to come and support a family and a lone soldier—a person who made a decision, against all conventions and with Zionist motives, to join the best combat unit although he could have chosen a more comfortable life,” one funeral attendee expressed. “I am here to salute him.”

In 2009, the Lone Soldier Center was founded in memory of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from Pennsylvania killed during the Second Lebanon War. The center currently serves more than 6,300 lone soldiers.