When she was in 10th grade, Risa Kelemer made up her mind: She wanted to serve in the army.
The Israeli army.
The Baltimore native visited the Jewish state regularly throughout her childhood. She left her family to spend 10th grade at a school in Haifa. On returning home, she took up running to build strength and endurance, and began contacting authorities to ask about enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I felt this need to give back,” Kelemer, 21, said from Jerusalem last week. Having fallen in love with the culture, she said, “I wanted to be a part of this. These were my beliefs.”
Kelemer is one of thousands of American Jews who have signed up to fight for Israel since the creation of the modern state in 1948. The IDF puts the number now on active duty at about 1,000. Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a private nonprofit that supports the soldiers, said 20 are from Baltimore.
“The kids there really have a sense of understanding who they are and what they can do to protect Jews, not just in Israel but worldwide,” said Philip Berri, director of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Friends of the IDF. “They know the importance of Israel – they’re very Zionistic – and I think the theme ‘Never Again’ really resonates with them.”
The risks of their service came home during the conflict in Gaza, where Jordan Low, a 19-year-old from Maryland, was wounded in a rocket strike last month. He was recovering from smoke inhalation at a hospital in Tel Aviv.
Two Americans – Max Steinberg, 24, of California and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, of Texas – have died in the fighting.
Americans, who may serve in foreign armies without losing their U.S. citizenship, have a long tradition of fighting in other countries’ conflicts. Thousands joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to battle the fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain. Hundreds signed up with the Canadian military to fight in Europe before the United States entered World War I, and again before the U.S. entered World War II.
Foreigners, meanwhile, have fought on the American side in every major conflict from the Revolution forward. For many, it’s a fast track to citizenship: The United States has naturalized more than 89,000 service members and veterans since Sept. 11, 2001.
Israel classifies its foreign volunteers as Lone Soldiers – those without parents in the Jewish state. Of the 4,000 now on active duty, the U.S. contingent is the largest, followed by Russians, Ukrainians, French and Canadians. (Israeli orphans, and others without family support, also are classified as Lone Soldiers.)
Through the IDF and supporters such as Friends of the IDF, the Lone Soldier Center and others, they are connected to adoptive families in Israel and granted extra leave and plane tickets to visit their home countries. But they are otherwise fully integrated into the military, where the requirements and expectations of the foreigners are the same as those for native Israelis, for whom military service is compulsory.
Adam Harmon’s interest in the Israeli people and culture led him to join a paratrooper unit in 1990. At the time, he said, he was older than most of his Israeli comrades and questioned how well he could take orders. And his Hebrew – the language of Israel and the IDF – was “miserable.”
The Israelis, meanwhile, wondered why a 21-year-old college graduate from a good family in the United States would travel thousands of miles to take up arms for Israel.
“To some extent there was an underlying question during those first moments,” said Harmon, now 45 and living in Northern Virginia. “But as a soldier, very quickly – like, within the first week – everything starts getting very small, down to minutes and seconds. It’s are you doing your job? Are you volunteering to help out? Are you behaving like a leader? Are you fun to be around during difficult times? Are you helping people or not?
“And very quickly all of the differences completely melt away. You are just so busy trying to get through the day. ‘Adam the American’ – that part of it just disappears very quickly.”
Harmon, who saw combat in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, wrote about his experiences in “Lonely Soldier: The Memoir of an American Soldier in the Israeli Army.” Back in the United States since 2001, he returns to Israel periodically to deploy with his special operations reserve unit.
He says his service has helped to deepen his relationship with Israel, without affecting the “centrality and importance” of the United States. He says he tried to join the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but was told he was too old.
Ilan Benjamin, author of “Masa: Stories of a Lone Soldier,” was 19 when he joined the IDF in 2009. The Oakland, Calif., native said he wanted to be a part of “one of the most bad-assed armies in the world,” but his service as an infantryman challenged his beliefs.
“While I love my country and I believe in it, I had issues serving a right-wing government that was dedicated to keeping settlements in the West Bank,” Benjamin said. “I had to protect settlements in the West Bank that I don’t believe should be there.”
Benjamin was more comfortable during six months in southern Israel, near Gaza.
“I was protecting normal, everyday Israelis who were just trying to live their life in peace,” he said. “When I got to serve them, protect those decent people from an enemy that was shooting rockets daily, that’s how I was able to reconcile my service and find meaning in it.”