Fighting for Israel: Three lone soldiers from Bay Area reflect on IDF service

Imagine living your entire life in one country, yet feeling so connected to another country that you’d bid adieu to family and friends, fly halfway around the world and enlist in its army.

Such is the experience of a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces.

A lone soldier (chayalim bodedim) is the term used to describe someone from the diaspora who goes to Israel to serve in its military. In 2008, there were 4,000 such soldiers who went to Israel from countries such as England, Morocco, Argentina and the United States, among many others.

Their experiences are different from those of native Israelis for a number of reasons. Their families are far away, they usually don’t speak fluent Hebrew (and certainly not military Hebrew) and they don’t have the strong peer support that young Israeli soldiers do.

“People said I was crazy for moving to Israel,” said David Joseph, 36, who grew up in Saratoga and served in the IDF for 18 months from 1996 to 1998. Even his parents, though proud and supportive, were unhappy he enlisted — and very worried.

“But I never felt a sense or had a moment where I thought I shouldn’t go or that I didn’t want to serve in the army,” he said.

More recently, Daniel Levy and Alex Hettena, both graduates of Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, had similar experiences.

Many people — even Zionist friends or relatives — suggested that serving in the IDF was a bad or dangerous idea. Indeed, five lone soldiers were killed in the 2006 war in Lebanon.

“People told me, ‘That’s nice, but leave the army to someone else,’ ” recalled Levy, a 22-year-old Berkeley native who served for 33 months from 2006 to 2008.

Former Jewish Community High School of the Bay classmates Alex Hettena and Daniel Levy reconnect on a military base in Tel Arad.

Even Israelis questioned them.

“A lot of people asked me: ‘Why are you here? Go back to America. It’s better there. You have more opportunities,’” said Hettena, a 21-year-old from San Francisco who served for 18 months from 2007 to 2008.

“But other people said, ‘Kol hakavod,’ which means ‘all the respect,’ ” she added. “They thought it was really admirable.”

Hettena was part of a sizeable contingent of lone soldiers that are female, 35 percent according to a new book, “Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders from Around the World.” The book also notes that about one-third of lone soldiers are religious Jews.

Furthermore, lone soldiers aren’t simply placed behind a desk and told to shuffle papers; according to the book, some 60 percent of them serve in combat units, with many of those in elite reconnaissance units.

Though lone soldiers enlist for many different reasons, one of the most common is to have an experience that is fundamentally Israeli.

“If you’re going to live in Israel as a man, it’s important to serve in the IDF,” Joseph said. “It’s a big part of the Israeli male identity that I needed and wanted to understand.”

David Joseph (left) gets ready for a 43-mile march that earned him a beret on the last day of basic training.

Joseph pointed out that for Jewish boys and men in the United States, there is no ritual comparable to the IDF. In American Jewish communities, he said, intellectual success is more valued than physical force.

Also, in contrast to the demographics of the U.S. military, the IDF is “the melting pot of Israel” — a term that all three Bay Area natives used in describing the Israeli military.

“A Jewish intellectual in the U.S. Army would probably feel very uncomfortable and out of place, but that’s not true in Israel,” said Joseph, who never considered joining the U.S. military for this reason.

Israeli soldiers go home more than soldiers in most other armies around the world. For example, it is not unusual for an IDF soldier to leave the base on Thursday night or Friday morning to get home in time for Shabbat, and return Sunday morning.

But what about the lone soldiers, whose families live thousands of miles away? Israeli military leaders are cognizant of their challenges, and the Defense Ministry’s Lone Soldier Program makes accommodations.

For example, lone soldiers are required to serve just 18 months, compared to two years for Israeli women and three years for men. They also receive a monthly stipend that is about double the salary for regular soldiers, and they get one free trip home if they are in a combat unit.

They even have the right to a day off every month to take care of tasks most regular soldiers don’t have to deal with, such as laundry or shopping.

“I was reminded how far away I was when I was doing my own laundry and my friends [in the army] would come back from their weekends and say, ‘Oh, I love it when my uniform has the smell of mom,’ ” Hettena said. “But I had a boyfriend during a chunk of my service, and his family took me in.”

Hettena and Levy each enlisted when they were 19 years old. Joseph moved to Israel after graduating from the University of Michigan, making him, at 23, older than most of his fellow soldiers and earning him the nickname “Grandpa.”

Levy is the oldest son of a Swiss-born mother, Rosemarie, and an Israeli-born father, Ephraim, who fought in the Six-Day War.

“My dad said he couldn’t encourage me to put myself in a situation where I would knowingly hurt myself, but he couldn’t stop me because he had done the same thing,” Levy said.

Basic training ranges from four weeks for some units to four months for others. And it’s difficult, Joseph said.

“The physical part is expected,” he said. “But the culture and language were difficult — army slang is not actual Hebrew, so it took a while to know what [my commanders] were saying to me. And I had to learn the culturally appropriate way to be assertive … so I wouldn’t be the polite American who always gets screwed.”

Levy and Joseph both served in combat units, and Hettena trained to be a basic training instructor, which included a course in guns and shooting. She learned every weapon inside and out — how to clean it, use it, take it apart and put it back together. And shoot it.

“It was a fun unit for me — I enjoyed it and found it satisfying,” Hettena said. “I had never held a machine gun before, and here I did.”

Joseph’s service from 1996 to 1998 occurred during a fairly peaceful period. After two months of advanced training, he  spent much of his time guarding the Lebanon border or transporting things from one military base to another. At times it was actually boring, he said.

Levy, on the other hand, reported for basic training in 2006, two months before what is known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War.

He was drafted into an infantry brigade and, in the middle of basic training, sent to the Lebanon border to work with artillery brigades and on small ambush missions.

His unit lost one Israeli sharpshooter in a bombing.

“It affected everyone in a huge way,” Levy said. “When you realize that guy is not going to wake up with you in the morning — then it’s weird.”

Levy trained to be a sharpshooter. He had planned to serve only the required 18 months, until his commander suggested he think about training and serving as a commander. To do so, he would need to sign up for more time. He did.

Just before his commander course, Levy flew to Berkeley to visit family and friends. He was struck by how much more mature, independent and audacious he was than his peers who had gone to college.

Upon realizing that, “all my fears and doubts about the army were erased,” Levy said.

His final test in the commander’s course required him to pass a 48-hour series of  written and physical tests, such as donning full combat gear and navigating his way through the desert without a map or radio.

“Just the stars and your own two feet,” he said. “That’s all.”

Levy spent time on the Gaza and Lebanon borders and in the West Bank, where he guarded checkpoints and participated in patrols and arrests. When army intelligence discovered a Palestinian home that was hiding weapons, he and his fellow soldiers would go in to arrest the suspect, bringing candy for the children “so they wouldn’t be afraid.”

“We had to adhere to a strict code of conduct,” Levy said. “That’s what made me feel good about being there. I was doing the right thing in all circumstances as a part of an army that always does the right thing, and that’s a beautiful and rare experience, especially under such circumstances.”

While Levy, Hettena and Joseph had different experiences in the army, they all agreed the experience changed them forever.

“I went in as a Jewish American, and I came out Israeli — it was a total transformation,” Joseph said. “I would even dream in Hebrew.”

The lone soldiers became more mature, self-assured and headstrong.

But such growth was not without struggle. It took Joseph months of civilian life to stop feeling like he was “living in incredibly slow motion.”

Re-adjusting life in the United States has been particular challenging for Levy, who still feels his identity is closely tied to being a soldier, even though he finished his service almost a year ago.

This has made him feel disconnected from his American friends and from American culture since resettling in the Bay Area this year.

“The concept of a friend in Israel was borne out of necessity, because the country would have been erased a long time ago if people weren’t there for one another,” he said. “Here, a friend is a convenience, a pleasure, someone people have to feel good about themselves. A favor is something you do for your friends here, but in Israel, the concept of a favor does not exist among friends. There is what’s right or what’s wrong — it’s very straightforward.”

Hettena completed her service in 2008 and spent a month traveling around Thailand with her IDF friends. She started school in September at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“The IDF definitely changed me as a person,” she said. “I became a lot more confident. I used to be passive, a good girl who wouldn’t ask questions, but I’ve become more assertive, which is very Israeli.”

Joseph moved back to the Bay Area in 1999, settling in Oakland and then getting a doctorate in psychology at Alliant University in San Francisco in 2007. For the past year, he has counseled to U.S. veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s not a coincidence that I work at the V.A. Hospital,” Joseph said. “I relate to the guys. I relate to their experience.”

Levy left the army in December 2008 and moved back to the States. The only job he could find when he first returned was at a clothing store, and he has since pieced together a few odd jobs.

“[Americans] don’t value military experience because people don’t understand what can be gained from it,” Levy said. “There’s a misconception that it’s all about learning how to shoot a gun or sit in the mud or do push-ups. But it’s not about any of those things. It’s about learning how to give yourself the ability to handle anything.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.