Lone Soldiers: Bay Area Jews travel far to fight for Israel

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Sgt. Elan Lubliner still remembers the day he decided to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. He was 8 and traveling with his family in Israel when they stopped to pick up a hitchhiking soldier.

“I remember looking up at him, this big guy in his uniform, and he had his gun, and this sense of authority. I just went, ‘Wow. I want to be that!’” recalls the now-21-year-old Lafayette native, eyes widening at the memory. “And now, here we are. I am that.”

Thirteen years after the fateful encounter, Lubliner — a dark-haired, dark-eyed young man with something of a mischievous smile — is a study in contrasts.

On the one hand, he’s an active combat soldier in his third year of IDF service, part of a 12-member infantry unit in the Nachal brigade, stationed near the conflict-heavy Gaza Strip. On the other, he’s a typical California kid who loves In-N-Out Burger, plans road trips with his former high school friends and can’t wait for the next Batman movie to come out.

Elan Lubliner in the mountains by the Lebanon border. photo/Mike Fishbein

One thing is for certain: He’s far from alone. Lubliner is one of more than 5,000 “lone soldiers,” the army’s name for those serving in the IDF who have no immediate family in Israel.

Some 2,800 lone soldiers come from outside Israel, and about half of those are from North America, according to Taly Katz, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. At least 25 to 30 Bay Area residents make aliyah to join the IDF each year.

The FIDF, a national nonprofit based in New York, provides financial aid and otherwise supports the lone soldiers throughout their service and in the years that follow.

“When you’re that far from home, it helps tremendously just to know that there are people noticing and appreciating what you do,” says Katz, a former lone soldier herself. She grew up in Palo Alto but always felt a “very strong connection” to Israel; Katz made aliyah following high school graduation and went on to become a fitness instructor at an elite officers’ camp.

“I still remember getting gifts from the FIDF, even just something small, like a blanket, and being kind of shocked to think that here I am serving in the Israeli army, and there are people in the U.S. who are looking out for you,” she says. “Feeling appreciated sometimes just gives you that extra push to get through the day.”

While the challenges of serving in the army certainly are amplified by being far from home, many lone soldiers are more than up to the task. They are highly motivated, the statistics show: Rather than shuffling papers in an administrative IDF position, about 40 percent choose to enroll in front-line combat units.

“I was set on combat from the beginning,” says Lenore Fish, a Tel Aviv–born, Walnut Creek–raised soldier who recently finished her service with the IDF in a mixed-gender combat unit. “To me, it was, if I’m going to join, I have to do the biggest possible thing. I have to give it my all.”

For Fish, who graduated from Northgate High School in 2009, it was never a question of whether she would go back to Israel — it was a question of when.

“Even though I came here when I was quite young, I always felt a really strong attachment, like it was my duty to be there,” recalls the 21-year-old, who says Zionism has been part of her identity from a young age.

She’s just under 5 feet tall, with sun-streaked hair, an easy laugh and a slight California-girl accent. Which is to say, it’s tough to imagine this young woman learning Krav Maga in the blazing desert heat, or patrolling the Syrian-Israeli border during 12-hour shifts in an army tank, carrying an M-16.

“It took some getting used to,” she says with a shrug. “There are aspects of it that are really, really hard.” Fish, whose parents, Fanny and Douglas, were “100 percent” supportive of her decision, made an effort to keep in touch with her friends and family whenever possible.

Lenore Fish on the beach near Haifa

One person she had little trouble keeping track of was her 20-year-old sister Opal, who, about a year into Lenore’s service, followed in her footsteps and joined the IDF. Though the two didn’t get to see each other much after Opal’s basic training — the younger Fish felt she wasn’t suited to combat, and joined an elite navy unit that helps teach soldiers to swim — the familiar face did wonders for her older sister’s spirit.

“It was great just to speak English!” says Lenore, who knew a good amount of Hebrew but wasn’t fluent before she made aliyah. “And I could give her advice, let her know what was coming.”

Because the Fish girls were born in Israel and are older than 18, they could have been drafted into the army under Israeli law, had they visited for more than two months. But the decision to join the IDF was theirs alone. “I certainly didn’t have to go back there,” says Lenore. “I wanted to.”

For many American-born IDF soldiers, a strong Jewish identity is a driving force from an early age. That was the case for Lubliner, who said that drive grew over time into a sense of responsibility to a country that felt like a second home.

“I grew up loving Israel, and at a certain point it became … if everyone in Israel has to do it, why shouldn’t I?” says Lubliner. His father, Efi, is Israeli and his mother, Shira, worked in Jewish education. The family belonged to Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, and the young Lubliner participated in local branches of United Synagogue Youth and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. He attended and later worked at Camp Ramah in Ojai from ages 8 to 16. Family trips to Israel were frequent.

In 2002, Lubliner’s connection to the Jewish state took on a grave note when his cousin, the journalist Daniel Pearl, was slain by al Qaida operatives in Pakistan. Upon learning that Pearl’s last words were, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish,” the then-12-year-old internalized the threat Jews still faced in many parts of the world.

 “Danny’s death acquainted me with a terrible truth: People are murdered just for being who they are — in this case, for being Jewish,” he wrote in a college application essay in 2007. “It made me older. And it made me want to be like my cousin.”

Lubliner’s parents were “horrified” the first time their son mentioned his desire to join the IDF. “They tried everything to dissuade me. My father was saying, ‘It’s not what you think, it’s not fun, it’s incredibly hard,’ ” recalls the soldier. “But I was stubborn.”

Though he did apply to universities at his worried parents’ insistence, upon graduation from Campolindo High School in 2008 Lubliner did exactly what he’d known for years he would do: He made aliyah, traveling and working on kibbutzim, learning Hebrew and writing for the Jerusalem Post for a year before enlisting in the IDF.

That year was important for getting his bearings, which included learning what he calls “military Hebrew” (filled with slang, some Arabic, and lots of words that his Israeli father doesn’t quite understand, he explains).

Lubliner went on to be stationed in the West Bank, at the Lebanese border and now just outside Gaza — some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the country. The most trying post so far, he says, was keeping watch on a mountainside in Har Dov on the Lebanese border during winter.

Members of Elan Lubliner’s infantry unit

“You would be on duty for six hours, just freezing, staring into this endless fog, going, ‘What am I doing with my life? My friends are in college, partying, meeting girls and I’m doing this?!’ ” he says. “Then you’re off for three hours, and it’s not like you get to sleep. You’re cooking, doing dishes, cleaning bathrooms — you have to do those things for yourselves in the IDF, it’s not like the American army. It’s very humbling.”

One result of those trying few years is that Lubliner feels exceedingly close with soldiers in his unit. “They’re my brothers, because we’ve been through hell together,” he says. “We have laughs together sometimes, sure. Sometimes laughter is the only sane response to a situation … and I know that if I choose to live in Israel after this, I have a whole network of brothers here.”

Fish echoes that sentiment wholeheartedly.

“I’ll be in touch with some of these people for the rest of my life,” she says. “The people in your unit become like family, they give you so much love and motivation. You form these intense friendships, and they really keep you going.”

Some Israeli soldiers are incredulous that Americans would voluntarily join the IDF. “People would say, ‘Why would you want to be here, when you have everything in the U.S., you have such a nice life at home?’ ” says Lubliner. He responded simply that he felt it was his duty. The initial surprise, Lubliner and Fish agreed, quickly gave way to close-knit bonds with their fellow soldiers.

Those relationships are even more crucial for a lone soldier, who can’t retreat to Mom and Dad’s house for a hug and a home-cooked meal on the odd weekend away from base.

But the young men and women who volunteer for military service in Israel tend to be exceptional — and exceptionally resilient, according to Akiva Tor, consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region. Tor meets each year with a group of lone soldiers making aliyah through Garin Tzabar, a program of Friends of Israel Scouts.

“To my view, these men and women are really some of the best products of the Jewish community here,” says Tor, who shares his own experiences as a lone soldier with the group (he made aliyah from the United States in 1985, to serve as a paratrooper).

“It’s a testament to their parents and the education they’ve received, and to their own character. They have a tendency to do quite well in the army, and many of them go to elite units … but they’re modest. They think what they’re doing is quite natural.”

Lenore Fish (in uniform) at her basic training graduation in Shivta, with her mom, Fanny (left), sister, Opal (right), and commander

Most important on Tor’s standard list of advice for lone soldiers? “Rule No. 1: Learn to have a sense of humor about yourself.”

Since Tor served, he says, there’s a much more solid support system in place for soldiers going it alone. The FIDF, now in its 21st year, aims to be a regular presence in the lives of lone soldiers. In addition to helping pay for visits home during their army stint, the organization assists with making aliyah and helps ease the transition back into civilian life after their service is finished.

In 2011, FIDF sponsored flights home for 284 lone soldiers; around 30 of them were from the Bay Area, brought home with funds raised by the S.F. Bay Area chapter. The national organization also funded 265 aliyah flights and gave post-aliyah assistance to 584 soldiers. About half of the lone soldiers end up making permanent aliyah, according to Tor.

Lubliner feels grateful for the FIDF-funded trips home — his recent visit was his third in as many years. This trip also included travel to Los Angeles in December to represent the IDF alongside 16 other soldiers at an FIDF fundraiser that featured appearances by Barbra Streisand and actor Jason Alexander. “One minute I was in Gaza, the next I was staying at the Hyatt in Hollywood!” he says. “Bizarre.”

Fish, who returned home around Thanksgiving after completing her service, says she’s still readjusting to life after the army, including making her own schedule (“it’s really, really, really nice”) and treasuring time at home in Walnut Creek with her parents (and their cooking) — because she knows for certain that she’s headed back to Israel soon.

“I’m applying to schools in Tel Aviv, so by fall I’ll be back,” says Fish, who wants to study humanities and is considering pursuing psychology. “I get so many [veterans’] benefits there … and honestly, when I’m in the States now, it’s not the same. I have a life there to get back to. It’s home.”

Lubliner returned to the army Jan. 12 and will complete his service in early May. After that, the soldier — a lifelong writer who has kept a prolific blog full of short stories and thoughts on Israel and his time in the service — plans to travel around Europe before returning home. He’s been applying to writing programs at universities in California and in Israel and is undecided about which direction he’ll go next.

“The last few months have been funny — I’ll literally be curled up in an army tank writing a personal statement for college,” he says. “But I do feel like I have a lot more to say from this experience. You see people at their highs and lows in the army. It’s been a lesson about human nature.

“It’s made me grateful for so many little things … like, I guess, freedom?” he says with a laugh. “And that’s when I realize, I don’t regret it for a second. I can’t imagine having done anything else.”


Cover photo | Mike Fishbein

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.