Yotam Nahum of Sunnyvale gets a breather while on duty in the IDF.
Yotam Nahum of Sunnyvale gets a breather while on duty in the IDF.

Meet the Nahums: These three Bay Area siblings proudly serve in the IDF

One by one, three Israeli-born siblings who grew up in Sunnyvale are serving as “lone soldiers” in the Israel Defense Forces.

Amit Nahum, 22, enlisted in 2017 when she was 18. Following in her footsteps, younger brother Yotam, 20, a Homestead High School graduate, began his service two years later. Their younger brother, Tzlil, 18, will enlist in January.

“Now we are empty-nesters,” said their mother, Rotem Nahum. “So it’s kind of hard. But … if they will not come back here, probably we’ll be reunited in Israel,” she said. She and her husband are discussing a permanent move back to Israel to be near their kids and extended family.

There are roughly 7,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the IDF, comprising close to 2 percent of all soldiers. The term refers to someone who enlists in the IDF from another country and does not have a home or immediate family living in Israel. Some 35 percent come from the United States, according to the support network the Lone Soldier Center.

About half of all lone soldiers are Israeli-born, according to the center. Most are orphans who have grown up in Israel or are born-and-raised Israelis whose ultra-Orthodox families shunned them when they enlisted.

The other 50 percent are immigrants from outside of Israel, who often have little to no grasp of the Hebrew language and require help in assimilating to Israeli culture while in service.

Friends of the IDF, the nonprofit organization that paid for Yotam’s flights this November to spend a month with his family in Sunnyvale, is one of a few organizations dedicated to emotionally and financially supporting lone soldiers.

FIDF invests around $5 million every year in its Lone Soldiers Program, in collaboration with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which includes support both for Israelis and for immigrants making aliyah to Israel. FIDF is currently constructing a $17 million Lone Soldier Home in Rishon LeZion that will consist of individual rooms for 200 soldiers.

The Nahum siblings are not typical lone soldiers, being born in Israel and raised speaking Hebrew. They immigrated to the United States in 2007 from Kfar Tavor, a village in the Lower Galilee of Israel, when their mother got a job offer from a technology company in Silicon Valley. Sunnyvale has been the family’s home ever since.

I’ve been in so many environments that have been harsh and stuff like that. And because I overcame that, it made me more mature and stronger

They are not typical lone soldiers in another way as well: Because they were born in Israel, all three are required to serve in the IDF once they reach the age of 18. But because they were children when they left Israel, they could have opted to defer their service. Deferment means that they would not need to serve in the military as long as they continue to reside outside of Israel.

“We never pushed the kids to do the service,” Rotem said of their decision to serve in the IDF. “We are very, very proud of them. But we kind of thought, you do your own path. You decide what you want to do. I don’t want to force them to college or to go back to Israel, because it’s a hard decision.”

For Yotam, the only sibling currently in active service, returning to Israel as a soldier in the IDF was made easier by the fact that most of his friends in California were also Israeli. In high school he joined the Friends of Israel Scouts, Inc, more commonly referred to as Tzofim, which offered him programming and a social circle geared toward encouraging Israeli American teens to support Israel.

“That definitely drew me in more into the Israeli culture, because there were a lot of Israelis there,” Yotam told J. during his monthlong visit to see his family in the Bay Area. “So that definitely made me want to move to Israel more. And eventually, I just got more and more persuaded to do it.”

In his senior year, his American-born friends questioned his choice to join the IDF rather than go to college. Yotam had applied to schools within California as backup options but was certain his first choice was to serve in the IDF.

“It was a lot of questions in that type of way, like, ‘Why would you do this? How is it benefiting you in the next three years to have your time in the army in Israel and not focus on learning?’” Yotam said.

With fewer than eight months left in his service, Yotam says he has not only learned life skills but has matured as a person, too.

“I’ve been in so many environments that have been harsh and stuff like that. And because I overcame that, it made me more mature and stronger,” Yotam said.

Serving in the Nahal Brigade Bazelet Battalion, one of five infantry brigades in the IDF, Yotam spent four months on duty near the Gaza border, coinciding with last spring’s violent conflict when rockets were flying in and out of the Gaza Strip.

When he’s not on duty, he lives in a house provided by the support organization Garin Sabar with close to 20 other lone soldiers, whom he calls his “friends for life.” He also gets to spend time with his sister, cousins and aunts, and FaceTimes with his mom and dad as often as he can.

Yotam plans to stay in Israel after completing his service next year and wants to earn a college degree from an Israeli university. He also expects to help his brother adjust to Israeli life, as his sister did for him.

“That connection that I had, having someone from home with me here,” Yotam said, “definitely relaxed me and eased me more into everything in the process from the start.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.