It was an easy decision for Andrew Bloom.
After graduating from a Maryland high school, the young Jewish man knew there was only one place for him to go: Israel.
He wanted to join the military there and be part of the legions of soldiers working to preserve the continued freedom of the Jewish community.
“If you truly believe in something, then you have to be active,” said Bloom, 46, who now serves as rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth. “Life shouldn’t be a spectator sport.”
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Year after year, people just like Bloom leave their homes — and everything and everyone they know and love — to journey across the world to the Middle East and join the Israel Defense Forces.
They come not just from the United States, but also from countries as far away as Australia, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, because they believe in Israel, the place that through history has been home to their faith.
Their beliefs are so strong that they are willing to fight — and die, if necessary, as a Texas man recently did — to protect the Jewish state.
They are the Lone Soldiers.
In Israel, young men and women have no choice but to join the military.
At age 18, men begin serving three years and women begin two years in the service.
And each year, other young men and women across the world leave their homes to join the estimated 170,000 members of the Israel Defense Forces.
Several thousand Lone Soldiers serve in the IDF, about one-third from the United States, estimates say.
Ten are from Texas.
“People very much revere them,” said Scott Kammerman, executive director of the Texas chapter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in Houston. “There’s pretty much a universal appreciation and love for the fact they are giving up the relative safety of their home country.
“Instead of going to college or partying, they are uprooting their lives, going there and making a commitment to the nation.”
To join the service, these soldiers must gain dual citizenship, which U.S. officials say generally doesn’t pose a problem.
“Service with the IDF is something that many Americans do proudly and we have no issues,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said recently.
‘Love and appreciation’
Violence has escalated in and near Israel, killing, injuring and displacing thousands.
The death toll has risen as Israeli troops and Hamas militants continue to fight, claiming the lives recently of more than a dozen Israeli soldiers, including at least two Lone Soldiers, one from Texas.
Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, of South Padre Island and 12 other service members died last weekend fighting Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Carmeli moved to Israel four years ago and joined the military after finishing high school there.
Thousands of Israelis turned out for the funeral because they didn’t want Carmeli to be alone when he went to his final resting place.
“They wanted to show love and appreciation,” said Itamar Gelbmanl of Flower Mound, a former special forces lieutenant in the IDF.
Gelbman, 33, was born in New York and lived in Israel with his family by the time he joined the forces.
Not a Lone Soldier, he served from age 18 to 22 until he left as a special forces lieutenant and headed to the United States.
Here he has worked in several capacities, including security consultant and businessman. In 2012, he unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, for a seat in the U.S. House.
He said Lone Soldiers in Israel are highly regarded.
To make sure they never feel alone, Israeli families “adopt” a soldier to make sure he or she has a friendly place to go when there is a break in service.
“It gives them a place they can call home,” Gelbman said. “Israelis do everything they can to support them.”
He said his family still lives in Israel and his parents are considering adopting a Lone Soldier.
As well as the emotional support, these soldiers receive a greater stipend to help with housing. And they receive financial help to get an education once they leave the service.
Bloom, who served as a combat medic in an artillery unit, said, “The army, realizing the importance of every individual and that no one should be alone, helps them find housing.”
The defense forces help in other ways, he said, including giving him the chance to travel home during his service to spend time with his family.
“They realize the soldier is not only a soldier on the battlefield, but an emissary,” he said.
And there are groups such as the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces that help with travel and scholarships — in addition to sending care packages containing food and items including clean underwear, shampoo and toothpaste — to soldiers in need.
‘He belongs there’
Ze’ev Bar-Yadin was 15 when he told his parents that he wanted to move to Israel, his father’s homeland, to finish school.
Reuben Bar-Yadin, said it was tough to let his son move away from San Antonio, but he felt he needed to let him go.
After Ze’ev Bar-Yadin graduated from high school last year, he joined the Israel Defense Forces.
“He said he felt that he belongs there,” said his father, who was born in Israel and moved to Texas with his family at age 11. “He grew up in a Zionist home and we love Israel. He grew up visiting Israel every year.
“It’s part of our heritage, part of our culture.”
Last month, the family visited Israel to watch the son graduate from basic training.
Ze’ev Bar-Yadin is assigned to an elite combat unit and helps patrol areas where militants have moved underground, using tunnels to try to kidnap and kill Israeli soldiers.
Last week, Ze’ev Bar-Yadin spent time with his good friend Carmeli, since they both had some time off.
They took a “selfie” of themselves before Carmeli, who served in the Golani Brigade elite unit, went on to Gaza. Bar-Yadin stayed in the area where his unit was stationed.
He learned the next morning that Carmeli had been killed overnight, a victim of the first major ground battle in two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
“I called my son and he had just found out,” Reuben Bar-Yadin said. “He was in shock; he was hysterical.”
Ze’ev Bar-Yadin was allowed to leave for 24 hours to attend Carmeli‘s funeral in Haifa.
He was among the thousands of people there — encouraged by groups such as the Maccabi Haifa soccer team — to show up to honor Carmeli.
“Let’s give respects to [a] hero who died so that we could live,” said a Maccabi Haifa message posted on Facebook. “It’s the least we can do for him and for our people.”
Zeev Bielski, mayor of Ra’anana, was among those who spoke at the funeral.
She noted that Carmeli had grown up “among the beautiful vistas of Texas. You chose to make your life here,” the Haaretz news service quoted he r as saying. “You overcame the difficulties of integrating into the country. You were popular and you gave of yourself.”
Never truly alone
Reuben Bar-Yadin said he is proud of his son, and of all Lone Soldiers who head to Israel.
“They come with passion and idealism and they want to serve,” he said. “They are there not because they have to be. They have such good hearts. They are so selfless. They want to give back.”
It takes every soldier — both in Israel and from other countries — to protect the homeland of so many.
“Israel would not exist if not for a strong, supportive army,” Bar-Yadin said. “It’s our civic duty. Israel is surrounded by hostile Arabs who want to destroy the tiny state of Israel.
“It’s a miracle it exists,” he said. “It exists because of the people.”
And he and others know one thing.
Lone Soldiers aren’t ever truly alone — in life or death.
“You are always in Israelis’ hearts,” Bloom said.