When she was in 10th grade, Risa Kelemer made up her mind: She wanted to serve in the army.
The Israeli army.
A member of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Greenspring and a student at Yeshivat Rambam in Park Heights, 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," said Kelemer, 21, 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 Berry, director of the Midatlantic Region of Friends of the IDF, which is based in Rockville. "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 have come home during the conflict in Gaza, where Jordan Low, a 19-year-old graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School from Pikesville, 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.
The latest round of hostilities erupted last month after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank and the apparently retaliatory abduction and killing of a Palestinian teen near Jerusalem. Officials put the death count Saturday at 1,669 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 63 Israeli soldiers.
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 of 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."
His concerns led to discussion with his Israeli-born comrades.
"I would never have dreamt of saying, 'No, I'm not going to protect the settlements because I disagree with them ideologically,'" he said. "But I still argued with my commanders, and I argued with my fellow soldiers about what we were doing there."
Many of his Israeli-born comrades came of age during the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 and ended in 2005 with 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead.
Benjamin said his fellow soldiers found it hard to empathize with the Palestinians.
"Everything to them is so personal that they can't possibly fathom how I can talk about diplomacy, or making concessions, or giving back the settlements. Because why would we give back the settlements? 'We gave them back in Gaza, and what did we get? More war,'" he said. "Honestly, it's a fair point. My argument with them always was, you cannot give in to cynicism. You cannot believe that all people are evil."
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."
Some go to Israel specifically to join the IDF; others emigrate to make a life there, knowing that they'll be required at some point to serve.
Shamai Siskind was 13 when he moved with his family from Parkville to a settlement outside Jerusalem in 2003. His parents returned to Baltimore in 2007, but he stayed. He's now a combat engineer in the West Bank.
"It's the same thinking that we all have," he said. "We feel a very strong connection here. This is the Jewish homeland. This is where the future of the Jewish people is. It's an unbelievable project that's going on. And any opportunity that you have to be attached to it in any way that you can is a tremendous privilege."
In Baltimore, parents of the soldiers talk about their children's service with a mix of awe and fear.
"As a mother, watching your child say, 'I'm going to do this, I know it's not going to be easy, and I'm going to do it because it's really important to me and it's really important for the rest of the Jewish people' — that's just incredible as a parent to watch," said Amian Kelemer, Risa's mother. "So, just this incredible sense of pride. And, of course, this incredible sense of terror."
Families of the Lone Soldiers communicate with one another through a closed group on Facebook and a listserv. They have also gathered for holidays and other occasions.
"In Baltimore, there's definitely a sense of camaraderie," Amian Kelemer said. "You just have an incredible sense of wanting to support all of the kids who have made the choice and wanting to be together with the other families."
Benjamin, now a film student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is watching the news out of Gaza with a sense of trepidation.
"I'm concerned that we're going to reoccupy Gaza, and the idea of that terrifies me," he said. "Not only because it's a political quagmire, but because personally, for my friends, it's so much more likely that one of us will be kidnapped. It's so much more likely that some of us will be killed. And ever since we put men on the ground into Gaza, there have been many, many more casualties on both sides."
Risa Kelemer helped to patrol the Israeli-Egyptian border as a member of the IDF's Caracal Battalion, said to be the world's first infantry battalion to be made up of both male and female soldiers. She completed her military obligation in March, and now is studying international relations and communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
She was visiting a friend in southern Israel last month when the air raid sirens sounded and they had to rush to shelter from a rocket strike. She hopes Israel finishes the operation in Gaza — and that it's "the last operation."
"Civilians can't live like that," she said. "People can't live in this fear."
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