While many around the world are shocked to witness increasing numbers of radicalized young people running off to join the brutal would-be caliphate of Islamic State, little attention is paid to their more pacific and principled counterparts who leave behind family and friends to pursue ennobled causes elsewhere.

Among the latter are a group of volunteers in the Israel Defense Forces who have no ties to the Holy Land other than a strong feeling of affinity for its fundamental values. Some of them are native Israelis — orphans with disadvantaged backgrounds — but most are immigrants recently arrived from around the world, the majority from Russia and the United States.


"They are coming because of their sense of responsibility," said Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Gershon, national director of Friends of the IDF. "They understand the importance of the State of Israel, not just for Jews but for the free world. We are fighting radical movements who seek to destroy."

That may not have been the case with the first lone soldier, David "Mickey" Marcus, who was born in Manhattan in 1901 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He joined the nascent Jewish army in Mandatory Palestine a few months before the country's Declaration of Independence in May 1948 and went on to become modern Israel's first military general. He commanded the Jerusalem front during the war that followed and shortly thereafter was killed by friendly fire. He was buried at West Point, the only resting place for an American killed fighting under another country's flag. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, mourned General Marcus as "the best man we had."

But the modern group of lone soldiers in the IDF — currently about 6,000 of them, half of whom serve in combat units — are millennials raised in a new world of terror and tension who now find themselves in a place that's experienced unrest first-hand for the last half-century. They've had little time to get used to the realities here. Most IDF members were born in Israel and grew up with intimate knowledge of its universal military system; they have close families, with whom they often spend weekends and holidays. Many of the lone soldiers, on the other hand, are left to fend for themselves at their bases, on a monthly salary of about $250. Loneliness is a major problem. So is homesickness, which doesn't go away easily even for Americans with a passion for Israel.

More than two dozen of the current lone soldiers come from Baltimore. "The thought of my people — cousins in my mind — living under rocket fire was intolerable," said Alex Simone, who attended Beth Tfiloh High School and the University of Maryland. "I wanted to do something about it, and I knew I was still young enough to serve." Jordan Low (Beth Tfiloh) was injured last summer while fighting in Gaza. Mordechai Graham (Yeshivat Rambam High School) also saw significant front-line action helping to root out Hamas' tunnels from Gaza into southern Israel, for which he was specially commended by the IDF.

Moshe Lehmann (Rambam) is currently serving in the Givati Brigade, an elite amphibious force distinguished by their purple berets. He recently undertook a personal effort to acquire important pieces of American-made equipment for members of his unit: light and durable combat vests, which are used to carry ammunition clips, water, tourniquets, radios and other essential tools. The vests with which the IDF outfits its soldiers are old-fashioned, bulky and inefficient; many are worn through with torn pockets and broken zippers. "They are functional but far from ideal," he wrote in a letter to friends and family in Baltimore. "We are trying to raise the funds necessary to purchase high-quality combat vests and replace our current standard-issue units. ... Hopefully, they will only ever be needed for training but if duty calls, we will be ready."

All of the lone soldiers are ready for, but do not want, another combat mission. Last summer three of them were killed during the war in Gaza. The first to fall was Sean Carmeli, from South Padre Island, Texas, whose small Orthodox synagogue was named after his grandfather. His funeral in Israel was announced with little fanfare — just a brief notice in the Israeli media about where and when the burial would take place. Within hours some 20,000 spontaneous mourners from all over this passionate little country appeared at the cemetery, blocking roads for miles around.

There's no telling how many tears were shed for someone they didn't really know, but who had become one of their own.

Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore and director of its Haifa Summer Law Institute. His email is klasson@ubalt.edu.