Diaspora Jews, including Metro Detroiters, sign on to help protect Israel.
It was years ago on May 14, 1948 the fifth day of lyar, when every Jew’s life would change forever. David Ben-Gurion publicly read the Israeli Declaration of Independence aloud in front of 250 attendees at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and Israel officially became a state – a Jewish state.
At the conclusion of Ben-Gurion’s near 16-minute reading, he called on Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman, leader of the religious Zionist movement, to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing to close the ceremony, a common prayer to celebrate special occasions, but also to encourage Jews to offer thanks to new and unusual experiences.
In this spirit of unusual experiences as well as the celebration of that special day now known as Yom HaAtzmaut, it seems appropriate to highlight three of the young Metro Detroiters who took the ultimate unusual act of bravery. They left their suburban lives to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as Lone Soldiers from the United States.
A “Lone Soldier” is a term given to IDF soldiers who come from the diaspora and voluntarily serve in the Israeli military. Generally, they have very little to no immediate family in Israel.
Lone Soldiers receive assistance and support from both Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the IDF (FIDF) through their Lone Soldiers Program, which helps these olim (new immigrants) financially, socially and emotionally during their challenging military service. According to the FIDF, at any given time, there are more than 2,500 young adults serving as Lone Soldiers.
Three Detroit-area Lone Soldiers, two present and one just released, share stories about their IDF service in protection of the Jewish homeland.
Aaron Goss, 24, – West Bloomfield
Aaron Goss enlisted in the IDF through the Mahal program (where volunteers do not need to become Israeli citizens) about one year ago and signed up for an 18-month service.
He serves in HaTzanhanim, the Israeli paratrooper brigade. His decision to enlist in this unit stems primarily from an event he wasn’t even alive for, but one that seems so ripe in Israeli history — the 1967 War. It was the paratrooper brigade that took Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, one of the defining events in Israel and world Jewish history.
“My connection with Jerusalem runs deep,” Aaron said. “The history and religious significance of the Holy City made me want to join this unit because it might not be ‘ours’ if it weren’t for the paratroopers.”
It was this exact week during his junior year at Michigan State University when Aaron decided to embark on this unforgettable journey. Studying abroad at Hebrew University, he went on a group trip he will never forget.
“We went on a sort of field trip for Yom HaZikaron, which is the day of remembrance for Israel’s fallen soldiers and the victims of terrorist attacks, and also Yom HaAtzmaut and, really, my friends and I at that time were just kind of joking about joining the army,” Aaron recalled. “But when we went to Har Herzl [military cemetery] and Ammunition Hill, I was overcome with emotion and knew at that moment that once I graduated college, it was a done deal — I was going to join the IDF.”
Aaron is currently based in Mount Hermon on the Syrian border, where he primarily engages in guard duty and outpost watching. Several times each day his unit hikes along the Syrian border to make sure there are no infiltrators or anyone who should not be there.
“We ended paratrooper training two months ago with a two-week simulated war, and within those two weeks we hiked around 200 kilometers,” he said. “The last night we hiked the final 60 kilometers to get to the finish at Ammunition Hill, where our ceremony started. When we entered Jerusalem, there were a lot of parents waiting for us, and they actually walked the last mile with us to the finish. My parents were two of them, so that was really special to have them with me.”
His mother, Karen, said, “You raise them to be supportive of Israel and Zionistic and then, low and behold, your son goes ahead and puts his life on the line. It’s scary, but there is so much pride, too.”
His father, Ken, said, “He was so committed to this, and we really were nothing but supportive; we would only regret it if we were any other way. This was his mission at this point in his life.”
Aaron has five months left of service, after which he intends to come back to the United States and look for a job. As Yom HaAtzmaut approaches, along with the anniversary of the day he made his decision to join the IDF, Aaron says he will look at this year’s celebration in a much different light.
“I think Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut will definitely hit me a little harder this year than previous years,” Aaron said. “I am a soldier now, and I’m sure I will embody a different, more impactful sense of pride knowing that I am doing what I can to protect the country.”
Stephanie Horwitz, 22, – West Bloomfield
Arthur Horwitz remembers the text message he received from his daughter Stephanie like it was yesterday. Stephanie, training to be a tank shooting instructor in the IDF, was elated about her recent accomplishment of nailing two targets from her tank at 1,935 meters, about 1.2 miles, during a training exercise.
“I don’t think it’s a text message that many fathers from the United States receive, or anyone, anywhere, for that matter,” said Horwitz, JN publisher and executive editor.
Stephanie chose the unusual road from an organizational studies major at the University of Michigan to serving on the base for tank schooling in southern Israel. Her goal to be a tank shooting instructor is surely the path less traveled, especially for women, and even more so for a Lone Soldier whose Hebrew was not completely fluent upon enlistment.
“I wanted to go over the edge and do something a little crazy for my service,” she said. “I thought teaching other soldiers how to shoot tanks would be wild and totally out of my comfort zone. I was certainly right. Sometimes when I am guarding a tank at 3 in the morning, I’ll take a step back and just laugh. I’ll think about my time at U-M and now I’m here, just thinking over how unbelievably drastic that change is.”
Stephanie made aliyah on a Nefesh B’Nefesh/FIDF charter flight in August 2013 with more than 150 other like-minded young adults from around the country. She officially joined the IDF in December after her initial time at her particular Garin Tzabar kibbutz in the north of Israel. She then went on to do a three-month course of training in the armored corps.
It wasn’t until her graduation ceremony from basic tank training at Latrun when her father really got a sense of the impact Stephanie was making on her fellow soldiers in her short tenure thus far.
As Arthur and his wife, Gina, arrived at Latrun, site of an Israeli tank memorial and museum, to see their daughter graduate from basic tank training, Stephanie asked them to follow her. She led them to the head of the brigade and instructors who congratulated them for Stephanie’s distinction as the most outstanding role model and one who leads by example in the unit. There are only two awards given out for the entire unit, and the other 30 girls in the unit and their instructors voted for the honor she received.
“It was a complete surprise to us,” Horwitz said. “Stephanie didn’t even find out until two days before the ceremony so she thought she’d surprise us. The head of the brigade personally rolled down Stephanie’s sleeve to show her two stripes, and the head instructor personally fastened the lanyard to her shoulder.
“I have been fortunate to have had many happy occasions in my life, but that will rank as one of the very top for me. With the platoon in the background, Israeli flag fluttering above us and Stephanie getting this recognition, there’s nothing quite like that. The fact that Stephanie, who made aliyah in August and by March was selected for distinction in the Israeli Army, I think speaks a lot about the person she is.”
Stephanie is now doing what she refers to as a “residency,” where she will learn all of the specialty material and instruction on how to officially teach tank soldiers how to shoot.
Hannah Alexander, 22, – Ann Arbor
Hannah Alexander grew up in Ann Arbor with Zionist and even, according to her, socialist beliefs, but more than anything it was her personal drive to challenge herself and be part of something bigger that made her move to Israel and join the IDF.
After graduating from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, she went to Israel on a gap-year program with Young Judaea. This experience really facilitated her aliyah and subsequent enlistment in the IDF. In August 2011, Hannah joined a Nefesh B’Nefesh/FIDF charter flight to Israel and started her basic training after her time on the Garin Tzabar kibbutz — Kibbutz Magen — located directly next to the Gaza Strip.
Hannah served in the Foreign Relations unit, working with the Egyptian military for peacekeeping efforts in the Gaza and Sinai region. Essentially, according to Hannah, she would work in different capacities to keep the peace treaty with Egypt intact and engage in rapid response to events along the border.
Even more interesting is that Hannah chose to stay at Kibbutz Magen after her initial integration period was over. Again, Magen is only a stone’s throw away from the Gaza Strip, where she would regularly work on thwarting terrorist attacks and the passing of illegal information as part of her army job.
“There were certainly no boring or dull times, ever,” she said. “We would deal regularly with a lot of terrorist attacks along the Gaza region at work. I saw and dealt with information that is classified and intense, but then I would go home and have to live it minute-by-minute on my kibbutz.
“I wouldn’t recommend to someone living so close to their job in the army. It made the conflicts very real for me.”
Her first year in the army was going very smoothly until a little bit of homesickness hit.
“You never know what you have until it’s gone,” Hannah said. “A year into the army, I really started to miss my family. Having people who care so much for you, that support you, in one place, I missed that, because the army is not a very safe and comfortable environment.”
Hannah was released from the army on Feb. 14 of this year, one month later than her original commitment. Her unit needed help so she signed on for an extra month.
“I’m ready to start my real life and have my individual freedom back,” she said.
Hannah now will embark on a journey that essentially all Israelis do after their army service — travel. She plans on traveling across the U.S. before going to Scotland and Spain. ■
Jake Sharfman | Special to the Jewish News