Major Avital Knacht, who deals with lone soldiers in the IDF human resources branch, said the IDF does not give out information about the number of its lone soldiers or those serving in combat units. However, she noted that the rate of volunteering for combat units among lone soldiers is higher than in the general population. Knacht said the lone soldiers "come to Israel ready to give their all, and the best way to do that is through combat duty."
Aharon Horwitz, a former lone soldier from Cleveland, said that as a teenager, he felt that "Israel is a Jewish state and so I thought that I also had a responsibility to serve." He said his parents were supportive, but "it was hard for my mother to be so far away and not know where I was. Some of my [lone soldier] friends had parents who were less supportive and so that was difficult." According to Horwitz, the American soldiers he came across were some of the most idealistic ones in his IDF service. "They would always volunteer for things like kitchen duty. They were very motivated because they are volunteers, which is a self-selecting group." Speaking from his bed at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, in American-accented Hebrew military slang, Grapel told Haaretz that after he decided to serve in the army during a year of study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, he thought it should be in a combat unit. Grapel, whose father is Israeli, has a grandfather in Tel Aviv and distant relatives in Hod Hasharon; however, Ruthie, a childhood friend of his father Danny, opened her home to him and became his adopted family. When Grapel told his parents of his desire to serve in a combat unit he said his father took it naturally but his mother Irene was afraid. "But she was afraid before I joined up because I rode the buses," Grapel said.
Josh Sekenofsky, a lone soldier from England, and a roommate of Michael Levin, admitted that serving so far from family can sometimes be difficult. "It can be lonely when you are on leave and you are by yourself. But for Mikey and me, this was something we always wanted to do. We used to listen to the news outside of Israel, and it got to the point where we couldn't listen to the news anymore, that we need to do something about it."
An estimated 2,300 lone soldiers are currently serving in the IDF, most of them coming from the Former Soviet Union. But soldiers from Western countries are serving as well, including an estimated 120 who are North American-born. Some are the sons of Israelis living abroad but most have no prior connection to Israel.
Many come to Israel with the intention to settle here, but some come only to serve in the army.
"On one hand, I feel total pride, since I spent my whole life raising our kids to be Zionists," Marla Comet-Stark, who lives in Ohio and whose son is now in basic training in Givati, told Haaretz. "But, on the other hand, I feel like saying 'just kidding, I didn't really mean the whole Zionism thing - there are other ways to help Israel.'" Tziki Aud, who serves as an adopted father for many lone soldiers and is also head of the Jewish Agency's information center for new immigrants, knew Michael and his friends well. "These are people who came only out of ideology and Zionism," he said. "They had no economic interests and could have made more money if they stayed in America. Their friends went off to college, but they decided to make aliyah [emigrate to Israel] instead. Sometimes, these soldiers come without the support of their families. Their parents are in the U.S. and once they come here, their friends become their family."
Yaakov Seligman, 20, joined the army in March of this year, leaving his family and friends behind in South Florida. Raised in an observant family, he attended Jewish and Zionist schools and says he always dreamed about moving to Israel. Most of his former classmates are in the U.S., enjoying the relaxed life of an American college student. But Seligman says that he is doing something "more meaningful." His parents, he says, are "proud, but worried."
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