It started as a vacation: Israel.
Jake Fichman had never been there. Though Jewish, the former Barstow School and Park University graduate from south Kansas City concedes that, other than being bar mitzvahed and attending temple, he hadn’t for most of his life been deeply immersed in his faith or the militarized politics of the Middle East.
“For me, I’m not this army guy. It’s not how I was raised. For heaven’s sake, I’m vegan,” Fichman said recently.
That is why, only months after he returned from his trip in 2013, Fichman’s announcement to his family came as a surprise.
“Mom,” Fichman, then 23, recalls saying, “you might want to sit down. I’m thinking very seriously of volunteering in the Israeli army.”
Fichman, who enlisted in December 2014, is now a corporal and combat medic, part of a small but said to be growing group known as the “lone soldiers” inside the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.
The IDF and other groups report that of the 176,500 personnel who make up the active military, between 5,000 and 6,000 are lone soldiers — young men and women who are foreigners and whose parents do not live in Israel.
The support group Friends of the Israel Defense Forces estimates that a half-dozen Missouri and Kansas enlistees are among the 450 or so who enlist each year from the U.S.
Kansas Citian Katja Edelman, a graduate of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, said that she knew of only a handful of area people who had signed up with the IDF before she joined at age 21, leaving college in Michigan to serve from 2009 to 2012.
Edelman, now 26 and a student at Columbia University, rose to become a first sergeant in a combat unit that deployed bomb-sniffing dogs in the West Bank.
“Now, a lot more people are doing it,” Edelman said of IDF service.
About 1,100 lone soldiers active in the IDF are thought to have come from the United States, primarily from the coasts. Among home countries of foreign enlistees, the U.S. is outpaced only by Russia. The rest come from some 60 other nations.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon and it’s a relatively new phenomenon,” Herb Keinon, author of the 2009 book, “Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders from Around the World,” said by phone from Israel. “… It’s definitely growing.”
Tamir Oppenheim is a native Israeli who works as the Midwest regional executive director of the Friends of the IDF out of Chicago.
Like almost all young Israeli men and women, he was required to serve in the military at age 18. Men must put in a minimum of three years; women must put in two. Both genders serve in combat.
His initial reaction to lone soldiers?
“When I first saw these guys in my unit — it was two guys from the UK (United Kingdom) — I was 19 back then,” he said. “They were like 25 and 27. We thought, ‘Those guys are crazy.’ It was during the Lebanon war. We kept asking those guys, ‘Why the hell did you come? You could be safe in London.’
“Their message was very clear. ‘We, the Jews, have one homeland.’”
Keinon, who is diplomatic reporter for The Jerusalem Post, said the sacrifice of lone soldiers is recognized.
“The (enlistee) numbers are less significant than what it represents to the country,” he said. “These are kids who, again, come from all over the world. They’ve given up their comfortable lives to come here to fight in the army. That says something to the Israeli society. It sends an important message that you are not alone.”
Many lone soldiers, he said, “are in the top units. They’re in the combat units.”
In July, thousands of mourners turned out in Haifa for the funeral of 21-year-old Sean Carmeli. He was one of two lone soldiers from the U.S. who, along with 11 other Israeli soldiers, were killed in Gaza City during clashes with fighters from the Palestinian organization Hamas. The fighting took the lives of about 100 Palestinians.
Carmeli, who had moved to Israel about four years before, was originally from South Padre Island, Texas. His parents had emigrated there from Israel. His sisters and grandparents lived in Israel. Carmeli died along with Max Steinberg, 24, of Woodland Hills, Calif., who was serving as a sharpshooter.
In 2009, The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin was created in Israel to provide social and other support to the country’s foreign enlistees. It’s named after Levin, a 21-year-old lone soldier from Philadelphia who died in combat in 2006.
A duty, a challenge
Edelman — whose father, Alan Edelman, is the associate director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City — said her decision to serve arose from idealism as well as a personal sense of obligation to young Israelis her age.
“I went because it’s mandatory for 18-year-olds there to serve,” she said. “I felt that responsibility was mine just as much it was theirs.”
For Fichman, who turns 25 in February, service had more to do with self-discovery. In college, as in high school, he was a successful cross-country runner. By age 22, he and a friend had begun a hummus business and he had bought his own home. In some ways, he said, he already had a big part of the American dream.
“But once you reach that carrot and grab it, you kind of look around and realize there is so much more in life that I am enthralled by and interested in,” Fichman said.
For him, that was a deeper exploration of his faith and heritage.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” he said. “I wanted to test myself to see how far I could succeed in circumstances that were very difficult.”
His parents, Suzi and Rich Fichman, supported their youngest child’s decision. Fichman has an older brother, Ben, and a sister, Lauren.
“Of course I miss him terribly,” Suzi Fichman said. “That’s my baby.” Yes, she said, she can’t help but worry about his safety. But she also has seen him change.
“I think he is much more in touch with who he is as a Jewish person,” she said, “and who he is as a member of society, who he is as a man. He kind of left a boy. He has become a man.”
Fichman chose not to discuss what if any actions as a medic he has been involved in, other than to say that the training was grueling, particularly because all verbal instructions and manuals are in Hebrew. Before enlisting, Fichman didn’t know the language. For every hour he spent in class, he spent two to three extra hours each day, he said, translating texts from Hebrew to English.
Certainly there have been events in Kansas City in the last year that have reminded him that his two worlds are not far apart.
Fichman was in Israel in April when three people were gunned down outside Jewish community sites in Johnson County. In November, three rabbis, including Kalman Levine, 55, who grew up as Cary Levine in Kansas City, were murdered by two Palestinian men wielding axes and knives in an Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood.
“It was heartbreaking,” Fichman said of the tragedies.
His service is up in June. He said he expects soon to be promoted to sergeant. He’s not clear yet whether he will re-enlist.
“I’ve heard it all,” Fichman said. “Some guys will say, ‘You’re crazy, go home.’ Some will say, ‘That’s amazing. You’re a hero.’”
In the end, it doesn’t matter what others say.
“I’m not here for the politics,” Fichman said. “I’m here to be a support and to be a positive influence in something that is bigger than myself.”