Alissa Neubauer, wearing a white tank top, leggings and a thin silver nose-ring, stood in the sprawling baggage check-in line at JFK with her mother and grandmother. While her mother manned the luggage cart piled high with duffels, her grandmother held tightly onto her granddaughter’s arm while crying softly into a tissue.
Unlike most 19-year-olds, Neubauer, from Philadelphia, who considers herself culturally Jewish, isn’t worrying about class schedules or course readings as summer draws to a close. Instead, she’s gearing up to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“I thought maybe if I didn’t buy her suitcases, she wouldn’t go,” her grandmother said. “But she had her mind made up.”
“I’m the one going home” to the Jewish homeland, Neubauer said. “Why be nervous?”
Neubauer, along with 107 other young men and women planning to serve in the IDF, boarded a charter flight to Israel on Monday. The day before, Randy Levine, president of the Yankees, treated 40 of the young soon-to-be soldiers to a game in the Bronx.
The Nefesh b’ Nefesh flight, organized in cooperation with several other organizations and government agencies, carried a total of 338 new immigrants from the United States and Canada, including the IDF recruits known as lone soldiers, those without parents in Israel.
In the wake of the month-long war in Gaza, the memory of the three lone soldiers killed in combat — Max Steinberg, 23, of Los Angeles, Nissim Sean Carmelli, 21, of South Padre Island, Texas, and Jordan Bensemhoun, 22, of Lyon, France — is still fresh. But their deaths haven’t deterred foreign soldiers from enlisting. In fact, interest in joining the IDF has spiked, according to Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder of Nefesh b’Nefesh, which aids immigrants in the process of moving to Israel.
“Many lone soldiers wanted to bump up their aliyah and join this flight, but we had to turn them down because the flight was already booked,” he said.
Of the lone soldiers who did board the charter flight, half of them were women.
The popularity of female lone soldiers has been growing steadily in recent years. Of the 6,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the IDF, fully a third are women, according to an IDF spokesperson. As the only military in the world where women’s service is mandatory, 92 percent of positions, including combat roles, are open to women.
Aliza Green, 23, is headed straight for combat.
“I want to defend my country in the most basic way possible,” she said, standing next to her parents after checking in her luggage. She wore sunglasses, a midriff-bearing tank top, and several necklaces, one a Jewish star. Her parents, though nervous, described themselves as “proud.”
“I’m nervous when she’s away from home for half an hour, of course I’m going to be nervous about this,” said Green’s mother.
For Green, who didn’t become involved in Israel-related issues until she went on a Birthright Israel trip in 2011, defending the Jewish state is not something new. A graduate of Temple University, Green served as the president of the Hillel Israel club, the largest pro-Israel group on campus, and participated in the Hasbara Fellowships, an intensive Israel-activism program that bring North American university students to Israel for seminars and training. While working on Israel advocacy, she also studied Arabic in college, and wrote her high school graduating thesis on the social identities of Israeli and Palestinian youth.
“I never thought of myself as a political person, until I realized I had to be,” said Green, who hopes to pursue a career in diplomacy after her army service. She described coming face to face with virulent anti-Zionism on campus.
“As a member of the Israel board, I dealt with protests about us getting a new building. I saw students advocating for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), and I had to respond. As I leader, I realized the importance of being politically pro-Israel.”
Green’s close correspondence with Palestinian children during her senior exit project made her decision to join the IDF more complicated. Though she never doubted the choice, Green is aware of the international criticism leveled at the IDF since the Gaza war began.
“The civilian death toll in Gaza is tragic,” she said. “I have a close relationship with several Palestinians, and it’s painful to see.”
Still, Green said Israel “need not apologize” for defending itself.
“I think the world, and even Palestinians, are beginning to realize that civilians are being persecuted and oppressed by Hamas, not Israel,” she said.
Green is not the only new lone solider to struggle with the complex Gaza question.
Roni Rosen, 22, a recent graduate of Brandeis University, spoke about confronting accusations that Israel is an apartheid state because of its policies on the West Bank.
“It’s a question that keeps coming up in the back of my mind — What makes Israel different?” she said in a phone interview prior to her Monday-morning flight. “And I keep having to answer that question for myself.”
Rosen’s answer? Israel makes a real effort to minimize civilian casualties. “We’re one of the only countries who thinks about the opposing side while we’re fighting a war.”
Still, she acknowledged the fear of “losing her moral compass” after joining the army. “I’ve thought about what I would do if I was commanded to do something I morally disagreed with,” said Rosen, who hopes to serve in a search and rescue unit. “I think I would be strong enough to say no. I hope so.”
She mentioned the Palestinian-American teenager who was beaten by two Israeli border policemen amid clashes over the murder of his Palestinian cousin Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 6. “That was wrong, and behavior like that needs to be condemned,” she said.
Though the recent unrest in Israel has caused many parents to re-evaluate their children’s decision to join the army, for all of the lone soldiers interviewed the war only heightened their desire to take part.
“I didn’t think twice for a minute,” said Liba Hornstein, 19-year-old from Highland Park, N.J. “This is the moment when Israel needs us most, and when we most need Israel.”
While most of the lone soldiers on the JFK flight are nominally religious, Hornstein comes from a strongly Modern Orthodox home. At the airport, she wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, a long skirt, and an El Al baseball cap. Her mother wore a long skirt and covered her hair with a hat. Hornstein attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush and Zionist summer camps. Her experience in archery at a Jewish sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania inspired her to become a shooting instructor or combat soldier. “I always liked Boy Scout-type things,” she said in a phone interview.
Though most Orthodox women choose to complete national service (sherut leumi) instead of joining the army, Hornstein’s strong religious upbringing fueled her desire to be a soldier.
“A lot of my friends think I’m crazy, and I know that some are even more scared for me than they’re letting on,” said Hornstein. “But this is my chance to make the Israel I’ve learned about for all these years my own.”
Regarding her parents’ nerves, she was pragmatic. “They made this bed, and now they have to lie in it,” she said, with a note of humor. “I was raised to be Zionist, so that’s what I am.”
At the airport, Hornstein and her mother exchanged tearful goodbyes when the boarding call was made.
“You simply can’t prepare for this moment,” said Mrs. Hornstein.
Parents handled the emotional departure differently. For Joel Starr, the moment was surreal, but expected. Starr, from Silver Spring, Md., had himself flown to Israel as a lone soldier in 1991. Watching his daughter, Eliana, 17, make the same choice felt like “things were coming full circle.”
“I remember the day I got on the plane — the jitters, the excitement,” said Starr, looking proudly at his daughter, the eldest of five children. The Starr family had attempted to make aliyah several years ago, but returned to Maryland after only one year. Their daughter’s decision to join the army has inspired them to reconsider.
“We want to follow her there soon,” he said, “I need an answer for when my younger kids keep asking: Dad, what’s taking so long?”