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The Americans Fighting—and Dying—for Israel

On Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, remembering those who’ve died in battle since Oct. 7, including three U.S.-born ‘lone soldiers’

by
Hillel Kuttler
May 10, 2024
Rose Lubin
Robin Lubin
Rose Lubin
Robin Lubin
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Shahar Balva recently came across a video clip showing her younger brother, Omer, reciting the prayer for fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers. It was recorded six years ago, when Omer, 17 at the time, stood onstage at the Jewish school they attended in the Washington, D.C., suburb where their family then lived. The prayer came during a ceremony marking Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

When Yom Hazikaron begins this year on the night of May 12, Shahar and her family, who now live in Israel, will be attending a similar ceremony at the Yad LaShiryon armored corps memorial in Latrun. But this time, Omer’s father, Eyal, was selected to recite the same prayer. That’s because Omer, a 22-year-old staff sergeant in the IDF’s Golani battalion, was killed on Oct. 20 near the border with Lebanon by a rocket that the Hezbollah terrorist group launched.

“We’ll be saying [the prayer] for him, and to see him [in the video] saying it—it doesn’t add up,” said Shahar. “It’s crazy.”

There’s this chilling parallel, too: On the morning of Yom Hazikaron 2022, Omer returned from his army base to Herzliya; his Israeli-born parents had moved back to Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic, after Omer made aliyah alone and enlisted in the IDF, and they bought a family home there. Shahar toasted a bagel for him. He changed into a fresh uniform, and she drove him to the military section of the cemetery in their neighborhood. Israeli soldiers often are posted on Yom Hazikaron to military cemeteries to support visitors coming to mourn at loved ones’ graves.

Omer had asked his commander to be posted there. That cemetery is where Omer is buried.

A native of the Washington area, Omer Balva is one of three U.S.-born “lone soldiers” to have been killed since Hamas and Hezbollah launched attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and 8, respectively—in addition to 17 lone soldiers from other countries. The term refers to young Diaspora Jews who leave home to serve in the IDF and thus lack the support system of parents living in Israel. (The category also includes native Israelis, usually Haredim, who defy their community’s norms by serving in the IDF and, thereby, are on their own.)

Omer Balva and dad Eyal at a Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer game in about 2021.
Omer Balva and dad Eyal at a Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer game in about 2021.

Eyal Balva

Israelis can be hard to impress, but they’ll shower admiration upon lone soldiers, wondering why they voluntarily displaced themselves from safer lives abroad to undertake IDF service, often in combat units.

This year’s Yom Hazikaron promises to be far bleaker than usual, both because of Israel’s ongoing wars with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah along the northern border and because of the high number of IDF casualties.

During Hamas’ invasion of Israel, in the IDF’s response that day, and in the wars that ensued, 615 Israeli soldiers have been killed as of May 9.

“Every soldier who’s killed, we hurt. If it’s a soldier who doesn’t have to be here, and joins and fights—well, it’s not taken for granted. Our children must guard our land; they [lone soldiers] choose to do so. It’s very, very emotional,” said Anat Amira, a Herzliya resident nicknamed “The Mother of the Lone Soldiers” for providing them with toiletries, furniture, hot meals, and warm embraces.

Amira estimated that 350 lone soldiers living in Herzliya are on active duty and another 200 are in reserves. In her 10 years of volunteering with lone soldiers, two—immigrants from England and France—fell in battle, both since Oct. 7. (She never crossed paths with Omer, since he was living on a kibbutz when he first arrived as a lone soldier, before his family bought the house in Herzliya.)

“I worry every night, whether they’re in regular service or reservists,” said Amira. “They’re doing holy work.”

Another casualty was Rose Lubin, a 20-year-old Atlanta native and a sergeant in the Border Guard. She was on duty outside Jerusalem’s Old City when a Palestinian terrorist stabbed her to death on Nov. 6.

Yonatan Dean Chaim is the third lone soldier from the United States killed since Oct. 7. A Rochester, New York, native, the 25-year-old staff sergeant in the Engineering Corps fell in battle in Gaza on Dec. 8.

The Yom Hazikaron event at Latrun will be held in English, said Tal Bar-on Morali, a spokeswoman for Masa, the organization hosting it, so attendees and online viewers with similar backgrounds “can easily connect” to the soldiers and understand “the reasons and ideology that brought them to Israel.”

The day after the Latrun ceremony, Robin Lubin will sit early on Yom Hazikaron morning at Rose’s grave at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery, about four miles west of where her daughter was murdered. She wants time alone before the crowds arrive. It’ll be her first visit to Israel since Rose’s funeral.

Because he lives so close to the Herzliya cemetery, Eyal Balva often visits his son’s grave, sitting for three or four hours at a time; he will go that morning, too.

Chaim is buried in Rochester, where his brother Randy Book plans to be at his graveside on Yom Hazikaron.

Consider again Amira’s praise of Diaspora Jews who serve in the IDF despite not being subject to Israel’s compulsory draft. Chaim really didn’t have to serve. That’s because he was raised as a Baptist, as Jonathan Dean Jr., and as a young adult converted to Judaism, changed his name, and moved to Israel.

Yonatan Dean Chaim in Israel with his father, Jonathan Dean Sr.
Yonatan Dean Chaim in Israel with his father, Jonathan Dean Sr.

Randy Book

When Chaim in 2021 called his brother by telephone from his apartment in Ramat Gan to say that he’d be enlisting in the IDF, Book said he responded, “It’s noble, it’s honorable, but not something you have to do.”

“He said, ‘Yes, I do,’” Book related to me. “He was as proud as he could be, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Chaim doubtless was influenced by the protectors in his family. Chaim’s father and Book are U.S. Marine Corps veterans and longtime police officers, another brother served in the U.S. Air Force, and a third brother works in the Secret Service.

Despite being the youngest, Chaim set an example too. A few years ago, he and Book, who have the same mother—“we don’t half-ass anything in our family; there are no half-siblings,” Book said—were driving onto a highway on-ramp in Rochester when Chaim saw a poorly dressed homeless man. Chaim got out of the car, removed his shirt, and gave it to the man. Another time, Chaim raised money to buy 500 blankets and brought them to a homeless shelter.

Four times during our one-hour 40-minute interview, Book spoke of the “light”—a common Jewish metaphor for doing good deeds—his brother brought to the world. Another four times during the conversation, he broke down briefly. On Oct. 7, Book was on the receiving end when his brother had called from Israel to relate the day’s ongoing horror.

“He just cried and I let him. It was probably 10, 15 minutes. Jonathan tried to find the words, but tears just came out. I told him, ‘I’m not getting off the phone. I’m here for you.’ When that attack happened, it seemed part of him died that day. He loved Israel so much, so deeply, that the attack on Israel was an attack on him,” he said.

The brothers’ last conversation was on Dec. 1.

Chaim “was about to be deployed to Gaza. He said, ‘I believe in the mission, and I believe in the cause,’” Book said. “He said, ‘We’re going to stop this from happening again.’ It was personal for him.”

Book cried, then said, “I’m sorry. Ever since losing Jonathan, I’m trying to find different [ways] to cope.”

One way, perhaps subconsciously, involves light, too.

“I’m actually making scented candles to give away. It gives me a little comfort. It helps give me a little peace,” he said. “Jonathan gave away his effort, his money, his possessions and, ultimately, his life.”

The word the Balvas attach to Omer is kind. It was explicit in the plastic bracelet Eyal wore, reading “Be Kind Omer,” when we met in late April in his kitchen, and in the white coffee mugs—the words “Be Kind” against a background of green angels’ wings—he gives away. It was there when Shahar spoke of her brother sometimes staying up with his soldiers until 3 a.m. to help with personal matters. Not every Israeli commander will do that, she said.

To Eyal, Omer evinced kindness in relating to field hands at the family’s plantation in Latacunga, Ecuador, which grows roses for export to the United States.

“Omer would speak with them and have great patience. They mentioned that it’s not normal for children of owners to sit with them and have lunch. He showed genuine interest in them,” Eyal said. “He loved speaking with the workers, the poor people, and … playing soccer with them.”

Post-army, when he was in the reserves, Omer studied business administration at Reichman University and considered joining the family business. But his next plan was to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Odelia Barak, a fellow lone soldier. He’d bought a ring.

“We were completely inseparable,” Odelia said. “We knew this was it from the moment we met.”

The couple was vacationing in Las Vegas when war broke out. Omer tried to return to Israel immediately but couldn’t. They flew back on Oct. 14. The next Tuesday, Eyal drove him north. They discussed Omer’s studies and the upcoming proposal. They stopped for coffee.

Eyal dropped him off at Netua, a moshav near the border with Lebanon. Father and son hugged and kissed. They didn’t take a selfie.

“Who’d think of it?” Eyal said.

That Friday evening, Omer and his men said kiddush for Shabbat in their watchtower. He stood briefly to get ammunition when the missile killed him.

Odelia did not know that Omer intended to propose.

Rose Lubin and father David
Rose Lubin and father David

David Lubin

A singular word didn’t arise when three Lubins discussed Rose, perhaps appropriate for someone so eclectic. Rose, after all, seemed to dye her hair every few weeks—“every color of the rainbow: purple, orange, green, red,” her father David said. It wasn’t rebelliousness, “just how she expressed herself,” he said.

The word could be precociousness, for Rose being so upset by classmates belittling one another that she walked out of the room in preschool, or for announcing, following a trip to Israel at age 5 with her grandfather, that she’d move to the country at 18 to serve in the IDF. (She reassured playmates that they could remain friends until then.)

Or sensitive. At 15, she did the following after reading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle: became a lifelong vegan, switched to non-leather footwear, shopped at thrift stores (for used clothing), and for a time used flip phones (concerned that children in China were forced to work in smartphone factories). At the shiva, a woman told Robin that Rose had selected her dress. “I felt like Rose was there showing me an outfit she put together for this woman. That’s the most powerful thing we can do in this world: Make someone feel better about themselves. It’s passing the torch of positivity,” Robin said.

Maybe welcoming. When Stephanie Lubin met Rose shortly after David and Robin divorced, Rose greeted her warmly. After David and Stephanie married, Rose wrote her stepmother an uplifting Hanukkah card. “Here was a 14-year-old who could’ve been, like, ‘Who the hell are you?’” Stephanie said.

How about committed or determined? Rose walked on Shabbat to compete in her high school team’s wrestling matches—the boys’ wrestling team. Rose “was a workout maniac. She was in such perfect shape,” David said. She was a straight-A student. She sang. And on Oct. 7, she fought Hamas terrorists who tried to infiltrate Kibbutz Sa’ad, where she lived.

If one word links the three fallen lone soldiers who never met, it might be the young Balva’s first name: Omer. In Biblical days, it was a measure of weight and volume. The word is used today only at this time of year. It’s become a unit of time marking the 49 days from the second night of Passover, when counting the Omer begins, through the Lag BaOmer celebration, and on to the next holiday, Shavuot.

The number of days between the deaths of Balva and Lubin and Chaim is 49.

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].

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