Jonathon Goldman, 23, took a Birthright trip to Israel in college. He felt he needed to be in Israel, not just as a tourist, but as an Israeli — and more than that — as a soldier. After college, he made aliyah and became a lone soldier — someone in the Israel Defense Forces with no family in Israel.
Currently working as an officer course instructor, he is contemplating a future in which he lives half his time in Phoenix, half in Israel. His goal is to bridge the gap between American and Israeli Jews, ensuring all Jews see each other as one people.
Currently on base in Israel, Goldman spoke to Jewish News about his journey to becoming a lone soldier and what the future holds.
What led you to this decision?
My whole life as a kid, I knew there was something going on in Israel. As a Jew I always kind of felt bad that I wasn’t there to do anything to help, and they had to take up arms and defend themselves. As an American Jew, I felt a discomfort, but I didn’t know that I could do anything about it.
My sophomore year in college, I went on a Birthright program, and I found out about being a lone soldier. I can’t say my mind was made up after that, but always in the back of my head was the idea I had to do this. No matter what I had to leave behind — this was something I absolutely had to do. Otherwise I couldn’t continue and feel good about myself.
Here I am now — in the middle of the Negev.
Did you have a decisive moment?
There were two moments I vividly remember.
I was in Jerusalem for the first night of Chanukah at the Western Wall. There was a big rabbi speaking with hundreds of people listening, and then everyone started dancing. It was an unbelievable experience.
I also remember standing in the airport getting ready to leave and thinking, ‘No matter what happens, I will be back here.’ From that moment, I couldn’t let it go.
Why this route? Why be a lone soldier?
Part of me wanted to become Israeli — I wanted to immerse myself in the culture. I knew being a lone soldier wouldn’t be easy, but there’s a bunch of support around us. The army does a good job of making sure that we’re taken care of. I wouldn’t feel fully Israeli without serving in the military. It’s a right of passage here.
What was the process?
We choose to make aliyah, then there’s a first interview. My Hebrew was god-awful — I mean, terrible.
They send us to an army Hebrew course. The first few months a lot of us are separated. Then we’re sent to main units. We’re not treated at all like we’re different. We’re considered regular soldiers. We get help with Hebrew if we need it. Everyone else who works with me is Israeli. I’m the only lone soldier.
I work in human resources. I’m an instructor at one of the officers’ courses. I help with logistics, update course materials and help our cadets get from one place to the other — basically helping out wherever I can.
People here have all known lone soldiers, but they get to talk to me more so it helps my Hebrew a ton. I talk to them, and they get to know my story. It’s a kind of cultural exchange for me. I get to assist people becoming officers throughout the army.
How have things changed with the coronarivus pandemic?
The whole thing started when I was in the Hebrew course, and it was full of lone soldiers.
There were seven countries represented in my one little group. You can imagine what it was like. People were nervous and wanted to go home. Someone in my group, who had been in France for a bar mitzvah, had to be sent to quarantine.
Israel has handled it really well, acted quickly. At the end of the day, we’re all better for it. We’re all walking around with masks on; we enter the cafeteria in staggered waves. The army will probably be the last group to lift restrictions. We’re still keeping social distancing practices implemented.
I’m glad I got to be in Israel. In the U.S., it doesn’t look like it’s clearing up anytime soon.
What would you tell people at home?
I’ve never experienced anything like this, so it’s really hard to pinpoint it. I want to say being locked down doesn’t suck as bad as it sounds, but it’s not fun. I wish people took it more seriously.
Everyone has grandparents. I have friends in New York, and their parents have gotten sick. I just wonder if more strict practices had been implemented, how much could have been avoided. I’m not much of a politician myself.
You wanted to help Israel. Given your experience, what do you think is most important?
I think finally getting here showed me there’s kind of a divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews. But I think as American Jews and global Jews, it’s our responsibility to help the one land we are able to call our own, and help our own people.
Because of the geographical distance, we view each other as much different, but at the end of the day the culture is so similar — building relations between each other is the most important thing.
Would you recommend this route to others?
A lot of people I came here with were involved in a lot of Jewish organizations or camps, and I never really was. I was always one of the few Jews in my school. I was the Jewish kid. And part of me was like, “OK, I’ll be the Jewish kid, but I’ll do it in Israel.”
I do think it is a great way to get integrated into the society. I don’t think it’s the only way. As many Jews as possible should come and serve. It’s the Jewish army — it’s not just the Israeli army.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult to pick up and move, but at the end of the day it’s been so worth it to me. I would not change anything in the world. It’s not a decision that should ever be made lightly, but I would highly recommend it for somebody who feels they’re ready to take on the challenge. JN
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which assists lone soldiers, facilitated this interview.