Imagine moving to a country seven time zones away, knowing only a few words of its confounding native tongue.
Imagine volunteering to enlist in that country’s army, and being thrust into a terrifying, confusing guerilla war in which the enemy values death more than you value life.
Such was the experience of Ottawa’s Jake Goldstein, now 24, who enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after he graduated from the University of Ottawa in December 2012.
His two years in an elite paratrooper unit included weeks fighting in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.
“During our training, we always said to ourselves, ‘Conditions could never get this bad in a real situation,’ but it was worse than we could have imagined,” said Goldstein, now back in Ottawa.
“You just can’t prepare someone for something like that.”
Goldstein was what is known as a “lone soldier.” These remarkable young people – and Ottawa has produced many – leave their families and friends in their native countries to serve and defend the Jewish state.
Native Israeli soldiers can often make it home for Shabbat, and usually return to their units with lots of extras the army doesn’t provide.
But lone soldiers have to find or create their own support networks on top of dealing with the rigours of life in the IDF.
Fortunately, there is growing support for lone soldiers in Israel. Organizations such as A Package From Home (www.apackagefromhome.org) encourage visitors to Israel to bring toiletries, season-appropriate clothing and treats like M&Ms for lone soldiers.
There are dedicated individuals such as Leah Miller of Ottawa, who knits warm watch caps that she sends to Israel with anyone who has a bit of extra room in a suitcase.
The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, a Philadelphia native killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, has branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and the Beit Sha’an Valley in the North.
The centre (www.lonesoldiercenter.com) provides programs, services and social activities before, during and after a lone soldier’s army service – everything from helping prepare for the draft to arranging Shabbat meals to finding housing and furniture.
And, of course, there is always Israeli hospitality. Israeli-born soldiers invite their mates for Shabbat dinners, and every lone soldier usually gets “adopted” by at least one Israeli family.
What motivates a young man from Ottawa to risk his life for Israel?
Goldstein’s grandmother, Beverly Applebaum, had lived and volunteered in Israel, and he grew up in a Zionist household.
But a Birthright trip at 18 was a life-changer.
“You get off the plane and you have this feeling that you’re home,” he said.
Back in Ottawa, he became very involved in Israel advocacy on campus, and was city-wide president of the Israel Awareness Committee.
But he wanted to do more.
“As much as I was a pro-Israel advocate on campus, it wasn’t enough to just talk the talk – I had to walk the walk.”
After enlisting, Goldstein spent three months in intensive Hebrew studies, and was accepted into the Paratrooper Brigades, known for its high standards and arduous training.
After another nine months of training, he was posted on Mount Hermon, near the Syrian border. When the conflict in Gaza erupted, his unit went in immediately, and stayed for the duration.
The battles were brutal, with Hamas terrorists hiding in tunnels and using civilians as human shields.
Did he ever feel as if he might die?
“Always. Even when there was a moment of quiet for us, there was always something close by going on,” he said.
The only time he was able to get a message home was when he sustained a minor shrapnel wound, and used the medic’s phone to text his family.
Goldstein plans to start a master’s degree in the fall at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he will focus on national security and intelligence studies. He hopes to pursue a doctorate, and do policy work or enter the diplomatic service.
The first thing he did when he got out of Gaza was have a long, hot shower. Only when life got back to normal could he reflect on what he had gone through.
“As a Jew, it made me a lot more proud to be Jewish – to have such a small country accomplish what it has in such a short period of time – not just militarily but in the number of Nobel Prize winners, the medical breakthroughs, being the largest ‘start-up’ nation.”