OPINION: 'Our hope is not yet lost.'
Every now and then I tend to look back on the more poignant news stories I’ve covered over the past three decades because they’ve taught me something … or forced me to recognize a truth I already knew on some inner level.
Nothing is more true than a powerful friendship. During my very brief time as a private in the United States Army in the 1980s, for instance, I developed a very close friendship with my old pal Mike Alford, who was training with me at cook school in Fort Lee, Virginia. In addition to my dear friends Shane Clendening and Manuel Alvear, I still regard Mike as one of the best people in the whole wide world.
Mike would often share his philosophy on life and beautiful women over snacks (his treat) at Burger King. Later, he would try to coach me (19-year-old me) on how to dance – but that’s a horror story better saved for Halloween.
I just recently made contact with Mike again on Facebook – for the first time since 1987. Our conversations since then center around friendship, love of country, and the road not taken.
It’s not tragic – like the story of friends Ze’ev Bar Yadin and the late IDF Staff Sgt. Sean “Nissim” Carmeli – but it brings that sad tale to my mind quite a bit.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin and Sean Carmeli were native Texans who emigrated to Israel at a young age and became “Lone Soldiers” – servicemen or servicewomen without immediate family in Israel – in the Israel Defense Forces.
I first interviewed Ze’ev Bar Yadin a few years go as a reporter for the Texas Jewish Post. It was during that interview, he told me of his deep love for Israel.
As early as age 8, Ze’ev was known to keep the flag of Israel in his room. His father, Reuben Bar Yadin, said Ze’ev also posted the flag on the back of his electric go-cart when riding around his neighborhood cul-de-sac in San Antonio.
So it was no surprise when Ze’ev emigrated there at age 15.
During my interviews with those closest to Ze’ev, longtime family friend Scott Kammerman, executive director for the Texas Region of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, told me Ze’ev’s strong Zionist upbringing was probably the major reason for his incredible loyalty to that country.
“He made the decision at a young age that he was going to move to Israel,” Kammerman told me. “He attended the Eleanor Kolitz Academy and Camp Young Judaea, which had profound impacts on his life. He studied for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg. I attended Ze’ev’s bar mitzvah in 2008 at Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio.”
Scott Kammerman has known and been friends with Ze’ev Bar Yadin’s family since Ze’ev was 5.
Ze’ev told me he originally planned to join the Israel Defense Forces after finishing school in America. However, when he was 15 and living in San Antonio, his itch for independence became impossible to resist.
He made up his mind to move to Israel, complete his high school education there, and join the IDF.
“I decided at that moment it was time to go,” Ze’ev said. “I had to go while I was still in high school so I could immerse myself in the culture and language before I joined the army.”
So that’s exactly what he did — starting a path that would lead to him becoming a Texas lone soldier.
His father, Reuben Bar Yadin — whose homeland is Israel — said it was hard to let his son go. But he felt he needed to because Ze’ev felt he truly belonged there.
Ze’ev got the ball Academy in Israel to finish high school. The Naale Program, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education, allows Jewish teenagers to study and earn a high school diploma in Israel. Ze’ev was accepted and his Israel journey began.
“Once I got in, they took it from there,” he said. “They helped with schooling and housing, and when I finished school they helped with the process of joining the army.”
The school provided him with health care and he made aliyah, official emigration, without his parents.
“The school is in charge of you and responsible for you,” he explained. “The hard part was going from someplace where you know a little Hebrew, to learning in an Israeli school where all classes, everything, is all in Hebrew.”
Because he wasn’t fluent his first year, his initial school days were almost entirely comprised of Hebrew classes.
Ze’ev said learning Hebrew took him a while because he was both shy and nervous. But by his senior year, he said his fluency level was excellent. Which is a good thing, because Hebrew is all anyone speaks in the IDF, he said.
“Once you get in the army that’s it,” he said.
Speaking of Camp Young Judaea, Reuben Bar Yadin said his son attended it in Wimberley for a total of eight summers. It had a very strong influence on him.
“He wanted to serve in the IDF and join — not as an American, but as an Israeli,” his father said. “At the age of 15 he came out with a 10-year plan for his life and as far as I can tell, he has stuck with it.”
Kammerman said independence isn’t Ze’ev’s only strong trait. He is also one of the most kind-hearted and caring young men Kammerman says he has ever met.
“He made the decision many years ago to serve a higher calling — something beyond himself,” he said. Being classified as a lone soldier allows Ze’ev greater pay, more time off and educational help.
At the time I wrote this story in July 2016, some 6,700 lone soldiers were serving in the Israel Defense Forces — hailing from more than 60 countries around the world, according to information provided by the Friends of the IDF. An estimated 800 lone soldiers from the U.S. enlist in the IDF every year.
Service for Israelis is compulsory, but lone soldiers freely leave their respective countries to serve.
It is important to note that Ze’ev Bar left all the wonderful comforts of home to become an elite soldier and sniper – graduating first in sniper class – in Orev Golani, both Reuben Bar Yadin and Kammerman said.
“They’re part of a tough group, a band of brothers,” his father said.
Back when Ze’ev first met Sean Carmeli, their relationship was all about inspiration and dedication.
Ze’ev had been in Israel about a year. He was still a high school student and Carmeli was already a soldier. Even then, Carmeli was encouraging Ze’ev to stay the course and not quit over the course of his 15 month training.
Carmeli, who hailed from South Padre Island, and Ze’ev shared American roots, Texas roots, which helped cement their friendship, Ze’ev’s father said.
“Once I got into Golani, he would caution me about how hard my training was,” Bar Yadin said. “He would tell me ‘You’ll get through it. Just don’t quit.’ He was one of the reasons I finished my training and graduated into the special forces unit I am in.”
Ze’ev said there is no avoiding the danger on the job with the IDF. In his capacity as a sniper, he was
Carmeli, 21, was killed July 20, 2014 in Shejaia, Gaza City, after his vehicle was struck by an anti-tank weapon during Operation Protective Edge.
“Sean was one of the 13 Golani soldiers who died that night,” Reuben Bar Yadin said of the battle with Hamas. “Sean was the gunner of the armored vehicle. They went into Gaza and the gun jammed. You can man the gun from the inside. Sean went up and fixed it again, and going back into the vehicle, he was halfway when an Arab shot him in the head.”
On the Sunday morning Carmeli was killed, Kammerman said he heard the news while speaking at First Baptist Church in Katy. He was raising money for immediate on-the-ground welfare and well-being needs for the soldiers.
“I received a phone call while I was there that a lone soldier from Texas serving in the Golani Brigade had been killed,” Kammerman said. “Off the top of my head, I knew there were three soldiers serving — two of whom I knew well. I only knew Sean by name, but when I left the church, I immediately called Reuben to inquire as to what he knew and held my breath.”
Ze’ev’s father told Kammerman that his son was OK.
“He told me that he had heard from Ze’ev, but he was obviously overcome with extreme grief,” Kammerman said. “His dear friend, a big brother to him, had been killed. Ze’ev was given 24 hours’ leave from service to be one of the 25,000-plus people who attended Sean’s funeral.”
Reuben Bar Yadin called his son, still in shock.
“When he picked up the phone I asked ‘How are you?’ and Ze’ev yelled into the phone ‘Sean’s dead!’ He kept repeating ‘He’s dead!’ and he said, ‘I was just with him.’ He was in shock. He calmed down after a while.”
Ze’ev was allowed to go to Carmeli’s funeral. But the very next morning he had to come back to his unit.
“But he was in bad shape,” Ze’ev’s father said. “His commander let him have leave for four or five days to go to sit shiva with Sean’s family. I think it did him some good to spend time with them. To this day he is still very close to them.”
Ze’ev said sitting shiva – traditional mourning – with Carmeli’s family was the right thing to do.
“I felt I owed it to his family — I wanted to be there with them,” he said.
Afterward, Ze’ev said it took him a long time to get past his friend’s death.
“It was a couple of months before I came back to being myself,” he said. “I think I got past it and dealt with my emotions. On National Independence day, I went to his family’s house to be with them.”
One thing is for certain, Ze’ev never wants to feel that way again.
“Never,” he said. “Never. I can’t even imagine how I would deal with it again. If it were to happen again, I still don’t know the answer. What to do to make it better.”
Have you ever heard the Israel National Anthem?
It’s quite lovely. So beautiful. So sad. So full of promise. Every time I listen to it, I’m not sure if I want to cry or celebrate.
I actually count my many blessings when I recall the story of Ze’ev Bar Yadin and Sean Carmeli.
As of this writing, I am 50 years old. I was in the U.S. military at a time we were not at war. And my best friends in the whole world are still alive.
I’m neither Jewish nor a citizen of Israel, but I am a huge fan of their country. It is so full of amazing young people who are incredibly passionate about their heritage – and willing to die in combat to defend it.
A friendship borne of this level of bravery deserves to become a story in its own right – a legend, even.
One to be repeated over and over forever.
Several of the accounts in this column came from news stories Ben Tinsley wrote for the Texas Jewish Post in 2015 and 2016.
Ben Tinsley is the Burleson Star’s managing editor and senior reporter. He can be reached by cell phone, (702) 524-3773 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bentinsley, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12 , or https://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley