Baltimore residents making a difference in Israeli military

BALTIMORE - Yossi Kuttler could be preparing for life as a college sophomore at the University of Maryland .

Instead, he is half way around the world, training to possibly fighting on the front line of the army. But, it's not the U.S. Army; it's the the Israeli Army.

The 2012 Beth Tfiloh Dahan Commuinty School graduate is one of more than a dozen recent graduates of the Pikesville Jewish day school to opt to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces.

“He felt a commitment to protecting others and has a true appreciation for the importance of Israel,” said Hillel Kuttler, Yossi’s father.

Yossi Kuttler is one of thousands of American Jews who have opted to serve in the IDF since Israel’s modern founding as a Jewish state in 1948. According to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces , a private nonprofit that supports the troops, said there are about 1,000 Americans serving in the IDF. Israel refers to such foreign volunteers as Lone Soldiers.

Many such soldiers are getting plenty of action on the front line during the most recent fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Gaza militants resumed rocket attacks on Israel on Friday, refusing to extend a three-day truce after Egyptian-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas on a new border deal for blockaded Gaza hit a deadlock.

Israel responded with a series of airstrikes that killed at least five Palestinians, including three children, Palestinian officials said. Two Israelis were wounded by rocket fire, police said.

The renewed violence threw the Cairo talks on a broader deal into doubt. Hamas officials said they are ready to continue talks, but Israel's government spokesman said Israel will not negotiate under fire.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry expressed "extreme regret" over the failure to extend the truce, urged restraint by both sides and called for a new cease-fire to resume negotiations. The ministry said progress had been made in the talks, but did not explain.

Later Friday, the Palestinian delegation was to meet again with Egyptian mediators.

Hamas wants Israel to open Gaza's borders, following a seven-year closure also enforced by Egypt, but Israel says it will only do so if the Islamic militants disarm or are prevented from re-arming. Hamas has insisted it will never give up its weapons.

The wide gaps became clear at an all-night meeting between Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators that preceded the renewed fire. Hamas negotiators told The Associated Press that Israel rejected all of their demands.

Hamas had entered the Cairo talks from a position of military weakness, following a month of fighting in which Israel pounded Gaza with close to 5,000 strikes. Israel has said Hamas lost hundreds of fighters, two-thirds of its rocket arsenal and all of its tunnels under the border with Israel.

The heavy toll of the war appears to have made Hamas even more resistant to returning to the status quo. The group is unlikely to accept a cease-fire without assurances that Gaza's borders will be opened -- particularly after the fighting left more than 1,900 Gaza residents dead, close to 10,000 wounded and tens of thousands displaced, with entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble.

On the Israeli side, 67 people -- including three civilians -- were killed in the past month.

Fighting hits close to home

Much of the country was exposed to fire, with Gaza militants firing thousands of rockets and mortar shells. Many others were injured, including Jordan Low, 19, a Beth Tfiloh graduate from Pikesville who was founded in a rocket attack in July.

Low’s injury hit home to many local families of Lone Soldiers; many of whom know Low and his family personally. This includes Lauren Harrison, whose son Eyal, 19 is currently training with the IDF. The Pikesville High graduate is following in the footsteps of his father, Zaq, and his older sister, Qeshet, who each served in the IDF.

“Seeing them serve means everything,” Lauren Harrison said. “They are fighting for and protecting the Jewish homeland. Without those willing to sacrifice everything Israel will cease to exist.”

Pikesville resident Vito Simone agrees.

Simone’s son, Alex, 26, recently finished his service as a paratrooper in the IDF and still lives in Tel Aviv.

“Alex just felt a connection to Israel and felt the need to enlist in the IDF,” Simone said. “There is a sense of pride seeing young people willing to make such sacrifices.”

Another Lone Soldier parent, Amian Kelemer, recently spoke at an Israel unity event in Owings Mills about how she has responded since her daughter, Risa, enlisted in the IDF.

“Once you are a soldier mom you are always a soldier mom,” said Kelemer last month. “Being the mother of a combat soldier means transformation. It means losing your breath every time you hear about an incident in Israel.

“It means unexpected tears flowing from your eyes every time the prayer for the soldiers is recited in the synagogue. It means sleeplessness and restlessness, being bleary-eyed watching the clock waiting for missions to

finish.  It means heart-racing when the phone rings.”

Right to exist

Eli Werdesheim can relate.

The Pikesville resident, 27, served in a special operations unit in the IDF from 2006 to 2010. He still knows people serving in the currently conflict and knows others in the reserves are likely to be called into duty should the fighting last much longer.

“I joined because I believe Israel and the U.S. are fighting the same enemy: terrorism,” he said. “I believe in the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself from enemies. Jews all over the world reap the benefit of knowing we have a home in Israel and it is our responsibility to give back to it.”

Ari Dallas understands the sacrifices Lone Soldiers have made. As a director of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the FIDF, he helps Lone Soldiers ensure all of their needs are met. He said interest in his organization has spiked since the most recent fighting broke out as there have been 15,000 online contributions over the past month.

“We are the USO, VA and G.I. Bill all wrapped into one for those in the IDF,” Dallas said. “We feel it is the soldiers’ job to look after Israel and our job to look after them.”

**The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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