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The parents of Sergeant Max Steinberg grieve at his coffin during his funeral on July 23, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel.
The parents of Sergeant Max Steinberg grieve at his coffin during his funeral on July 23, 2014 in Jerusalem. Ilia Yefimovich—Getty Images

The Immigrant Soldiers Dying for Israel in Gaza

Max Steinberg was from Los Angeles. Nissim Sean Carmeli was from South Padre Island, Texas. Jordan Bensemhoun came to Israel on his own from Lyon, France.

Each of the young men left his country of origin to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and each was killed in action this weekend in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is more than two weeks into Operation Protective Edge, a military campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. That campaign incorporated a ground invasion as of Thursday night that Israeli leaders say is helping to destroy Hamas’ ability to fire rockets – some 2,160 of which have been fired toward Israel since the latest round of hostilities began July 7 – as well as a network of tunnels that burrow deep into Israeli territory, allowing militants to attack. However effective that strategy might be, it exposes Israel's soldiers to a higher risk of injury and death than bombardment from afar. The campaign has so far left 29 Israeli soldiers dead, as well as some 650 Palestinians.

Sgt. Steinberg, 24, was buried Wednesday in a funeral in Jerusalem that attracted some 30,000 mourners, including his parents, who are taking their first trip to Israel to bury their son. He was what people in the organized American-Jewish community would consider an Israel success story. He came to Israel with his sister in 2012 on Birthright, a program which brings loosely affiliated Jews from around the world – the U.S. and Europe in particular – on a free 10-day trip to Israel. By the end of the program, he was smitten. After a short time back in the U.S., he decided to join the IDF, and lobbied his superiors to be placed in a combat unit. One of the good friends he met along the way was England-born Josh Grant, who like Steinberg, came here as what Israelis refer to as a “hayal boded,” or lone soldier.

“He was a jobnik for a few months,” says Grant, using the slightly derogatory Israeli slang for someone who has a desk job in the army, “but all he wanted to do was combat. They said no way, but he convinced them.” Grant, who moved to Israel on his own from the city of Birmingham in England shortly after high school, went through intensive Hebrew-language classes with Steinberg as well as a basic training program for soldiers who may not be native Israelis but still want to serve.

Steinberg had to have back surgery this year that forced him to take a few months off from his service, and he was behind the curve of many of his cohort when he came back. While others finished their service in June, he had been due to finish in November. Many of his closest army buddies returned to their home countries weeks ago and “felt guilty,” as one of them put it, for not being around for their fallen comrade. Steinberg himself planned to go back to the U.S. after he finished his service (a fact confirmed by Steinberg’s family) and didn’t have a long-term plan to move to Israel permanently.

“Just before the war started, we were out for the night, celebrating another friend who had finished,” Grant, who as an active combat engineer was not authorized to discuss his opinions about the war in Gaza, told TIME. “I can’t quite believe he’s gone. To lose a friend like Max is heartbreaking. But he didn’t have a boring life, he’s done something worthwhile.”

That desire to do something meaningful, it seems, is part of what motivates thousands of young Jewish people to come to Israel every year and volunteer for the army, many in the context of immigrating and trying to integrate into Israeli society. There are currently 5,100 immigrants from other countries who are serving in the IDF, says Oded Forer, the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Absorption. These soldiers get a small additional monthly stipend and other benefits, Forer tells TIME, to show they are valued and to help them survive without family support.

“We escort them towards their recruitment and help them afterwards,” Forer says, noting that his ministry dedicates 17 million shekels – close to $5 million – for that purpose every year. “We are an immigrant state at the end of the day, so naturally there will be situations like this. Everyone who is part of the people of Israel carries the burden of defending the country, and this has been part of the ethos since the founding of the state.”

Some 30 years ago, for example, Mike Meyerheim left New Jersey to come to Israel and serve in the IDF. His war was the one in Lebanon, starting with Israel’s invasion in 1982. Today he is the director of the Lone Soldier Center, which provides support to up to 6,000 soldiers, numbering among them immigrants and native-born Israelis with no family to rely on. In the past few weeks, they’ve been visiting soldiers on the Gaza border and providing them with things as mundane as clean socks, underwear and additional food. The Israeli army operates so close to home that many soldiers come back each weekend with a bag of laundry, expecting Mom to do it.

“We take care of people year round with the hope we don't go to war, but when we’re in the situation that we’re in today, we do everything we can to make sure they’re safe and in good spirits,” Meyerheim told TIME.

One of the Lone Soldier Center's volunteers, Nissim Slama, came to Israel 10 years ago from France, and found himself serving in what is referred to here as the Second Lebanon War, when Israel and Hizbollah went to war with each other in 2006. “The lone soldiers are paying a high price in Gaza for their motivation and dedication,” said Slama, who was on his way Tuesday to the funeral of Jordan Bensemhoun, the dual French-Israeli citizen, in the city of Ashkelon. “They come from abroad and want to defend Israel and ensure the state’s survival…but it’s always a harder life for them, being here without the usual level of family support.”

Bensemhoun came to Israel as a high school student and stayed on, leaving behind his family in southeastern France. He was recruited two years ago, and in February, posted a picture of his uniformed self on Facebook showing his wings and arm-patch of the elite Golani Brigades he had been inducted into, with the optimistic message: “I’ll be back in a few months!”

Israel's Ground Invasion of Gaza Continues

A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
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A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.Oliver Weiken—EPA
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
Palestinian men gather things they found in the rubble of destroyed buildings on July 27, 2014 in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City as families returned to find their homes ground into rubble by relentless Israeli tank fire and air strikes.
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A Palestinian man walks past destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun northern Gaza Strip, July 26 2014.
Palestinian women react amid the destruction in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on July 26, 2014.
Destruction in Gaza City
Palestinian girls peers from inside a UN school in Jabalia, north Gaza Strip, on July 25, 2014, where they found shelter after escaping from their home.
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over the Gaza Strip, July 25, 2014.
Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014.
Mortar cases are piled at a military staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian man holds a girl injured during shelling at a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinians, at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Blood stains of displaced Palestinians are seen inside the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun after it has been hit, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian woman stands in front of buildings damaged by Israeli bombardment in the Jabalia district of the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Relatives hold the bodies of Palestinian children Hadi Abdel Nabi, 3, and one and a-half-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdel Nabi, at the cemetery in Jebaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, during their funeral, July 24, 2014.
A young Palestinian girl who got injured when a UN school for refugees was allegedly hit by a Israeli tank shells, lies on a hospital bed in the emergency room of Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
Displaced Palestinians from Beit Hanoun sleep inside the UNRWA school in Jabalia, July 23, 2014.
Wounded Israeli soldiers are brought to a helicopter on July 23, 2014 near Kafar Aza, Israel.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Comrades of slain Sgt. Max Steinberg are comforting each other at Mt. Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, July 23,2014.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians take cover as warning Israeli air strikes are fired at a nearby building in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
Women grieve during the funeral of Islamic Brigades fighter Abdalla Ismail al Buheisi, in Deir Al Balah, on the Gaza Strip.
Gaza Strip, Gaza Street: A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house at the buildings damaged  overnight by an airstrike in Gaza City.. ALESSIO ROMENZI for TIME
A mosque destroyed overnight in attacks in Rafah, Gaza.
The mother of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, July 22, 2014.
Israeli soldiers evacuate their wounded comrades at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014.
Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.
Conflict in Gaza
Palestinian men bury the bodies of a family who was killed after airstrike in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinians flee the Shujayeh neighborhood during heavy shelling in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Palestinian woman gestures as she stands amidst the rubble of her house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A damaged house in Shujaya district in Gaza, seen during a humanitarian cease-fire, July 20, 2014.
Palestinian man holds the hand of a woman, who medics said was wounded in an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip
Relatives of three Palestinians from Abu Muamar family, who medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, mourn during their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians flee east Gaza neighbourhood
Palestinians carry a body inside the Shifa Hospital morgue, in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Casualties mount in Gaza City, Israel expands ground operation
A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City
Palestinians, who medics said were wounded during heavy Israeli shelling, sit at a hospital in Gaza City
Rescue workers enter Shuja'iyya to retrieve dead and wounded
A Palestinian girl sits in a minibus after fleeing her family's house during heavy Israeli shelling, in Gaza City
Palestinian woman, who fled her house following an Israeli ground offensive, stays at a United Nations-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers fire their weapons during the funeral of their comrade Bnaya Rubel in Holon
Funeral of Israeli soldier Amotz Greenberg
Smoke rises during what witnesses said were heavy Israeli shelling at the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza City
A Palestinian family who fled their homes is en route to seek shelter in a UN school in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-UNREST-GAZA
Death toll rises in Gaza
Israeli tanks maneuver outside the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers rest inside an armoured personnel carrier outside central Gaza Strip
APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Multiple rocket launches from a site inside the Gaza Strip firing towards Israel as seen from a lookout point in southern Israel on July 17, 2014.
A Palestinian salvages rubble of their destroyed homes after their apartment building was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on July 18, 2014.
Gaza War 2014 - Funeral
Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family, during their funeral in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Mideast Israel Palestinians Photo Gallery
Netream Netzleam holds the body of her daughter Razel, 1, who died in an Israeli air strike on Thursday afternoon, at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli troops move into Gaza
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the sma
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Oliver Weiken—EPA
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