From Suburban Kid to Lone Soldier — a Modern Day Maccabee

I am in awe of lone soldiers, non-Israelis who volunteer for service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

It’s one thing to be a Zionist, but it’s something else altogether to put your life on the line as an IDF soldier.

It’s one thing to advocate for Israel, to support Israel on campus, to visit as often as you can.

It is another thing altogether to become a defender of the Jewish people’s homeland.

This is what Sam Grobart has done.

Sam is our daughter-in-law Deanna’s first-cousin. He grew up in suburban Chicago, one of four brothers. Sam recently completed his training as an infantry soldier in the Nahal brigade.

2016 Pew Research Poll on Jewish attitudes toward Israel underscores how unusual Sam is.

Forty percent of the 18-29 year-olds surveyed feel little or no attachment to Israel. 49% think that caring about Israel is an important part of being Jewish, but not essential. 19% think it’s not important.

Against those findings, I can’t help but wonder what motivates a person to the ultimate level of attachment to Israel? What went into raising him?

Sam, along with his parents, Anita and Dave Grobart, offered some insights.

Sam chose to become a lone soldier due to both his deep feeling for Israel and his sense of obligation to the homeland of the Jewish people. “I feel that it is my duty to serve in the IDF,” he said.  “I take pride in knowing that when I walk down the streets, I am just like every other Israeli. I’m serving the country”.  

Lone soldier, Sam Grobart Photo credit: Sam Grobart
Lone soldier, Sam Grobart (Sam Grobart)

Becoming a lone soldier has forced him to push through physical and emotional barriers. “I learned the importance of believing in oneself, because as a lone solider you have to make your own way,” he reflected.  But he has also learned what it means to be part of a tight knit team. “Helping others succeed is your success as well,” he observed.  Being part of a citizens army in a multicultural society has broadened his ability to relate to people from every background.

When asked whether he would recommend this path to others, Sam is candid about the challenges.

“The reality of becoming a lone soldier is much harder than one realizes. It’s not only the challenge of living in a new country. The commitment and sacrifices to go from a comfortable life in America to a rigid life in the IDF make it a difficult transition. I came to this country knowing little language and thinking I knew a lot about the culture, since I had spent short periods of time in Israel.  But that was shaken when I entered the army.”

Although Sam misses his family in Chicago, he has not had a single day of regret. “The strength of Israel continues to inspire me every day.”

He laments Jews who have distanced themselves from Israel. And those who propose solutions to complex problems from a safe distance? “They don’t understand the challenges faced by people who have committed themselves to living and raising a family here.”

In May, Sam participated in a swearing-in ceremony, where he received a Bible and a gun. In October, at a ceremony marking the completion of his training, he got his beret.  Sam’s parents, Anita and Dave Grobart, attended both ceremonies.

Dave’s mother was born in Warsaw, Poland, survived the Holocaust, and lived for years in Displaced Persons camps in Berlin before immigrating to Chicago. Dave’s grandfather, Jacob Grobart, along with brothers Chaim and Shmuel, also survived the Holocaust. Their descendants, now living in France and Israel, attended both ceremonies. Recalling their own family’s enormous suffering only amplified the Grobarts’ pride in Sam’s achievements.

One of their own, now a defender of the Jewish people.

Sam and his parents, at his swearing-in ceremony (Sam Grobart)

But along with pride was the sharp realization of the danger that every soldier faces. Said Anita, “You cannot explain this to a parent whose child is not asked to make such a sacrifice.”

So, how did they manage to raise such a young man?

Anita and Dave raised their boys in a Conservative Jewish home, filled with Jewish holiday traditions.  As Dave recalls, “Judaism and Zionism were an integral part of our family life.” Dinnertime conversation often turned to current events in Israel and the Middle East.

Dave continued, “We think it is the responsibility of parents to educate their children on Jewish history as it relates to Israel. That includes not only the Holocaust, but Zionism, and to take their family to visit Israel for themselves.”

During high school Sam was active in BBYO, USY summer programs, and he worked as a counselor at Jewish summer camps. After high school, Sam found a way to get himself to Israel every summer on an organized program.

His desire to become a lone soldier continued throughout college. So did Dave and Anita’s insistence that he first earn his degree. “Four years later, he was still determined to make his dream come true, and we gave him our full blessing,” his parents recount. 

Many American Jewish kids are raised like Sam was, but few of them become lone soldiers.

So, I’m back to asking, why?

Maybe the answer can be found in the classic Hebrew poem “Omrim Yeshna Eretz” (They Say There is a Land). It was written by the Russian Jewish poet, Shaul Tchernokovsky, who made aliya to Israel in 1931. It was set to music by Naomi Shemer and recorded by many Israeli artists.

The poem recounts the story of Jews wandering in search of their homeland. At long last they arrive, and are greeted by none other than Rabbi Akiva. To the rabbi they say:

Shalom to you, Akiva,

Shalom to you, Rabbi,

Where are the holy ones?

Where is the Maccabee?

To which Rabbi Akiva replies:

All of Israel is holy

You are the Maccabee

In a few weeks we will light the Hanuka menorah and retell the story of the ancient Maccabees. When we do, let’s not forget that there are modern day Maccabees too. Most of them are born and raised in Israel. But some of them are like Sam Grobart.

“Where is the Maccabee?”

Sam answered by saying, “Here I am.”

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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