By Ben Tinsley
This month marks the second anniversary of the death of IDF Staff Sgt. Sean “Nissim” Carmeli, a Texan and lone soldier killed on July 20, 2014 during Operation Protective Edge.
Carmeli was a friend and mentor to fellow Texan and fellow lone soldier Ze’ev Bar Yadin, who immigrated to Israel at age 15.
Reflecting on his late friend and his life after recently turning 21, Ze’ev Bar Yadin noted in a recent interview that life has always been about Israel — as far as he is concerned.
As early as age 8, Ze’ev Bar Yadin was known to keep the flag of Israel in his room. He also posted the flag on the back of his electric go-cart when traveling around his neighborhood cul-de-sac in San Antonio, his father, Reuben Bar Yadin, recalls.
Longtime family friend Scott Kammerman, executive director for the Texas Region of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, said Ze’ev Bar Yadin’s loyalty to Israel can be attributed to his strong Zionist upbringing.
“He made the decision at a young age that he was going to move to Israel,” Kammerman said. “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 for 16 years — since Ze’ev was 5.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin told the TJP he originally planned to join the Israel Defense Forces after finishing school in America.
But 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,” he 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 the path that would lead to him becoming a Texas lone soldier.
In the IDF, a lone soldier is a serviceman or servicewoman without immediate family in Israel.
Lone soldiers serve in regular units and receive various forms of support from the IDF, Israeli government ministries and other organizations.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin eventually served as a sergeant and a sniper in Orev Golani.
His father, Reuben Bar Yadin — whose homeland is Israel — said it was hard to let his son go. But he felt he needed to let him go because Ze’ev felt he truly belonged there.
Bar Yadin got the ball rolling on his new life by applying to Naale Elite 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 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 that fluent his first year of schooling in Israel, his initial school days were almost entirely composed of Hebrew classes.
Bar Yadin 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, Ze’ev Bar Yadin 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 Bar Yadin’s only strong trait. He also is one of the most kind-hearted and caring young men Kammerman 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 Bar Yadin greater pay, more time off and educational help.
Some 6,700 lone soldiers serve in the Israel Defense Forces today — 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 Yadin left all the wonderful comforts of home to become an elite soldier and sniper in Orev Golani, both Reuben Bar Yadin and Kammerman said.
“They’re part of a tough group, a band of brothers,” his father said.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin graduated first in his sniper class, Kammerman said.
“He just received the outstanding soldier award in the entire Golani Brigade,” Kammerman said. “In other words, he was held up as a model of excellence to the soldiers of Israel. The fact that he is a lone soldier from the U.S. — from Texas — makes his service and performance even that much more revered by his commanders and all of the IDF.”
Life, death of Carmeli
One of the most influential friendships of Ze’ev Bar Yadin’s life was with Carmeli of South Padre Island — a fellow Texan, fellow lone soldier, and fellow IDF soldier.
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.
Carmeli was among 13 soldiers from the elite Golani Brigade who were killed during that battle with Hamas.
Carmeli was killed when his armored personnel carrier was fired on by Hamas militants shooting an anti-tank weapon, Reuben Bar Yadin clarified.
“Sean was one of the 13 Golani soldiers who died that night,” Reuben Bar Yadin said. “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 that there were three soldiers serving — two of whom I knew well (Ze’ev and another soldier). 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 Ze’ev was OK.
“He told me that he had heard from Ze’ev, but that 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 but Ze’ev Bar Yadin was still in shock.
“When he picked up the phone I asked ‘How are you?’ and Ze’ev yelled into the phone ‘Sean’s dead!’ ”
Ze’ev kept yelling into the telephone over and over.
“He kept repeating ‘He’s dead!’ and he said, ‘I was just with him.’ He was in shock. He calmed down after a while and we talked for a little bit but he had to go and couldn’t stay on the phone.”
As Kammerman said, Ze’ev was allowed to go to Carmeli’s funeral. But the very next morning he had to come back.
“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 Sean’s family. To this day he is still very close to them.”
Ze’ev Bar Yadin said sitting shiva with Carmeli’s family was the right thing to do.
“I felt I owed it to his family — I wanted to be here with them,” he said.
Afterward, Ze’ev Bar Yadin 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 for sure: Ze’ev Bar Yadin 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.”
Two Texans meet in Israel
Back when Ze’ev Bar Yadin first met Sean Carmeli, their relationship was all about inspiration and dedication.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin had been in Israel about a year. He was still a high school student and Carmeli already a soldier. But even then Carmeli was encouraging Bar Yadin to stay the course and not quit.
Carmeli and Ze’ev Bar Yadin shared American roots, Texas roots, which helped cement their friendship, Ze’ev’s father said.
“They met when Ze’ev was in high school and Sean, two years older, was already in the army,” Ze’ev’s father said. “They became good friends and Sean Carmeli really was a big brother to Ze’ev.”
Bar Yadin said Carmeli became a role model to him almost immediately. He was a huge help in helping Bar Yadin overcome his doubts and fears.
“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 probably was of the reasons I finished my training and graduated into the special forces unit I am in.”
Altogether Bar Yadin trained with the IDF about 15 months. He then became a sniper and eventually a sergeant in the Golani Brigade.
Deborah Bar Yadin, Reuben’s wife and Ze’ev’s mother, deferred discussion about her son’s service to her husband.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin said there is no avoiding the danger on the job with the IDF. For instance, in his capacity as a sniper during another mission, he was forced to shoot someone in the kneecap to stop him during a mission.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin’s service to Israel will end soon. He is getting out of the army and he wants eventually to go into business and do what his father does.
Reuben Bar Yadin is a Houston commercial real estate agent. His family moved to Houston from San Antonio in recent years.
Ze’ev Bar Yadin thinks he could follow his father’s example and one day practice commercial real estate — either in Israel or America.
“I have about four and a half months left on my three-year commitment to the army,” Ze’ev Bar Yadin said. “I was offered the chance to stay in, to be in charge of snipering in the company, but I wasn’t wanting to do that. I would rather get out of the army, travel and visit America. I want to start college in Israel though I’m not sure which one.”
Ze’ev Bar Yadin has participated in short tours to help promote and explain the role of the Friends of the IDF organization and how FIDF helps provide social and financial support to soldiers who don’t have families in Israel.
During a recent jaunt that included Dallas on Dec. 6, 2015, Bar Yadin was there for 15 events over about six days. The mini tour was of schools, synagogues, churches and private homes in Houston and Dallas.