SAN MATEO -- Barry Rosekind left a comfortable life in America to toil and sweat in the Israeli desert. But he was not dejected. He had, somehow, come home.

The 24-year-old recently became a "lone soldier," one of thousands of young men and women who have come from abroad to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

"It's not a logic-based conclusion I arrived at -- it's something I feel," said Rosekind, who is on leave at his family home in the San Mateo Highlands while recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. "There's just something about Israelis that I think is special."

The Peninsula native immigrated to Israel in August under that country's Law of Return, which grants all Jews the right of citizenship. In November, he eagerly began his service in the military, which is mandatory for most Israeli citizens.

There were roughly 2,500 lone soldiers in the Israeli military in 2013, according to the nonprofit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, though some estimates are higher.

The greatest number, 740, hailed from the United States, followed by Russia, Ukraine and France.

In the Bay Area, about 30 to 40 youths become lone soldiers every year, said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Bay Area chapter of Friends of the IDF, which provides financial and other support to men and women in the IDF and their families.


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For Rosekind, the turning point came years ago.

He had never been particularly religious, but as a teenager he developed a keen interest in his Jewish heritage.

In 2007, as a junior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, he took part in the Diller Teen Fellows youth leadership program and spent three weeks in Israel. It was a life-changing experience.

"That trip changed Israel from something that was my heritage to something personal," said Rosekind. "I love the history there, the culture, but even more than that I love the people."

The young man visited Israel three more times between 2008 and 2012. He found Israelis to be warm and family-oriented, showering him with invitations for Shabbat dinner.

Six years after that momentous visit in 2007, Rosekind boarded a bus bound for the desert and basic training as a member of a missile-defense unit. He found it challenging but rewarding, bearing little resemblance to Hollywood depictions of basic training in the U.S. military.

In January his mother flew to Jerusalem for his emotional swearing-in ceremony at the one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, the Western Wall, where he pledged to defend his new country.

As a lone soldier he gets special treatment in return for his sacrifice, Rosekind said. He is paid more than other soldiers and gets a month of family leave each year. The military also pays for his apartment.

Once he finishes his two-year commitment, he plans to remain in Israel and start a career, perhaps as a diplomat.

He is saddened by the thought of spending his life thousands of miles from his mother -- his father died when he was a baby -- but he is drawn to the people of Israel by a powerful force that he can't fully articulate.

It has been difficult for Rosekind's mother, Stephanie, to watch her only child move to Israel, but she respects his passion and commitment. Her father fled Germany not long before the Holocaust. The Bay Area chapter of Friends of the IDF recently created a support network for parents in her circumstances. It has has more than 150 members.

"Would I rather have him living close by? Of course," she said. "But I'm really, really proud of him."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.