Thousands of miles from the epicenter of the Israel-Hamas war, a 20-year-old Maryland woman sat at her family’s dining table near a shelf of baby photos and her vocal dog Ziggy while envisioning her future as a soldier.

Life thus far for Gabi, who asked The Banner to withhold her last name for safety reasons, always felt cleaved in two — one existence growing up in suburban Baltimore County with her parents, sister and schoolmates; the other visiting paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends in Israel. She enthusiastically enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in the spring for the chance to dive deeper into the Israeli side of her dual citizenship.

Months later, on Oct. 8, in the same living-dining room of her Owings Mills home, Gabi’s family clustered around the television to watch news coverage of Hamas’ horrific attacks and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war. The conflict wouldn’t change her decision, but it replaced her excitement with a fear of the unknown.

“Before, I kind of knew what I was getting myself into,” she said. “And now I have no clue.”

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Gabi discusses her impending military service with her mom, Jamie, in their Owings Mills home on Oct. 19, 2023. Jamie has a folder of baby photos of Gabi to share. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Ever since the Israel-Hamas war erupted into an international crisis, its tremors have reverberated through families of the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas all the way to Maryland. Local Palestinian families say they are deeply worried about their relatives in Gaza, where aid groups report a humanitarian disaster is unfolding as civilians run out of food, water and fuel.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s growing Jewish communities, which count an estimated 95,000 people, are sending considerable aid — and volunteer soldiers like Gabi — to boost the Israel Defense Forces.

A community study published in 2020 by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore estimates 80% of Jewish adults in the region feel a connection to Israel. For families like Gabi’s, the connection is far more than a feeling.

While other young people her age chose to enroll in college or find full-time work, Gabi had long considered serving in the Israel Defense Forces, just as her Israeli father did when he was younger. After completing her studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, she enrolled in a six-month program in Israel that prepares young people for military service.

“The conflict is personal for me because my blood is Israeli, part of me is Israeli,” Gabi said of the war. When she leaves for Israel on Wednesday, she knows she’s returning to a nation forever changed and friends altered from the people they were before the war began.

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Childhood photos of Gabi are spread across the dining room table and around the living areas of the family’s Owings Mills home. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Gabi shows both her passports, one for the U.S. and one for Israel, demonstrating her dual citizenship. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Meanwhile, her mother Jamie’s feelings about her daughter enlisting haven’t changed since the war began. She was secretly relieved when Gabi’s original flight to Israel earlier this month was canceled. The extra time together at home in Baltimore County has been a blessing, she said.

“I’m not going to tell her what to do,” Jamie said. “And I can’t tell you I don’t think she should do it.”

The family is planning to visit Gabi in Israel, where they’re relieved to know she has plenty of relatives to offer her support. Jamie’s father obtained his passport specifically to make the trip, she said.

Earlier this month, Israel reportedly called about 360,000 reservists back to service, including some residing in the United States. Maryland resident Omer Balva, of Rockville, was quickly recalled to his infantry unit in the Israel Defense Forces. It was a week later when Hezbollah, a militant group, fired an antitank missile from Lebanon that killed the 22-year-old, whose unit was serving on the Israel-Lebanon border, the Washington Post reported Sunday.

The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces chapter in Maryland estimates that at least 17 people from Baltimore are currently enlisted as “lone soldiers,” a term that refers to individuals from outside of Israel who have volunteered to serve. More lone soldiers have volunteered from places around the state, such as Silver Spring and Montgomery County. The local nonprofit expects the number of lone soldiers from Maryland to rise as more reservists are called up to serve, said chairman Marty Taylor.

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“In a situation like this, it’s not just somebody 6,000 miles away,” Taylor said.

Mordy Graham, third from left, and his fellow combat soldiers pose in front of donations they received while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. (Courtesy of Mordy Graham)

Baltimore is also home to veterans like Mordy Graham, a former combat soldier for the Israel Defense Forces. Graham’s first experience in Israel as an 8-year-old coincided with the second intifada, a period of time from 2000 to 2005 remembered for frequent suicide bombings and Israeli military crackdowns, according to the Associated Press. He joined the military academy in 2011, was drafted into the army the following year and served until 2016, just before returning to the United States.

The outbreak of war has brought the 31-year-old a “nonstop bombardment of grief,” Graham said. He waits anxiously for updates from his siblings living in Israel and from the group text with his old army friends.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel since the war began, mostly civilians killed in the initial Hamas assault, according to the Associated Press. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says over 4,300 Palestinians have been killed, primarily from retaliatory airstrikes by Israel on the Gaza Strip.

Israel cut off water, power and food into Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 attacks, The New York Times reported, raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis. Negotiations cleared the way for aid convoys to start crossing into Gaza from Egypt this past weekend, though the United Nations’ humanitarian chief says the more than 2 million people there need “much more.”

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On Oct. 8, about a day after Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, one of Graham’s army friends sent him a photo of their former commander laying bloodied on the ground and said he fell in combat.

Graham remembers screaming before he texted back, “Is this real?”

“Unfortunately, yes brother,” the friend replied in Hebrew.

Injuries from a car crash several years ago and several subsequent surgeries have made it impossible for Graham to satisfy his yearning to return to military service. He thinks of his commander and remembers even the strongest person in the world is only made of skin and bones.

“I still have this ridiculous amount of guilt when I see my friends texting to let us know they’re okay,” Graham said.

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He knows from his time in combat how important donations were for raising spirits. So, he’s working within his community of veterans to put together care packages or other forms of aid collected by organizations like the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

The nonprofit functions similarly to the United Service Organizations, but for Israeli soldiers. It provides financial, social and emotional support for those in the military and provides similar care for their families.

Soldiers abroad are paired with local families who see to their needs and give them a place to celebrate holidays. Families back home in the United States are paired with others in the community who have seen their own loved ones head off to service in Israel, as well as helping with bereavement services if needed, Taylor said.

Gabi spends her last few days at home with her parents and dog, Ziggy. Gabi said she wasn't much of a dog lover, but Ziggy changed her mind. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Gabi (right) and her mother, Jamie, in their Owings Mills home on Oct. 19, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The number of donors supporting Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ work has risen in the wake of the war, Taylor said. The local chapter typically counts about 1,000 donors annually, but is expecting the number of contributors to double by the end of the year.

When the Friends chapter in Baltimore learned Hamas had targeted ambulances to block medical care for civilians, the nonprofit raised $147,000 for a new intensive care ambulance and is close to its goal of funding a second vehicle, Taylor said.

Perhaps that’s because the nonprofit’s mission is simple and apolitical in nature, Taylor said. They aren’t funding bombs or bullets but, rather, the betterment of life for loved ones serving in the war or their families back home.

“That’s not politics, that’s humanity,” Taylor said.

A photo of Gabi and her younger sister, Maya, when they were small children sits framed in the dining room behind Gabi as she shares her reasons for enlisting in the IDF with The Baltimore Banner. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Gabi also feels pressure to weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian politics behind the war. The 20-year-old bristles when people thank her for her service defending the country. She doubts any citizen in the world supports every action of their government.

Joining the war, to her, is about protecting her grandparents, her extended family, her friends and her sense of self.

Gabi also doesn’t know what role she’ll be assigned as a soldier when she’s drafted on Dec. 10, but she is hoping for a noncombat position counseling her peers. She’s most interested in guidance work that resembles the time she used to spend as a camp counselor or helping younger kids in her congregation to prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

“Soldiers, they’re young teenagers, my age,” she said. “They have a lot of revenge in their hearts and they’re going, expecting themselves to be heroes. But I don’t know, maybe they shouldn’t be heroes. It should be just ‘Keep doing what you’re told but keep yourself safe.’”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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