A Laguna Beach man who followed his love of Israel overseas died last week, triggering an outpouring on social media that resulted in hundreds attending his funeral in Jerusalem.
Alex Sasaki, 27, served in the Israeli Defense Forces’ Golani infantry brigade as a “lone soldier,” without family in the country. He was found dead in his home while off duty, and military police are investigating the cause of death, the IDF said in an email.
According to several Israeli news reports, many of Sasaki’s friends from the Golani Brigade were posted on the Gaza Strip when he died. A truce with the Islamist militia Hamas dissolved into violence and rocket fire March 25, cutting short Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States.
Israeli news reports said soldiers in Sasaki’s unit started reaching out on social media to encourage people to attend his funeral. The effort took off, and hundreds poured into the national military cemetery in Jerusalem on March 28 to honor him. Sasaki’s father, Steve, said some drove for three hours to attend.
“When they were talking about how they came together — and it was apparent that that was really the case — I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what he connected with in Israel, that sort of real deep sense of family,’ ” Steve Sasaki said. “Being in the IDF and the Golani unit, it was … exponentially more family.”
“He loved his service. He loved Israel — he loves Israel,” Alex’s mother, Shelley Sasaki, said in a video filmed by Sharon Altshul for Baltimore Jewish Life. “This was the only choice for us, to keep him here in Israel, the land he loved. … His real home.”
Grace Rodnitzki, director of international relations for the Ethiopian National Project in Jerusalem, where Alex Sasaki volunteered in 2015, heard about his funeral the night before. She and a few ENP colleagues who hadn’t known him went to show their respects.
“With a lone soldier, you never know how many people will be there. And there were just so many people from so many walks of life,” Rodnitzki said. “It was unclear how many of the other soldiers who served with him could join. But so many did and so many had such beautiful remarks to share.”
Steve and Shelley Sasaki said their son wanted to serve in the Golani Brigade specifically, to be at the front lines of the IDF.
“On one hand, you have the fear, but on the other hand, if you see that your child has something that they’re just passionate about and it seems like it’s something that is going to complete them or be extremely meaningful, it’s like, well, how could I stand in the way of that?” Steve Sasaki said.
Alex Sasaki, who was ethnically Jewish and converted to Judaism when he moved to Israel, grew up near Laguna Beach’s Top of the World neighborhood. As a young man, he participated in taekwondo and basketball. His martial arts master nicknamed him “Tiger” because he was always unafraid, his father said at the funeral.
“I think even during that time as a child, he developed his sense of humor,” Steve Sasaki said in Altshul’s video. “One of the coaches was a little overly serious and was trying to [discipline him] and said, ‘Do I have to sit you over here?’ And Alex responded, ‘I guess so.’ ”
With his mother teaching art at Loara High School in Anaheim, Alex Sasaki grew up dabbling with his creative side. He recorded rap samples and painted brightly colored abstracts. He wrote in a 2015 profile as a volunteer for ENP that he loved snowboarding, surfing and lying on the beach.
“When I was a child, I wanted to either be Sherlock Holmes, where I would solve crimes as the world’s greatest detective, or I also wanted to be a couch potato, which my mom told me I would become if I kept sitting on the couch watching TV all day,” he wrote in the profile.
Reavis Hammond, who lived with Alex Sasaki for a semester at the University of Oregon, said Sasaki had a passion to open a restaurant someday. He worked at a cafe in Eugene, Ore., and went grocery shopping with Hammond every Sunday. Though they were “broke college students,” Sasaki would liven up a bowl of ramen noodles with an egg or spices, Hammond recalled.
“It was an art, and he took pride when he made food and presented it,” Hammond said. “He wanted it to taste really good and look really good. … It was something he was really good at.”
Sasaki’s love for Israel bloomed during his time at the university. He and his best friend traveled to Israel in 2013 and “made a vow to return,” Steve Sasaki said.
“The independence and confidence of Israelis constantly surprises and amazes me,” Alex Sasaki wrote in a blog post for the Ethiopian National Project in 2015. “The main focus on family and family values leads Israel into a path of strong internal growth that conditions them into being the strong and confident independent beings they reflect on a daily basis.”
His internship with the ENP took him back to Israel, where he played with children in the Ethiopian-Israeli community and taught them English. In his blog post, he described an experience visiting Ethiopian-Israeli youths in a bomb shelter.
“Seeing the smiling faces of youths filled with positivity and innocence automatically is contagious for me and almost refreshingly youthful and rejuvenating for the soul,” he wrote.
Sasaki didn’t finish his college degree, and he joined the IDF in December 2017.
Sasaki’s death followed those of two lone soldiers who died by suicide in the past three months, according to Tzivka Graiver, chairman of KeepOlim, an immigrant advocacy nonprofit in Israel. Graiver said the deaths highlight the need for stronger mental health support for IDF lone soldiers and olim, or immigrants to Israel.
“We’re calling on the army to have a proper mental system for all lone soldiers, because they are not being treated like regular soldiers,” Graiver said. “A regular soldier has his family here, has a lot of support. And a lone soldier [doesn’t] have anyone besides the army. The army needs to take responsibility for everything he needs, including mental health in his own language.”
KeepOlim offers support groups around the country, Graiver said, and is working to create a mental health hotline in different languages. It also will push for legislation in the Israeli parliament to help with lone soldiers’ mental health, he said.
“I think that in Israel, if you don’t scream out, they don’t hear you,” Graiver said.
The IDF said it provides its 6,500 lone soldiers with moving and rental assistance, holiday gifts, monthly grants and a personal interview with a commander every six months.
“All of these soldiers are treated uniquely by their commanders and social officers, who are there to deal with each of their needs, be it personal or financial,” the defense force said in a statement.