Three years ago, I compiled a list of a dozen Israeli unsung heroes to mark the new Jewish year.
Here’s my latest list of 12 outstanding people to start off 5777 on an inspiring note, although it’s fair to say there are dozens more I could have included. May their example lead us to emulate their efforts to make a positive difference in the world.
1. Joseph Gitler of Ra’anana, a Teaneck native who founded and chairs Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank and leading food rescue network. He made aliyah in 2000 and won a Presidential Citation for Volunteerism in 2011 for his massive operation, which began in 2003 with volunteers picking up leftovers from catered affairs. Last year, Leket Israel rescued and redistributed 2,110,198 hot meals from corporate caterers, hotels, and IDF bases, as well as 12,000 tons of agricultural produce donated by farmers and packing houses. The organization also provides 1,400,000 sandwiches to needy children at 130 schools in 42 municipalities every year.
2. Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer of Bnai Brak, who won an Israel Prize in 1997 for founding and chairing Ezra LeMarpeh in 1979. The voluntary organization fills gaps in Israel’s medical system in many ways: providing free diagnostics, international medical referrals, free ambulance service, home care for children with cancer, extracurricular activities for disabled children, medical equipment, and more. Rabbi Firer is ultra-Orthodox, yet Ezra LeMarpeh assists Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular.
3. Adi Altschuler, who was just 16 in 2002, when she spearheaded Krembo Wings, the only inclusive youth movement in Israel for children and young people with severe disabilities. Now encompassing about 40 branches, Krembo Wings provides weekly social activities for some 4,000 7- to 21-year-olds with special needs and their able-bodied peers from all cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Ms. Altschuler was inspired by volunteering with a boy with cerebral palsy, and worked with his mother and other volunteers to establish the organization.
4. Yossi Fraenkel, a high-school dropout from London who learned to channel his ADHD energies into extraordinary good deeds. At 18, in Brooklyn, he started volunteering for the Crown Heights Shomrim neighborhood patrol and Chesed Shel Emes, a Jewish burial society. Today, just four years after making aliyah, he is voluntary operations officer for the ZAKA International Rescue Units and deputy commander of its Jerusalem region. This UN-recognized volunteer organization works in Israel and abroad to handle with dignity the remains of victims of accidents, suicides, natural disasters and terror attacks, and also has search-and-rescue units. Mr. Fraenkel also volunteers with the Jerusalem police and as a first-responder with Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross equivalent).
5. Rabbi Asa Keisar, a scribe by profession and a voluntary crusader in the cause of encouraging religious Israelis to consider a plant-based diet — or at least to reduce consumption of animal products — due to the many animal-welfare issues in slaughterhouses, chicken coops, egg farms, and dairy farms. His lectures, videos, and publications argue that modern methods of preparing animals and animal byproducts for the dinner plate clearly violate Jewish law.
6, 7, 8. Israeli Paralympic medalists Doron Shaziri, Inbal Pezaro, and Moran Samuel, who each came home with a bronze to add to their collection of medals from various world competitions in testament to the power of perseverance and positive thinking. Mr. Shaziri lost a leg to a landmine during his army service in 1987, and since has won eight Paralympic medals in sharpshooting, in addition to founding a company that makes sports wheelchairs. Ms. Pezaro, disabled in her legs from birth, won three swimming world championships and many other medals in addition to a total of nine Paralympic medals. Ms. Samuel, paralyzed by a spinal stroke at 24, 10 years ago, became a pediatric physical therapist and won the disabled rowing world championship in 2015.
9. Mohammad Ka’abiya, a Bedouin Israel Defense Forces veteran and senior at the University of Haifa who is a StandWithUs Fellow and is active in Aharai!, a nonprofit leadership-development organization that helps young people from the social and geographic margins of society prepare for meaningful service in the IDF. Mr. Ka’abiya travels to college campuses across the world to counter anti-Israel propaganda with true stories of his own experience as a member of an Israeli minority. He speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew, and English.
10, 11. Avraham Hayon and Oded Weiss, founders of Sayeret Chesed Yechudit (SAHI) — in English, the Special Grace Unit — which empowers troubled Israeli teens by turning them into anonymous goodwill ambassadors in their own neighborhoods. Founded in 2009, SAHI today encompasses 23 “Secret Giving Squads” involving about 600 Israeli youth and 200 graduates of the program participating in weekly food distributions to more than 1,500 needy people in cities such as Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Lachish, Kiryat Gat, and Merhavim.
12. Ifat Baron, founder and CEO of ITWorks, a non-profit organization established in 2006 to promote diversity in employment and enable underserved and underprivileged adults — women, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, new immigrants, people with intellectual and sensory disabilities, the ultra-Orthodox and others — to reach their professional potential and obtain financial self-sufficiency. In the last decade, about 2,500 people have sought help from ITWorks, which boasts a job placement rate of more than 70 percent. The percentage is close to 100 in its ExcelHT training program for targeted minority groups to meet the technological requirements in highest demand throughout Israel.