Before Ori Grinstein got married last September, she decided to make her own chuppah.
As she created the wedding canopy she worked with the artistic input of people special to her. That included the nine Bergen County families with whom she had become close over the course of a two-week stay more than three years earlier.
Such is the impact of Zahal Shalom of Bergen County, now marking its 25th year. The group hosts disabled Israeli veterans in local homes for two weeks of touring and friendship-making.
“Our slogan — ‘In Our Homes for Two Weeks. In Our Hearts for a Lifetime” — is so true,” Scott Krim of Wyckoff said. “It sums up our experience with hosting these amazing heroes.” Mr. Krim is president of Zahal Shalom — Zahal is the Hebrew acronym for Israel Defense Forces.
On June 15, Zahal Shalom of Bergen County will celebrate its silver anniversary with a fundraising gala at Temple Israel Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. Israeli veterans this summer’s cohort will be there to speak with guests, and there will be a silent auction for prizes ranging from wine to gift certificates.
Mr. Krim said that some members of the Glen Rock Jewish Center created Zahal Shalom in 1993. The program has evolved over time. But the basic premise is the same: Every year, the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization picks 10 Israeli veterans, ranging from their mid-20s to mid-50s, each suffering from a 35 percent disability — caused, for example, from anything ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to more overtly physical issues, to come to Bergen County each June. Every participant is hosted by a family and also has a backup “buddy family.”
“The impact is far and wide-reaching,” Mr. Krim said. “It’s really about having a connection with Israel by bringing over Israelis.”
He and his wife, Pam, signed up to be a buddy family 10 years ago. But a host family had to drop out, so the Krims became the primary host for one veteran. “It was an amazing experience for us and our four children,” he said.
The Krims hosted again the next year and then took their first trip to Israel. “My son Jesse loved it so much that he decided to study abroad for a semester at Tel Aviv University last year,” Mr. Krim said. “We’ve been back three times. This April, we were joined for dinner at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv by 15 veterans who had been on our program. They came from all over Israel to meet us there.”
This is the seventh time the Krims are hosting Zahal Shalom veterans. They’ve opened their home to men and women from as far south as Eilat and as far north as Haifa. This is the first time that they are hosting a Druze veteran, but it’s not unusual for a non-Jewish soldier to be part of the group. All of them are involved in rehab activities at Beit Halochem centers affiliated with Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization.
“One year we had a soldier with such bad PTSD that he hadn’t left his house for three years,” Mr. Krim said. “When he came here, he said he hadn’t smiled in those three years. His wife said he came back a changed person and became a leader at Beit Halochem. We’ve seen time and again that they come here depressed and go back smiling.”
This year’s cohort, touring from June 4 to 18, has a typically full itinerary. It includes lots of sightseeing in New York City — Columbia University, Zabar’s, Lincoln Center, a Circle Line cruise, the 9/11 Memorial, the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Square Park, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chelsea Market, the High Line, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village, plus a Broadway show.
Israel Blum, a vice president of Zahal Shalom who lives in Englewood and is an IDF veteran, has been involved with Zahal Shalom since 1999. Every year, he treats the group to a Moroccan-style lunch at his hardware store in Manhattan, where they’re entertained by singing children from Chabad of the West Side.
“Basically we give them the time of their lives for two weeks,” Mr. Blum said. “They come as friends and they leave as family.” The Israeli veterans also met with Chief Jacqueline Luthcke of the Ridgewood Police Department and with students at Pascack Valley High School. They’ll go shopping at Bergen Town Center and have dinner as a group with host families in Paterson, Franklin Lakes, Wyckoff, and Woodcliff Lake.
The trip includes stops in Asbury Park and Princeton, as well as three days of touring in Washington. During that trip, the group will meet with Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.).
The $40,000 price tag for each year’s program is raised from the Bergen County Jewish community and a few corporate sponsors.
Ms. Grinstein, now 29, recalls that when she heard about Zahal Shalom at Beit Halochem in Haifa — where she continues to go weekly for physical and water therapy for the back injuries and fibromyalgia resulting from her service in the engineering corps — she was a little wary of the idea of staying with a family of strangers in Fair Lawn. But Barbara and Steven Kiel didn’t remain strangers very long, and Ms. Grinstein also got close with the other host families during her time in New Jersey.
This is why she wanted to include them in her wedding to a fellow veteran she’d met at Beit Halochem. Several of the families even went to Israel for the occasion, and others sent heartfelt cards of congratulations.
“I am still grateful for all they did, and I stay in touch with them through Facebook and WhatsApp,” Ms. Grinstein said.
What: 25th anniversary celebration of Zahal Shalom of Bergen County
When: June 15, 7 to 11 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel Jewish Community Center, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood
How much: $60 per person. Tickets may be bought that evening, but reservations are requested by June 10.