Liz Posner and Sarah Bressler flank Israeli veteran Gil Shahar. Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye
The last day of their two-week visit began much as their first had with hugs all around, as local host and buddy families embraced the 10 disabled Israeli veterans who arrived on Monday, May 7, sponsored by Bergen County Zahal Shalom.
But Sunday’s departure brunch at the Ridgewood home of Johanna and Michael Rosen had an added dimension. It was filled with the laughter, tears, and last-minute picture-taking of the big family they had become. About to be divided by thousands of miles and an ocean, all they could talk about was how exceptionally close they felt and how much they would miss each other in the coming days.
Some would not be separated for long, however. As a result of this experience, several families have made plans to travel to Israel this summer, where they expect to reconnect with the person they now describe as their new child or sibling.
Liz Posner, 15, an only child, can’t wait, she said. Gil Shahar, ‘7, the brother she always wished she had, is helping her and her parents, Amy and Marshall, both lawyers, map out the trip and he intends to join them for at least part of their three-week tour. Over the summer, Shahar will also have a chance to see Sarah Bressler, 15, daughter of Irene and Arthur Bressler of Ridgewood who all buddied with the Posners to spend time with Gil. Sarah will be in Israel on a teen tour with Camp Naaleh, which is based in the Poconos.
The Bresslers, who also have a son, David, 13, grew so fond of Gil that they have decided to be hosts next year so they can have a veteran of their own in the house.
Each spring since 1993, Zahal Shalom has arranged for another group of disabled Israeli veterans to come to Bergen County for healing and respite from injuries sustained in Israel’s many conflicts and the challenges to daily living they have endured. The warmth and acceptance they find here is overwhelming for many, who talk about their suffering for the first time to people outside their immediate families, said Richard Schnaittacher, one of the program’s co-chairs whose family has served as host and buddy during the 10 years they have been involved. (Buddies may accompany the veterans on the scheduled group activities and assist the hosts with transportation and other responsibilities.)
The vets, in turn, create a personal, meaningful connection to Israel for the Jewish community in Bergen County. "It gives [us] a different perspective on life," remarked Schnaittacher. "We may talk about family matters, what we saw last night on television. In Israel, they face life and death every day. And their physical injuries are the easiest to deal with."
It costs about $3,000 per veteran for the non-profit organization to cover everything from their roundtrip airfare to admission fees to sites in New York City and Washington. It relies entirely on donations and volunteers and the overhead is minimal, said another co-chair, Jerry Margolis of Glen Rock.
The itinerary included stops at the usual tourist locations: the Empire State Building; Museum of Natural History; Greenwich Village; Ground Zero; Central Park; Katz’s Deli; and a Broadway show in New York; and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Lincoln, Washington, World War II, Korean, Vietnam, and FDR memorials in Washington.
The veterans also made appearances at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale and Northern Highlands High School in Allendale, where they spoke to students about their lives in Israel and their hopes for peace. Through such contact and other, more spontaneous interaction Doron Malka, 36, a former chief inspector of police from northern Israel who walks with the aid of crutches, introduced himself to police officers in Washington the vets "put a human face on Israel," said Johanna Rosen. "That’s [one] value of the program in the public sphere."
This year’s veterans contingent was no different from those of years past varying in age, they represented the arc of Israeli history, from the Six Day War in 1967 to the most recent war with Lebanon last summer.
The youngest, Asaf Ohana, ‘1, of Jerusalem, was rescued from a tank explosion on a road in a Lebanese village that left one of his comrades dead. His ankle, knee, both shoulders, and back still bear the scars and he is facing further surgery. On the other end of the spectrum, Shlomo Mizrahi, 59, from Rishon LeZion, took three bullets to the stomach from friendly fire while clearing houses of Arabs in the Six Day War. The intestinal damage landed him in the hospital for a year, and four decades later, he is heavily medicated and goes three to four times a week to a rehabilitation center in Tel Aviv.
Yet Mizrahi’s spirit was indomitable, his sense of humor contagious. "He’s the real joker in the group," said host Michael Burke of Ridgewood, adding, "He had us all laughing all the time," despite Mizrahi’s inability to communicate well in English and Burke’s limited facility with Hebrew. Fortunately, Burke’s husband, Micheline, educational director at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, is fluent in Hebrew, as is Arie Bortinger, also of Ridgewood, a native speaker, who with his wife, Nancy, teamed up with the Burkes to be Mizrahi’s buddy family.
The powerful impact this program makes on both the Americans and the Israelis was driven home for Tomer Sheleg, ‘7, one of last year’s participants from Netanya who has since moved in with the Rosens. "Watching this year from another side, I see in their eyes how much each side gives the other. They complete each other," said Sheleg of the group dynamic.
The Israelis, he observed, bring to the American Jews a feeling of freedom, joy, and happiness he doesn’t believe we fully appreciate in our daily lives. What the Israelis gain from us, he noted, is a sense of how special they are and how meaningful their sacrifice. "In Israel, there are a lot of [veterans] like [us], and we do what we need to do. No one talks about it. [Here,] we can feel special as a group."