‘Indescribable’ connections

‘Indescribable’ connections

Zahal Shalom brings Israeli veterans to Ridgewood for touring, love

The Israelis at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. Back row: Nasif Abu Rish, Sagi Salah, Oren Luzzatto, Yehuda Maman, Anat Nitsan, Tal Hazan, and Omer Kuzniez. Front row: Shachar Romi, Hezi Reuven, and Eliron Haroni.

What happened when the alarm went off in the Pentagon was a reminder of one of the reasons local volunteers behind Zahal Shalom are so eager to open their homes, their schedules, and their wallets to 10 wounded Israeli veterans each year.

During their two-week stay, the Israelis get to see New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

In Washington, they visited the monuments, ate in the Senate dining room, and took a tour of the Pentagon, where – and this was not on the five-page itinerary – a fire drill caused alarms to clang loudly.

For Anat Nitsan, the alarm brought back memories from the Yom Kippur war, more than 40 years ago. Now an art curator, then she was a soldier at the air force base at Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of Sinai. She survived the initial surprise attack from the Egyptian air force. And then, in a case of friendly fire, she watched in horror as a missile seemed to target her directly. Somehow she survived that too – though not without a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Several other of the visiting Israelis suffer PTSD as well – a condition for which loud alarms while in the company of uniformed men is not the ideal prescription.

What is the ideal prescription, Omer Kuzniez said a couple of nights later, is unconditional love. And that is something that the visiting Israelis received from their American hosts.

“Thank you for building the trust we need,” Mr. Kuzniez said.

“It’s unbelievable,” Ms. Nitsan said. “People are so nice. We are like in a dream. The way they received us: so full of kindness and love and happiness.”

Yet the prospect of helping veterans is only one part of what draws people to support Zahal Shalom. What proves decisive, what keeps hosts coming back year after year, is the warm connections that are forged with the visiting Israelis.

“The connection you feel with the soldiers is indescribable,” said Robin Steiner of Montvale. “They’re so loving.”

Tzahal Shalom recruits two families for each of the soldiers. The host family is responsible for providing a bed, breakfast, and transportation to Temple Israel in Ridgewood. The buddy family shares the work of providing home-cooked meals and hospitality, and accompanies the Israelis on their sightseeing adventures. Some days are left free, encouraging bonding between the Israelis and the Americans. Nancy Bortingor of Ridgewood, who heads the placement committee, said she encourages the host and buddy families to pull their children from school for a day to accompany the Israelis on their travels.

“They’ll remember this longer,” she said.

The motto of Zahal Shalom is “In our homes for two weeks. In our hearts forever.”

“It’s amazing,” said Debbie Corwin, who had hosted soldiers for five years.

When she and her husband went to Israel last year, they saw the soldiers they had met over the previous years, and met their families. The warmth they had given in New Jersey was reciprocated in Israel.

“The people who agree to host are unique and special,” Ms. Bortinger said. They have very big hearts and love for Israel and for doing mitzvot – and an ability to put aside the routines of everyday life for at least two weeks.”

While most of the hosts are from Ridgewood or the immediately surrounding towns, this year they had one from Teaneck and in the past “we had people shlepping in from Wayne,” she added

Last Thursday night, 160 people showed up for a fundraising dinner at Temple Israel. The mayors of Ridgewood and Hawthorne were there. And there were people who were wistful because in other years they had hosted Israelis, but this year had to bow out because their time was claimed by a graduation or the expected arrival of a grandchild.

“It’s amazing, it’s wonderful, to see people who care so much for us,” Mr. Kuzniez said. “It gives us the feeling we have another home.”

Zahal Shalom began in 1993, but the origins of the program date back to the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, when the Jewish community of Geneva hosted wounded Israeli veterans. On the Israeli side, the program is run by Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization and its network of rehabilitation centers, Beit Halochem. Bergen County’s Zahal Shalom is one of only six such programs in North America. The others are in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

Oren Luzzatto is the group’s guide. Retired after 26 years in the IDF, he spends his days volunteering in the Beersheva office of Beit Halochem. He was a member of a delegation to Pittsburgh. This was his second trip as a leader. He handled the connection between Israel and New Jersey. And he did the work needed to create the group in Israel – both the mundane tasks of making sure visas were in order, but also the work of preparing the group, creating group cohesion, and allowing them to know what to expect.

In New Jersey, he said, “the connection is excellent. The best ever. There is a big heart. People give their all. You feel a lot of love.”

Mr. Luzzatto was wounded by terrorists in Lebanon in 1990. Then he was more seriously hurt in an auto accident. But he continued to serve.

Nasif Abu Rish is Druze. He’s from the Druze village of Yarka – 11 miles southwest of Nahariya.

“It’s a wonderful land,” he said of America, speaking in Hebrew. “It’s gorgeous. But Israel is better, because it is my land. There I live and there I will die. We have a wonderful land. We have a strong army. There’s nothing to fear. All the Jews can come to Israel.”

The Americans he met – the Zahal Shalom volunteers – “are very nice. They love the State of Israel. They give to the state.”

“We are 10 soldiers,” said Shahar Romi, speaking at the dinner. “Here we have 160 soldiers in the United Sates. We need to clap for you.

“It’s amazing what you do. We appreciate it so much.”

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