Local families open their homes to Israeli veterans
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Local families open their homes to Israeli veterans

Hosts say Zahal Shalom strengthens their connection to Israel

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GRJC Zahal Shalom welcomed eight Israeli veterans to the community on Monday. From left are Eitan Matmon, Amos Katz, Vladimir Tokatiev, Yael Hanany, Orli Levy, Ilan Malihi, Nissan Nisanov, and Yehuda Badhav. photos by Johanna resnick rosen

Since 1993, Zahal Shalom has been bringing disabled Israeli veterans to private homes in Bergen County for respite, relaxation, and – it’s hoped – some healing.

“The basic purpose of the program is to enhance the bonds between Israel and the American Jewish community,” said Richard Schnaittacher, a Ridgewood resident and co-chairman of GRJC Zahal Shalom, sponsored by the Glen Rock Jewish Center.

But, he added, the program also has a profound effect on individuals.

“Both sides gain a lot,” he noted. “The host families, as well as the veterans, are enriched by the experience.”

This year, eight veterans are living with local families in Ridgewood, Wyckoff, Glen Rock, Teaneck, and other towns in the county. The soldiers, ranging from 20-somethings to one man in his 60s, are members of Israeli Disabled Veterans, which has 50,000 members and runs programs throughout the world.

“We get about 10 veterans every year who have various types of disabilities,” said Schnaittacher, noting that this year’s guests arrived on May 15 and will be leaving May 29. While all participants are ambulatory, many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Israeli guests are taken on outings to New York City and Washington, D.C., and they visit local schools and synagogues to answer questions and speak about their experiences. The group met on Sunday with three classes at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.

This year, roughly half of the host families are “repeaters,” said the co-chair, adding that “It’s hard to describe” the powerful effect of the program on the visiting veterans.

“Some of them may have such severe PTSD that they’re under heavy medication, have never left home, and crouch when they hear a siren,” he said. “But here they begin to smile.”

Wyckoff residents David and Sandy Cohen are hosting a soldier this year, having served as a “buddy family” twice before.

“Buddy families are helpers involved with activities and transportation,” explained David Cohen. “I loved the experience, but as a host, you have a more intimate relationship with your soldier. Once you realize what a joy the program is, you want to jump in and immerse yourself in it.”

Cohen said that his children, ages 13, 16, and 19, “are really bubbling over when they’re around Vladimir,” the soldier the family is hosting. They have developed “a stronger personal connection to Israel that’s hard to get outside of visiting the country. It’s in your house. You’re no longer a tourist.”

He said his son Zach, who just finished his freshman year of college and is home on summer break, has gone on virtually all of the outings with Vladimir.

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Host families and their Israeli guests enjoy a Middle Eastern lunch.

“He wants to be involved. He’s totally immersed in it,” said Cohen.

“Our whole household loves having him around,” he added. “My daughter hasn’t stopped smiling since he came.”

Cohen noted that the guest and host are “strangers when we start, with some anxiety on both sides and no idea how it will work out.”

For the first few days, he said, Vladimir was “quiet and reserved. But we watched him smile more and start to ask about our lives.”

While he’s reticent about discussing his injuries, “we hope he’ll discuss it,” said Cohen, suggesting that the veterans don’t always have a chance to talk about their experiences in Israel, where every family has been affected by violence.

“It helps to unload,” he said. “They come here and they’re enveloped by love.”

For many, he said, this is their first visit to the United States, and the veterans “get the importance of the relationship and express feelings of bonding with the American diaspora.”

Sandy Cohen confirmed that “the kids seem to be getting a lot from the experience. I think they enjoy the idea of getting to know someone from another culture and giving of their time and home to a stranger. I hope that it leads to a continuing inclination to do for others.”

The Zoll family of Ridgewood is hosting a soldier for the second time.

“Both times have been outstanding,” said Lori Zoll. “It’s such a wonderful learning experience for us, and it is just so wonderful to watch soldiers transform from wondering what they should be doing to just relaxing and enjoying themselves.”

Her guest, Eitan – a retired colonel with more than 20 years of military experience – is the leader of the Israeli delegation.

“Eitan told us that it’s OK to lose an arm or leg, but worse when you have PTSD. You can see how some of [our guests] have gone from being hesitant and nervous to being so happy that they are crying.”

Not only have the Israeli soldiers learned English quickly, but they have become more affectionate with their hosts, she said, “letting their guard down. That’s the idea of the program.”

“We still talk to last year’s soldier,” she said. “He’s become another son.”

Not only does Zoll speak often with that soldier’s mother and father, but the young man has become friends with her own children, ages 13 and 20, and keeps up with them on Facebook.

“It’s just so different,” said Zoll, noting that her family learned how sophisticated a 22-year-old can be “because of his life experiences. We see how much he’s given.”

Zoll said she would “absolutely recommend” hosting to other families. “There’s no reason not to do this. You’re moved and enriched as much as the soldiers. The entire family gains something.”

The Curtins of Teaneck became hosts after serving as a buddy family for two years. Inspired by the example of her two sisters – who live in Wyckoff and Upper Saddle River and have been involved in the program for years – Meryl Curtin said that this year she decided to take the plunge.

“As a buddy, you have the option of putting in as much or as little time as you want unless the host family really needs you to step in,” she said, describing her past involvement as “moderate.”

“Being a host takes it to completely different level.”

Her 17-year-old daughter Lindsey is also “passionate” about the program.

“She loves all of it,” said Curtin, “meeting the veterans, finding out who they are, learning about their injuries. She’s very caring.”

The Teaneck host said she is really getting to know Ilan, “her” soldier.

“He’s 62 years old and it’s his first time out of the country,” she said, noting that she sometimes relies on group leader Eitan to help translate her questions to Ilan from English into Hebrew.

“It’s like watching a flower blossom,” she said, describing Ilan’s progress since he arrived. “He’s come a long way.”

While she has not been to Israel, Curtin said she now wants to “hop on a plane.” Ilan, she said, has offered his hospitality should they make that trip.

“He said, now you’re my family,” she recalled. “We get so much from this. When you have someone in your home, you’re sharing a different experience, you’re closer,” she said, stressing the value of conversation. “That’s the ultimate reward.”

For more information about Zahal Shalom, visit www.zahalshalom.com.

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