Every spring, a group of Bergen County families hosts 10 to 12 disabled Israel veterans for two weeks. If the impact of the program on the soldiers is substantial — and often life-changing — it is equally important for the hosts.
“The program is magical,” Steve Kornblit of Waldwick said. “It works on so many different levels of connection — between you and the veteran, you and Israel, and between the soldiers who come here as a group.” The veterans’ wounds range from visible physical injuries to less obvious but no less real PTSD, he said. “Some don’t tell.”
Steve and Susan Kornblit are board members of Zahal Shalom, and Ms. Kornblit is its secretary. The group was created by Bergen County residents in 1993, and it organizes and sponsors the veterans’ trips. The Kornblits hosted their first veteran in 2005, and they have hosted six veterans since then. Members of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, they first heard about the program through fellow congregant Nancy Bortingor, who links the veterans with local families. “She came to us and got us to become hosts,” Mr. Kornblit said. “It changed our lives.”
Veterans and host families participate in many social activities in New Jersey, New York, and Washington, and veterans have an opportunity to visit local schools and synagogues to discuss both their wartime experiences and their everyday life in Israel. “They go through two weeks of incredible bonding,” Mr. Kornblit said. “The bus to New York, the trip to Washington, dinners, trips, social events. All those things create an unbelievable feeling.”
The Kornblits spent last week in Eilat, planning a brief respite in an otherwise busy schedule. They were in Israel to organize reunions of Zahal Shalom alumni all over the country. They already had been to Haifa and Beersheba. “It was all hugs and kisses, and ‘so great to see you,’” Mr. Kornblit said.
While Bergen County families have visited “their veterans” in the past, Mr. Kornblit’s mission now is different. “When we as American host and buddy families” — who help out but do not house the veterans — “visit, the Israelis want to do everything for us, or have us stay in their homes,” he said. “But my idea was to move around Israel and create events that would bring soldiers together. In a few days, we will move to Jerusalem, and then finish up in Tel Aviv. There will be two events in each city. One event in each city is a food tour, where we go to a shakshuka or hummus or falafel place famous in that city. We’ve invited veterans from that city to come with us on the food tour. It’s a nice way to meet again.”
“I contacted every veteran we hosted from 2000 all the way to 2018 — about 180 people,” he continued. “It’s more difficult to reach people from the earlier years.” The response has varied from city to city. “But that’s just for the food tour. In each city we also have a potluck dinner scheduled. In two of the cities, veterans volunteered to use their homes to host. We did Beersheba last night. There were six veterans. The host cooked most of the meal, but others brought dishes of their own or dessert.”
Mr. Kornblit said that the veterans in each place already may know each other, either because they traveled to the United States together as a unit or because they met through Beit Halochem, which cares for Israeli veterans who are disabled in the line of duty. Beit Halochem centers in Israel provide a place where disabled people can participate in sports and related activities suited to their individual situation. Each center also offers a wide choice of social and creative activities for members. “They go to Beit Halochem to do their rehabilitation, using the facility’s pools, massage areas, and physical therapy,” Mr. Kornblit said. “There’s a center in all four cities we’re visiting.”
In fact, he said, while the October 25 Tel Aviv reunion still would include a food tour, the second get-together will be held not in a veteran’s home but at Beit Halochem. “It’s got a different feel,” he said. “It’s their place. A large contingent said they will cook and bring the food there.”
Susan Kornblit said she already knew several people at the Beersheba reunion. “I knew Yoni, who hosted us for dinner.” She also knew Orly, who came to Bergen County in 2011, bringing a newspaper article describing how her unit had been bombed. “She was hurt badly. She didn’t think she would make it. But now, she seems very stable and happy. It’s nice to see her in her element. She’s working, and she has a nice job.”
Johanna Rosen of Ridgewood has been on the executive committee of Zahal Shalom for a long time, “15 to 20 years,” she said. “I haven’t hosted since 2006, but I spend time leading groups in New York and Washington, D.C.”
Ms. Rosen clearly is excited by Mr. Kornblit’s reunion project. “Wherever he is, people from different years are coming together to be with him,” she said. “What is beginning to happen is when someone from our community — whether a host or a buddy family — goes to Israel and says, ‘Join me for coffee or beer at a restaurant,’ people show up. They’re getting to know each other, support each other. It’s such a nice thing for them to continue to have the social life with the American community and now with each other. It’s fascinating to see who Steve is bringing together.”
In 1999, Ms. Rosen and her husband, Michael, hosted a soldier who had been a POW during the Yom Kippur War. “He and my husband bonded over billiards,” she said. Her second guest, in 2003, was injured when infiltrating into Lebanon. “He had a traumatic head injury and needed to relearn how to walk and talk.”
During his stay in Bergen County, she said, “he began to feel empowered. He insisted that we speak in Hebrew and said frappucinos were the best thing ever.” After the visit, “he became employed again, doing private detective work. He also started to have a plot in Ramat Gan community garden.”
For more information about Zahal Shalom, go to www.zahalshalom.org.