It was the first day of chol hamoed Sukkot, and Rabbi Efrem Reis introduced Guy Ronen, a representative of Israeli Brothers for Life, to the seventh and eighth graders of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford.
He had a lesson from the holiday.
“Sukkot is described as the time of our joy,” Rabbi Reiss said. “But we’re in an uncertain place.” For example, the schach might blow off and the sukkah wouldn’t be usable. Or it might snow. “And yet we’re supposed to have this idea of sameach — being happy.”
That, he said, described the aim of Brothers for Life: “Trying to give people their lives back in a time of uncertainty and difficulty.”
Specifically, the organization helps Israeli soldiers wounded in battle. It was created during the Second Lebanon War in 2007. Its founders were wounded soldiers, who were unable to return to the battlefield and instead put their energies into helping their comrades with their recovery process.
“A lot of young people, when they are wounded, have PTSD,” Mr. Ronen said. “They’d don’t see any future for themselves.” He backtracked. “Do you know what PTSD is?” he asked his young audience.
About a third of the kids raised their hands. He called on one who explained: “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“Right,” Mr. Ronen said. “They shut themselves down. They are sometimes unable to function in the right way. There are many ways it affects your life.”
He presented a video describing the organization’s origins and activities, which focuses on the story of Gil Ganonyan, the organization’s co-founder. During the war, Mr. Ganonyan commanded an elite team of soldiers assigned to capture a senior Hamas terrorist responsible for the murder of 44 Israelis. When the team found the terrorist, a firefight broke out, and several of Mr. Ganonyan’s soldiers were wounded. And then he found himself at the corner of a wall, about to face the terrorist.
“We don’t see each other, but I feel his gun to my neck,” Mr. Ganonyan said on the video. “I put my F-16 on his body and we shoot together.”
Rabbi Chaim Levine, the organization’s executive director, explains on the video what happened next that day in Gaza in 2007 to Mr. Ganonyan.
“He’s shot point blank range through his neck. He’s on the ground dying. His soldier next to him is shot through the face. The medic comes and sticks his knuckle in his neck to stop the bleeding and save his life. And he tells the medic, ‘Don’t save me. Save
(It’s not clear what did happen to the other solider.)
That concern Israeli soldiers have for each other is the power behind this organization.
While he was recovering from his injury, Mr. Ganonyan spent months visiting and encouraging other soldiers who were also recuperating. This is what inspired the beginning of Brothers for Life
After the video, Mr. Ronen spoke about his own experience as an Israeli soldier in the 1990s, patrolling in Lebanon. After finishing his military duty, “I left the army and moved on with my life,” he said. “I went to work, I traveled, and I basically tried to shut down everything that happened to me during the army, and I was very successful.
“During the day. At night I would wake up with nightmares.”
While Mr. Ronen is older than most of the soldiers involved with Brothers for Life, and while his battle scars are not as severe as most of theirs –- he suffered a knife wound in that kept him in the hospital for two weeks and left him with a now mostly invisible scar -– he well understands what they’re going through.
The Israeli government tries to meet the needs of wounded veterans. But there’s plenty left over for the organization, which now has 3100 wounded veterans participating and a waiting list of people it can’t help yet.
The IDF enables the organization to meet wounded soldiers as soon as possible, while they’re still hospitalized. “People call us and let us know what happened,” Mr. Ronen said. The group tries to send volunteers who had suffered similar injuries. “A guy who lost his legs goes to visit people that lost their legs. We show them that a wounded individual can be a successful member of society. It’s going to be a very difficult process, but they will be able to reclaim their life. And they can help their family see that there’s a future, which is very, very important.”
After the veterans leave the hospital and rehabilitation, Brothers for Life continues to support them. It provides financial extras when government benefits don’t go far enough. It trains and assigns therapy dogs. “We have a whole department whose job is to connect people with the disability offices in the universities and to create systems for the guys to feel better,” Mr. Ronen said. “We set them up with a buddy who studies in the university to make sure they finish everything in the semester.”
It also helps obtain specialized prosthetics.
Mr. Ronen showed a picture of three men standing together. The man in the middle has two prosthetic legs. Those on either side have one. “These three guys altogether have two legs between them,” he said, referring to the natural kind.
“We sent them to Orlando and were able to fit them with two different specialized prosthetic legs. One is for walking and one is for running. They can walk fast but they cannot really run without another prosthetic just for that and it’s very expensive. So we help them get that. So that’s very important.”
The central idea idea of Brothers for Life is that “the wounded soldier will be able to help other wounded soldiers,” he said. And by helping others, they help themselves.
That applies in all the therapy the group gives for PTSD. “People are treated by people who are actually in combat themselves,” Mr. Ronen said. “It’s a totally different experience when you feel like even if you don’t speak people understand what you’ve been through. And it makes the guys feel that they want to come to be part of the organization just because they can be with other people that had the same experiences.”
When Mr. Ronen opened the floor to questions from the students, one of the first questions concerned whether Brothers for Brothers serves only male soldiers.
He said that only in the past 15 years have women begun to serve in combat in the Israeli army, and “right now there are less than 20 wounded Israeli soldiers that are female.” A few years ago they were asked if they wanted to join; the response then was no but they’re checking into it again.
“It’s probably going to be a sister organization, or under the same organization but doing it separately,” he continued. “I will say, though, that we have around 500 spouses of wounded soldiers that are part of the organization. We have a spouse committee and they do activities every month. Being a wife or girlfriend of somebody that suffered in the army is very complicated. Having kids and having PTSD can be very difficult.”
At the conclusion, Rabbi Reiss said he hoped that the Schechter eighth graders will be able to meet with Brothers for Life during their class trip to Israel in the spring.