It was 11 years ago that Arlene and Howard Goldberg first hosted a disabled Israeli veteran who was here with Zahal Shalom of Bergen County, a free program of touring and friendship-making.
Since then, that guest has returned to their Wayne home several times, bringing his wife, his son, and his son’s army buddies to meet these former strangers who have become like family. He even gave the Goldbergs a mezuzah that he had carried into battle.
Arlene Goldberg talked about the program last Friday night at an oneg Shabbat at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
“The ties we’ve developed with the soldiers are truly amazing,” she said. “I can’t emphasize enough the lifelong relationships that are made through Zahal Shalom, with the soldiers and with the other volunteers.”
Founded 27 years ago, Zahal Shalom — Zahal is the Hebrew acronym for Israel Defense Forces — is all about forging personal connections between the American Jewish community and the people of Israel. Its slogan is “In Our Homes for Two Weeks. In Our Hearts for a Lifetime.”
Housed throughout northern New Jersey, participants speak to social studies classes at local high schools; visit theaters, tourist sites, and museums in New York City; and tour Washington, D.C., for three days.
“For the soldiers, it’s an amazing experience,” Ms. Goldberg said. “Many of them have not been away from home since their injury.”
The veterans chosen for the trip are men and women of different ages and backgrounds, including Druze soldiers, who are classified as being at least 30 percent disabled as a result of injuries suffered during their service. All of them are involved in rehab activities at Beit Halochem centers affiliated with Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Beersheva.
Ms. Goldberg says the veterans range from their early 20s to men who fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Asked why she first became interested in Zahal Shalom, she said, “I’ve been involved in many Jewish and Zionist programs since I was a kid. My son, who lives in Israel, served in the IDF. I have two grandsons and other relatives in Israel. It’s just a natural and comfortable thing for us to do. The friends we’ve met through Zahal Shalom all have a love of Zionism and of the soldiers.”
Ms. Goldberg related that during a visit to Israel, one of the Druze soldiers they once hosted invited them, along with their son and his family, to their home, and he and his family “put on a spread like we were royalty. They have two sons serving in the military. One of them came to New York with a buddy and came to dinner at the home of a Zahal Shalom host.”
Another young man who stands out in her memory is an immigrant from Ukraine whom the Goldbergs hosted about 10 years ago.
“He was a kid from the streets who was in trouble all the time,” she said. “When he had to report to the army, he didn’t have to go into a combat unit because he was an only child — but he chose to. He was very badly injured in battle and was in a coma for quite a while. His family had not integrated well into Israeli society, but during the time his mother sat by his bedside day and night, she came to know a lot of Israelis who helped her make that transition.”
After hosting him through Zahal Shalom, the Goldbergs gave him a blanket invitation to return whenever he liked. He did so a few years later. At the end of that visit, Ms. Goldberg handed him a shirt she’d just ironed after doing his laundry. “He put it on and then he said, ‘I want to give you something special.’ He took off his shirt and gave it to me.”
Aside from donations — the cost for each of the ten annual participants is $4,000 — the organization also seeks to inspire more people to host and assist in other ways.
“Each soldier has two families: one host family that provides bed and board, and a buddy family that’s a backup for the host family,” Ms. Goldberg explained. “Most days we meet up at Temple Israel in Ridgewood. That’s the pickup point where host families bring soldiers to the bus and pick them up or go on the trips with them. We have various people from the organization who plan the itinerary and serve as guides.”
It’s not necessary to know Hebrew, because most of the soldiers speak adequate English, though Hebrew-speaking hosts always are helpful for guests less comfortable in English.
“We are all volunteers,” Ms. Goldberg said. “Every penny raised goes into taking care of our soldiers.”
She said that the participants always are awed by the hospitality that’s showered on them. “They don’t know why American Jews would do this. One asked me why when he arrived, and I said, ‘Let’s have this conversation before you leave because I think you’ll understand then.’ And they do; they understand the connection. Whatever we do for the soldiers we get back so much more.”
The next cohort of disabled soldiers will arrive in May.
For information about volunteering, email email@example.com. To learn about donation and sponsorship opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Zahal Shalom, go to www.zahalshalom.org.