The eight visiting Israel Defence Forces veterans at Stanley Park. (photo by David Schwartz)
Eight Israel Defence Forces war veterans, all of them part of the rehabilitation program at Beit Halochem, visited Vancouver earlier this month for eight days. They were guests of Temple Sholom and each of them was hosted by a family here.
Temple Sholom president David Schwartz was one of those hosts. “It’s the fifth visit we’ve had, ever since we joined the Beit Halochem program 10 years ago, and each visit brings us, as a community, to new heights of emotional inspiration,” he said. “Our congregation’s response to this program was amazing and we had some members on the waiting list for the next time. Unfortunately, our group included only eight veterans – if we had more, there would have been no problem to find them a suitable accommodation. It is such a great privilege to host these brave people who sacrificed … for the state of Israel. Each one of them has an amazing story of personal heroism; it is just feels so honorable to have them among us even for a short while.”
Infantry Col. Eitan Matmon, who was injured three times during his military career, the last time on Lebanese soil during the 2006 war, was the highest rank officer among the visitors. It was Matmon’s second visit to Canada, but the first to the West Coast, and the warm weather matched the community’s hospitality. “From the first moment we landed in Vancouver,” he said, “our hosts took care of us and greeted us with the biggest hearts and smiles we could wish for.
“Our guys are struggling every single day to recover, both physically and mentally, from the horrible effects of war,” he continued. “For them to come here and enjoy this amazing scenery, to meet the local Jewish community and to relax and enjoy such a visit is just priceless. We are so thankful to our hosts from Temple Sholom, King David High School, Rabbi [Philip] Bregman from Hillel and everybody else who contributed to this successful visit. We can’t wait to show our friends and family at home what kind of warm support we have found here, on the other side of the planet.”
The group landed in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 5, and visited King David on Thursday, Hillel at the University of British Columbia on Friday, then joined Temple Sholom for Shabbat dinner. They toured Stanley Park and Granville Island, went shopping at Pacific Centre, attended a Vancouver Whitecaps game and traveled to Whistler and Bowen Island before leaving on May 14 for Calgary for five days. Separately, Matmon was among a group of about 50 people who joined a Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia tour of historical Jewish sites in Strathcona and Gastown on Sunday, which was when he had a chance to talk with the Jewish Independent.
The first connection between Beit Halochem and Temple Sholom was made by Bregman 10 years ago. Since then, five delegations have visited Vancouver, and Bregman is still excited by the special event. “For us, as North American educators,” he said, “this connection provides such a great opportunity to show our young generation something they have never seen before: personal sacrifice. Our country doesn’t ask for anything from local high school grads, right? You went to school, you graduated, you say thank you and move on with your life. In Israel, they say, ‘No, now you’re going to give us back three years of your life.’ And the young people of Israel keep on doing their mandatory service in such a devotion that can only be admired by our local youth. I’m so glad and proud that this connection has turned into a tradition. The IDF veterans’ visit at the Hillel centre has left our students with a powerful and inspiring message of hope and courage that can only come from one place in the world: Israel.”
For more details on Beit Halochem in Canada, visit beithalochem.ca.
Shahar Ben Halevi is a writer and filmmaker living in Vancouver.