Earlier this month, customs officials at the Ashdod port discovered a significant amount of military equipment destined for Gaza. Thousands of items of camouflaged military clothing, including coats, combat vests and boots, were due to be moved into Gaza via the nearby Kerem Shalom border crossing. This is one of the biggest collections of military clothing that has been intercepted on its way to Gaza.
Sara Omer and her kids lost their husband/father Reuven in 2008. (photo from IMP Group)
May 1 was Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day), May 2 celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. For the widows of Israel’s fallen soldiers, who paid the ultimate price so that Jews all over the world could revel in the modern-day rebirth of the Jewish state, these anniversaries stir varying emotions.
At 94 years old, Devorah Arkin Roth is one of the country’s oldest war widows. Her husband, Mordechai Arkin, was killed while defending Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem just weeks before the official outbreak of the War of Independence in May 1948. She shares fond memories of her husband, as she stares at the photo album of their wedding and the newborn pictures of their first child.
“He was a very talented man who wanted to go to Columbia University in New York to study physics,” she recalled. “But the deteriorating security situation in the country wouldn’t permit him to leave. He worked at Hadassah Hospital and doubled as a guard when he was killed. At the time of his death, I was already pregnant with our second child.”
Though Roth remarried and feels privileged to be a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she still gets the jitters each time one of her grandchildren goes into the army. “It’s difficult to see your grandchildren being drafted into the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] after what I had to endure, and even more so because one of my grandchildren was injured as well in battle,” she said.
The Six Dar War was an astounding military accomplishment, as the IDF beat back the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan – but 776 IDF soldiers lost their lives.
Pte. Yossi Mori was killed on the first day of the Six Day War (June 5, 1967) after his unit was shelled in a minefield. His widow, Dania, recalled, “We had a great group of friends and, to this day, we meet every Memorial Day at his grave. During these years, you keep going, building your home, raising children and grandchildren. You don’t just sit all day thinking about your loss, because then your life would stop.”
First Lieut. Yehuda Ram died while liberating the Golan Heights on the last day of the war (June 10). “Yehuda died when he was 23 years old and we had only been married for a year. It was young love, an innocent one,” Shoshana, his widow, remembered. “I actually came back from the war filled with guilt. Why did I survive and he didn’t? Those feelings disappeared with the years because you can’t keep living like that.”
Even in between wars, when IDF soldiers constantly train in order to be ready for the next conflagration, there are inherent dangers, which can exact a toll.
For example, Sara Omer’s world was nearly destroyed in 2008, when her husband Reuven was killed in the midst of a training exercise as part of his IDF reserve duty. She had to face life alone with her three young boys, twins Nadav and Yotam, who were 6 years old, and Guy, then 2 years old.
“The unexpected loss of my husband was indeed shocking and, when Yom Hazikaron comes around every year,” she said, “it is a difficult day for all of the widows, but my children, who are now teenagers, attend a special ceremony at the Knesset, which is both uplifting and inspiring.”
Run by widows and orphans, the IDF Widows and Orphans organization (IDFWO) creates a support network to help them through difficult times. The organization provides services that touch every aspect of their lives, from a communal bar/bat mitzvah service at the Kotel, to professional training courses.
One of the most important activities of the IDFWO is to bring together people with common experiences for mutual support. Regular retreats give widows a break and a chance to benefit from mutual understanding. The IDFWO Otzma Camps give orphans the same opportunity.
“Once a war widow, always a war widow, even if you remarry and love your second husband. The IDFWO gatherings and activities are very important for a very specific reason,” one of the widows explained. “We might not always agree with each other’s opinions about different things, but we all speak the same language and understand each other, as widows. Since we have all experienced the same loss and trauma, we can speak to each other in our language and help each other when we need to, especially on Yom Hazikaron, when we all could use a hug and a smile.”
Orphans from the IDF Widows and Orphans organization plant olive trees in the Givat Koah forest along with Tami Shelach, IDFWO chair, herself an IDF widow. (photo from IMP Group Ltd.)
Eleven-year-old Maya Keidar lost her father, Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. But, on Tu b’Shevat this year, she was smiling as she helped plant some olive trees with other orphans in the Givat Koah forest near Rosh HaAyin in Israel – a site where many trees had been devastated by the recent forest fires. The initiative was organized by the Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans organization.
“It’s fun to spend time outdoors, with nature, and even more fun to do it with the friends from IDFWO,” said Maya.
Eliyah Asulin, 10, and her sister Ophir, 14, were part of the group. The Asulin sisters’ father, policeman Sgt. Maj. Shlomi Asulin, was stabbed and killed in 2011 when chasing after car thieves in 2011. Also participating were Jonathan Zilbershlag, 7, and his older brother Ido, 11, who were digging hard to break ground with a spade. Helping them was 8-year-old Yaron Berkovic. While they worked, the children tried to protect as much of the native Israeli flowers that had grown within the past week among the trees in the forest.
“These children’s fathers implanted the values of sacrifice and love of Israel in all of us,” said Tami Shelach, chair of IDFWO, herself an IDF widow. “Now, we must take the values they’ve modeled and continue maintaining them. It’s our fervent hope and wish that these orphans will, indeed, see new beginnings sprout from the darkness.”
The olive tree was chosen as a symbol of peace and hope. And, added 11-year-old Michael Zacharia – whose father, Sgt. Maj. Gil Zacharia, collapsed while his reserve unit was training in 2015 – “It’s a tree with strong roots, so it’ll live for a long time.”
IDFWO is the only nonprofit organization recognized by the State of Israel to work with widows and orphans of the IDF and Israel’s security forces. They care for approximately 8,000 widows and orphans every year through recreational events, programming, retreats, b’nai mitzvah trips, etc. For more information, visit idfwo.org/eng.
A leisurely walk through Jerusalem’s Old City will let visitors see many manifestations of political propaganda, packaged in many forms, all sold to the visitor with a smile. Here, a “Free Palestine” T-shirt is offered for sale in the shuk alongside an Israel Defence Forces T-shirt. (photo by Edgar Asher)
From left to right: Murray Palay, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University national chair; Israel Defence Forces Unit 669 reserve combat soldiers Leehou Porat and Gai Ben Dor; Prof. Yaacov Nahmias, director of the Alexander Grass Centre for Bioengineering at Hebrew U; 669 reserve combat soldiers Bar Reuven and Dotan Braun; CFHU Vancouver chapter president Randy Milner; and CFHU national vice-chair Phil Switzer. (photo from CFHU Vancouver)
Dina Wachtel, executive director of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University’s Western region, describes the recent fundraising event that attracted more than 300 people to Congregation Beth Israel on July 17 as “a wonderful success.”
The sold-out event raised scholarship funds for outstanding student-soldiers. These individuals are pursuing degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as performing their miluim, or reserve duty, in the Israel Defence Forces’ elite airborne rescue and evacuation unit known as “669.” The Vancouver event drew a diverse and engaged crowd from the community and included academics and members of local search and rescue groups.
Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, director of the Alexander Grass Centre for Bioengineering at the Hebrew University, kicked off the formal part of the evening’s program with an overview of Hebrew U’s history and accomplishments. Founded in 1918 – 30 years before the establishment of the state of Israel – by illustrious historical figures, such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Chaim Weizmann, Hebrew U ranks as one of the world’s leading universities and boasts seven Nobel Prize laureates. According to Nahmias, “when Hebrew U calls, you answer!”
The Grass Centre was established in 2010. Nahmias, who was at Harvard University before returning to Israel, has won several academic awards for his work in liver research and he is particularly proud of the centre’s successes in “educat[ing] a new generation of multidisciplinary innovators and entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of biotechnology and medical science.” He noted that the centre’s 44 affiliated faculty members undertake research that winds up in the world’s leading scientific journals; interest-catching pursuits such as building a liver outside of a body, predicting in vitro fertilization pregnancy rates, and determining “idiosyncratic drug toxicity” (hitherto unexpected adverse reactions to drugs).
Nahmias also outlined the “startup” element of the centre’s work – an aspect that appeals to students with academic ambitions, as well as giving them market experience and engendering an entrepreneurial spirit. The Israeli government has invested $20 million US in BioJerusalem, or “Silicon Wadi,” to support technological innovation. The outcome? Israel is a global leader in medical devices and pharmaceuticals, he said, and this attracts intellectually curious science students who are also seeking opportunities in business, medicine and engineering. The biodesign program feeds directly into Israel’s economic success and reputation as a technological powerhouse. Remarkable and revolutionary projects to date, he said, include the creation of a specialized infrared gun to facilitate intravenous insertions; digitally made dentures that are inexpensive and quick to produce; and a new 60-second life-saving procedure that improves stabbing victims’ chances of survival by preventing suffocation caused by collapsed lungs.
Nahmias concluded his presentation by highlighting bioengineering as “one of the most fascinating areas, especially for the future of Jerusalem as a city and Hebrew University as the leading university in Israel.” He announced that plans are underway to build a large, new institute on the Givat Ram campus to house the biodesign program.
The evening’s lecture was punctuated with a musical interlude from Vancouver-based Israeli composer and guitarist Itamar Erez. Recipient of the Landau Prize in 2014, as well as the ACUM Prize for special achievement in jazz, Erez’s musical talents blend jazz, flamenco and the sounds of the Middle East.
Following Erez’s performance, four extraordinary young Israelis took centre stage. They detailed their personal experiences serving in the IDF’s 669 and how the service has impacted their lives.
The unit, which accepts only 50 recruits each year out of 10,000 applicants, was established in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War. It is referred to as the “guardian angel of the Jewish people” because it rescues soldiers and civilians alike, both within and beyond Israel’s borders. The unit’s motto is, “Thou didst call in trouble and I rescued thee” and, in the last 40 years, the unit has rescued more than 10,000 injured and saved thousands of lives. Rescue operations are generally extremely difficult and dangerous.
Bar Reuven, Leehou Porat, Dotan Braun and Gai Ben Dor impressed upon the crowd the unique and challenging lifestyle of a Unit 669 reservist, who is “on-call 24/7” and serves an average of 30 to 45 days a year “in peacetime.” When summoned, a civilian university student is instantly transformed into an elite reservist on a mission that can be anywhere in the world. All personal commitments are immediately set aside.
According to Reuven, 27, who served as an officer in 669 and founded an alumni association designed to provide much-needed support to discharged soldiers from 669 transitioning to civilian life, you “can go from eating shakshuka [in Tel Aviv] to Gaza in 30 minutes.”
Thirty-year-old Braun, a fifth-year medical student at Hebrew U and a reserve combat soldier and paramedic in 669, recounted walking to class in July 2012, when he received a command to present himself on base within the next 30 minutes. He soon learned that he would be traveling to Burgas, Bulgaria, to treat and evacuate some 42 Israeli tourists who had been targeted in a bus bombing. (Tragically, five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were murdered in that terror attack.)
Serving in the 669 instils Braun with a profound sense of pride in Israel, as “there is no other country that cares about the security of all its citizens and at all times,” he said. He – like others in 669 – is also called upon to come to the aid of non-citizens in life-threatening situations, including rescuing sailors in the Mediterranean or treating casualties of natural disasters in far-flung corners of the world.
Braun emphasized that life for 669 reservists, in particular, “is never routine.” Porat, 28, who is both a reserve combat soldier in Unit 669 and a student at Hebrew U, underscored this fact by recounting – with the aid of select video footage – a harrowing evening of back-to-back rescue missions that included evacuating an Israeli soldier from Gaza who had been gravely wounded in an axe attack; responding to a serious car accident that caused seven fatalities; assisting a pregnant Bedouin woman in the advanced stages of labor and whose house had just been washed away by floods; and rescuing a number of individuals trapped in or on cars swirling in raging floodwaters and high winds.
Despite the challenges of balancing the responsibilities of school, work, family, volunteerism and reserve duty, Reuven, Porat, Braun and Ben Dor were all steadfast in their commitment to their unit, and to serving their country and fellow citizens in times of crisis.
It was evident that these four speakers have indeed internalized the core values of the unit, described by Reuven as assisting those in need, social responsibility, and helping make Israel and her people stronger. He engages these values to guide him in managing his Cat 669 Alumni Association, a group that provides emotional, psychological and financial guidance, career mentoring and other material support to fellow unit members transitioning – sometimes with great difficulty – to civilian life. This group also draws upon its superior skill set to “pay it forward” in local communities by, for example, teaching emergency first aid.
Thirty-two-year-old Ben Dor is an accountant and lawyer at KPMG in Israel. As part of 669, he is another example of the positive contributions that 669 reservists make to Israeli society. An avid long-distance runner in his teens, Ben Dor responded to an online ad seeking “a runner with soul.” Beza, a blind Ethiopian immigrant wanted to take up running, and Ben Dor (and his father, also a runner) coached Beza over the next several years. Beza competed in a number of international marathons, and ultimately qualified to compete at the Beijing Paralympics, representingIsrael. Ben Dor, his father and Beza have since climbed to Everest Base Camp together and Ben Dor has established an Israeli not-for-profit organization called 180 Degrees, which hosts running groups for people with physical or cognitive disabilities.
Listening to these four young Israelis who are serving their country in truly meaningful ways and learning about the cutting-edge research taking place at the Hebrew University, it is not surprising that the evening’s fundraising event – to support the reserve soldiers in Unit 669 studying at Hebrew U by relieving them of financial worries – was a “wonderful success.”
Israeli field hospital personnel look after those injured in the earthquake in Nepal. (photo by Sam Amiel)
Cardiac surgeon Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr. Ofer Merin is deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Centre and lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He heads the Israel Defence Forces Home Front Command’s field hospital, and was part of the IDF’s relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, in the Philippines after the 2013 typhoon and in Nepal after the earthquake in April this year. With various colleagues, he has written about these experiences, as well as about the provision of trauma care at Shaare Zedek.
From the New England Journal of Medicine, March 2010: Within two days of the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Israel had sent “a military task force consisting of 230 people” who “landed in Port-au-Prince 15 hours after leaving Tel Aviv and began to deploy immediately…. In its 10 days of operation, the field hospital treated more than 1,100 patients.”
From the Journal of the American Medical Association, July 2015: After the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, the IDF sent a medical team of 126, and the field hospital was “deployed as a stand-alone facility 82 hours after the earthquake.” Over 11 days, “we treated 1,668 patients, performed 85 operations and delivered eight babies.”
From the Lancet, April 2015: “There were 11 terror attacks in Jerusalem, Israel, between October–December 2014 alone. Two of the injured terrorists arrived at our institution and, following standing triage protocol, we prioritized one terrorist to undergo surgery first since his medical condition was more critical than that of the victims.”
These are but a few examples of the work Merin and his colleagues do, and the challenges they face. When Merin was in Vancouver recently, he shared some of his experiences and discussed the ethical issues surrounding trauma care. He spoke to the Jewish community on Aug. 20 and to physicians in the trauma unit at Vancouver General Hospital the day prior.
Dr. Rick Schreiber – professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, director of the B.C. Pediatric Liver Transplant Program and president-elect of the Canadian Association for the Study of the Liver – was the catalyst for Merin’s visit. Yet his connection to Merin was not, as it first might appear, through his work as a fellow medical professional, but through Merin’s wife, Ora.
Schreiber was on an adult March of the Living mission earlier this year that was organized by the Montreal Jewish community.
“I’m originally from Montreal. I’ve been out here about 20 years,” said Schreiber, who is very involved with Jewish causes in Israel, overseas and elsewhere, including here with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. On this recent mission, he explained in a phone interview with the Independent, all of the tours and activities in Israel were organized by Ora Merin and her company,
Giant Leaps. “I was very impressed with how the program was laid out for the Israel aspects of the mission and the level of the people [we met] and the things that we did. We got to places that most people wouldn’t get to….”
Ofer Merin attended the mission’s closing dinner with his wife. With medicine in common, he and Schreiber started talking, and Merin’s involvement with the Israel Defences Forces disaster response team came up.
The next day, as Schreiber was leaving Israel, he saw Ora Merin again. She told Schreiber that her husband had left for Nepal, which had just experienced an earthquake. “I got to tell you,” said Schreiber, “within six hours, they had up and going a launch – and they bring everything.… It’s amazing what the Israelis do to be first responders, and they are recognized around the world as being the best. They get there very quickly and they set up all the units, like an intensive care and operating tents and all this kind of stuff, and triage, and get rescue things going long before other countries are even getting their finances together.”
“It’s amazing what the Israelis do to be first responders, and they are recognized around the world as being the best. They get there very quickly and they set up all the units, like an intensive care and operating tents … long before other countries are even getting their finances together.”
During that conversation, Ora mentioned that their family (she and Ofer have four adult children) was going to be in the United States – Ofer has a brother in Seattle – in the summer, and Schreiber suggested they think about coming up to Vancouver on that trip. He said that it would be good for her, because of her travel agency, to meet with Federation, which runs missions to Israel, and maybe her husband could give a talk on his work. “So, that’s how that all started, back in Israel, back last May,” he said.
In addition to the community meetings and talk, Schreiber also organized for Ofer Merin to speak at VGH. “There is a big group of trauma people at VGH, and they jumped on this because they had heard of him and they knew of him, and we organized for him to give rounds…. There was very good attendance at that rounds, and he talked about what he does. But he didn’t talk about all the people they deal with and how they set up, he talked about a lot of ethical things, like how do you decide to save this person versus that person – you only have limited space to save people.”
Merin spoke at VGH about treating such large numbers of injured after a natural disaster, and about handling the stress of that, said Schreiber. “The next thing he talked about, the ethics. You’re not able to provide the same level of care as you’re accustomed to, like we supply for trauma people in Vancouver, we can’t give the same level of care … you’ve got to treat people and turn them over quickly, so you can treat the next person.”
Merin also discussed how, at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, they have to treat victims of terror attacks, including, at times, the terrorist. Of the victims and the perpetrator(s), who do you take care of first? At Shaare Zedek, Merin said, such decisions are made on the basis of triage, who is the most badly injured.
The Independent caught up with Merin by email after his Vancouver visit.
JI: What interested you in cardiac medicine/surgery versus other specialties? Did you always want to be in medicine?
OM: My decision to go into medicine was relatively late, in my early 20s, not something I was born with. My decision to go into cardiac surgery, I guess, was based first on my “nature” to choose something surgical – more adrenalin, very quick results. Cardiac surgery in specific is a great combination of both surgery and the need of good clinical and physiology understanding.
JI: The burnout rate for doctors in general is quite high. It must be higher for trauma physicians. How do you (and/or your colleagues) manage the stress?
OM: I would divide [my response]. There are things done on the group level – discussions, sharing, etc. Especially these days in Jerusalem, there is an extra challenge – dealing with treatment of terror victims, and many times treatment of the terrorists themselves…. We have a psychologist who is doing some group work especially with the ER people and the intensive care unit. And, on the personal level, everyone has to find his ways to vent. I jog almost every day. For me, it’s a good way to relax. In missions abroad, I write every day. Also a great way to vent.
JI: The enormity of being part of a disaster-response team is almost beyond comprehension for anyone who has not had the experience. If it’s possible to outline a general order of events, from the time a natural disaster hits to when the Israeli unit is on the ground in another country providing care, could you please share the main points?
OM: One of the important things is to work in parallel. We bring in the team way before there is a full understanding of the scale of the disaster, so we are prepared before there is a governmental decision to send a team. Once a decision is taken, we are prepared to leave. We send immediately a small forward team, which can report back, and prepare whatever is needed for deployment. We drill every year, so we maintain a high level of preparedness.
JI: In a couple of articles, you mention collaboration/integration with local facilities in a disaster-response situation. What types of factors enter the decision of where the Israeli unit fits into the overall aid effort?
OM: To be honest, in the last natural disasters around the globe, Israel is almost always the largest and first to be on ground. Therefore, we communicate with the local health providers and make a mutual decision where it is best to deploy.
The decision if to deploy as a self-sufficient unit or to operate (like in the Philippines) as an integrated unit is based mainly on the question if the local services are still functional. If they are, it is many times better to assist them and not “compete” with them, as we are arriving for a short term.
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.”
Israel is contributing to efforts to aid and assist the Nepalese government to reach, rescue and treat injured victims of the recent earthquake. The IDF has set up a comprehensive field hospital and also has flown out emergency rations and tents. (photos by IDF via Ashernet)
After Nepal was hit by the biggest earthquake in 80 years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is aiding thousands of survivors through its relief efforts with partners on the ground, and is dispatching its disaster relief team from Kathmandu to remote villages to deliver aid and assess emerging needs in hard-hit areas. The team is assisting in the delivery of first-aid and shelter supplies, hygiene items, oral re-hydration solution, food packages and other supplies to 1,400 families over the coming days.
“Even while we’re helping survivors to heal throughout Nepal, we know more must be done and urge the public to continue its generous support of critically needed relief in this devastated country,” said Mandie Winston, director of JDC’s International Development Program. “Millions of Nepalese are facing harrowing conditions and the need for their immediate care, recovery and reconstruction efforts is required to secure Nepal’s future. Our efforts are focused on that path and to ensure the dignity of every human life along the way.”
To date, JDC has operated on three fronts in Nepal: the deployment of its expert disaster relief team on the ground; the support of locally based partners to ensure medical care and relief supplies within days of the quake; and the packing and shipping of medical and humanitarian supplies from the United States. These efforts have ensured life-saving medical treatment, food, clean water and shelter for Nepalese victims still reeling from the disaster. It has also enabled the assessment of needs and delivery of aid in real time, in tandem with changes on the ground, and the coordination of JDC’s network of local and international non-governmental partners working in Nepal.
These partners include the IDF Field Hospital, Tevel b’Tzedek, UNICEF, the Afya Foundation, the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Sarvodaya – Teach for Nepal, Heart to Heart International and Magen David Adom.
JDC has provided immediate relief and long-term assistance to victims of natural and man-made disasters around the globe, including the Philippines, Haiti, Japan and South Asia after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and continues to operate programs designed to rebuild infrastructure and community life in disaster-stricken regions.
JDC’s disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. JDC coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Israeli agencies and the UN coordination mechanism OCHA.
Duvdevan elite unit veterans who visited Vancouver on the weekend are, left to right, Gilad Waldman, Daniel Kolver, noted singer and actor Tzahi Halevi, who sang at the event, Ariel Rubin and Boaz Faschler. (photo by Robert Albanese Photography)
The historical, contemporary and future impacts of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were celebrated Sunday night at Congregation Beth Israel.
Several hundred members of the community gathered to mark the 90th anniversary of what has become one of the world’s great academic institutions.
Founded in 1925 by some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, including Martin Buber, Chaim Weizmann, Chaim Nahman Bialik and Albert Einstein, the university has produced seven Nobel laureates and is routinely recognized as one of the 100 best universities in the world.
The culmination of the evening focused on four young Israeli soldier-students and a scholarship project intended to both reward dedication to the state of Israel and to ensure that individuals who have demonstrated that they are among the foremost citizens of that country will continue to contribute productively throughout their lives.
The young men who addressed the audience are recent veterans of Duvdevan, an elite anti-terror undercover unit of the Israel Defence Forces.
Daniel Kolver was motivated to strive to become a member of the elite unit after being a teenage eyewitness to the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in 2002, at which 30 Israelis were murdered by a terrorist at a seder.
He explained that Duvdevan members often operate as “Trojan horses,” charged with locating and arresting – or killing – the most dangerous terrorists, those “ticking bombs” who are minutes or hours away from executing attacks.
Each year, about 15,000 17-year-old Israelis apply to serve in Duvdevan and 150 are accepted. After some of the most intensive military training in the world, these soldiers are entrusted with hostage rescues, capturing terrorists in extremely dangerous urban warfare situations and delicate counter-terrorism operations.
Last year alone, the unit participated in more than 400 missions – each one of which involved at least one suspect. Kolver screened dramatic video of an operation in which his unit had two minutes to get through a labyrinthine neighborhood, detonate an explosive to blow the door off the home of a terrorist, identify the man hiding behind his wife and extricate the target and the unit from the premises within 10 seconds.
Another speaker, Ariel Rubin, admitted that he initially sought acceptance to Duvdevan to show off that he got into the elite unit. But the excruciatingly tough training eliminated all ego and superfluous motives.
“You disconnect your head from the physicality and you say, I’m doing this for my country … to protect Israel, to protect the Jewish people, because if we’re not there, nobody’s going to do it for us,” he said.
Fellow unit veterans, Boaz Faschler and Gilad Waldman, spoke of the difficult transition from being in one of the most secretive military units to assimilating into everyday life.
Among the purposes of the presentation was to raise support for the scholarship fund at Hebrew U, which awards 50 scholarships annually to soldiers from Duvdevan after their years of service.
The evening event, organized by the Vancouver chapter of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, featured two other presentations.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, acknowledged that Israel is not winning the global war for public opinion. Significant to the problem Israel faces is that a huge proportion – 40% of North Americans and Europeans and 30% of much of the developing world – can be defined as “infosumers,” a tech-savvy group of individualists who seek out their own information and share specific traits. Among the characteristics of this growing demographic is that they see themselves as part of an expanding global identity whose national identities are eroding. They are also significantly unfavorable toward force, whether by the military or police. Aharoni’s thesis was reinforced by the fact that riots had been taking place for days in the United States over police brutality and murders of African-American civilians.
Screening a photograph of a presumably Palestinian youth throwing a rock at a tank, Aharoni noted that this is the global image most associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he also noted that polls indicate that in both Europe and North America, small numbers of people identify with either side in that conflict, most falling in the middle. Israel’s contradictory message of being both victim and victor, he said, is difficult to comprehend. And images of tanks versus stone-throwers, however unrepresentative this might be of the genuine power dynamic or context in the Israeli-Arab conflict, is not being successfully countered.
A more successful approach, he said, would be to appeal not to those who identify as opposed to the Israeli narrative, but to the large majority who subscribe to neither narrative. He called for greater emphasis on Israel’s contributions in fields of medicine, science, culture and other areas that benefit humankind.
Following the ambassador’s presentation, Prof. Noam Shoval of Hebrew U’s department of geography, spoke about the geographic realities of the city of Jerusalem.
Using a range of GPS and technological tools, researchers have studied the movement of Jerusalem’s residents and visitors, day and night, over time, to discover that the perception of Jerusalem as a culturally divided city is not accurate. There is an enormous amount of interaction by Jewish, Muslim and other residents of Jerusalem throughout and across areas of the city that are otherwise generally acknowledged as Jewish or Arab.
Shoval acknowledged that he would like to see Jerusalem remain united under Israeli jurisdiction, but he acknowledged that others might see a unified Jerusalem jointly administered by Israel and a future Palestinian state, or unified under some sort of international governance as was proposed in 1947. He concluded that dividing the city is not an ideal resolution.
“A division of the city is an outcome of war – not of peace,” he said.
At a ceremony in Tel Aviv, Gadi Eizenkot, second from left, succeeds Benny Gantz, far right, as IDF chief of staff. (photo from Flash90 from JNS.org)
The four-year term of Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz officially ended earlier this week, with Gantz handing command of the military over to his deputy, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, during a ceremony at Rabin Base in Tel Aviv on Feb. 16.
While serving as Gantz’s deputy, Eizenkot was part of major decisions on military reforms. He assumes command of the IDF during a time marked by tension in all sectors: the potential for further escalations in Gaza, concern over the growing unrest among Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, the volatile situation on Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, and the erosion of Israel’s deterrence against Hezbollah.
Eizenkot acknowledged that he is taking over “in the midst of a tense and challenging period.” He said, “The Middle East is changing and it has become very volatile. Under my command, the IDF will prioritize its readiness, its operational skills and its ethical fortitude, so we may wield whatever force necessary in the defence of the Israeli public. I pledge to lead the Israel Defence Forces with determination and wisdom, and with the utmost commitment to Israel’s security and the public’s safety.”
Gantz said that during his time as IDF chief, “we have fortified our borders, we have adapted our response in all sectors and we have ensured our readiness to any scenario. We have taken forceful action when necessary, and our readiness has proven itself time and again,” he said. “It is important that we look at the challenges in the horizon, and it is equally important that we know how to reach out to our allies, to create spheres in which we can promote our interests and solutions.”
Gantz told Eizenkot, “The IDF is yours to lead now. Make your mark on it with the love we know you have for this military and the responsibility required of the position. The public is lucky to have you as the leader of its defence forces.”
At a defence establishment farewell event for Gantz, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the outgoing military leader was “everyone’s chief of staff, in true service of the public.”
“You have shown the utmost, unbiased dedication,” Rivlin told Gantz. “Over the past four years, you have led the IDF toward many achievements. You have bolstered the public’s faith in the military. You may be taking off your uniform, but I believe it will not be for long. We have called on you once, and maybe we will call on you again before too long. The people need you.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, “If I had to describe Benny in two words, they would be ‘warrior’ and ‘humane.’ I have seen you deal with so many challenging situations, and what always came through was your humanity. I believe that behind the tough warrior exterior there’s more than just a sensitive soul – I think it is the soul of a poet.”