A 6-year-old Shai Gross with his family in 1976, after the successful Entebbe Operation. (photo from Shalva)
Seeing is believing. At first, it sounds like another cliché, another pat answer to brush off an unwanted question. But, sometimes in life, we are put in situations where our power to overcome must be seen to be believed. Last month, guests at the Shalva 26th anniversary dinner in Israel were able to see for themselves how the human spirit can overcome unbelievable odds.
The youngest of the hostages in the 1976 Entebbe Operation, Shai Gross, stood before the guests at the dinner. His presence itself was a testament to the power of human beings to do the unbelievable.
“When I was 6, my parents and I were among the hostages,” he said. “For a full week, we sat, captives in Entebbe, with pistols and grenades threatening our lives. The terrorists separated the children into business class [on the captured plane] to avoid parents acting up in defence of their children. My mother, however, was able to hide me under her seat. I was only 6 yet I remember asking her, ‘Does dying hurt?’”
The Entebbe Operation is forever marked in the collective Jewish consciousness. On June 27, 1976, four terrorists hijacked Flight 139 en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. They were armed with pistols and a grenade with the pin removed, which they held as insurance against being attacked by the passengers. The flight was diverted to Entebbe, Uganda, where the government supported the hijackers. All non-Jewish passengers were released while more than 100 Jewish passengers were held, fearing for their lives.
The horrifying ordeal came to an end on July 4, when the Israel Defence Forces launched a rescue mission. In what is still considered by many to be the most daring hostage rescue mission of all time, a group of Israeli commandos stormed the complex.
Gross recounted the last few moments before they were rescued, “All we heard were gun shots. I was paralyzed with fear. At the time, the only possible explanation to the insanity was that they were coming to finally end our lives. How could it even enter anyone’s mind that the IDF had made it all the way to distant Entebbe?!”
The rescue that was underway seemed totally unbelievable until Gross saw it with his own eyes. “After a few moments, we realized that we were being rescued by the IDF. That dramatic rush from desperation to salvation … that is a joy I will never forget.”
Nonetheless, Gross acknowledged, “This traumatic experience left its mark on me. I was emotionally disabled.”
Having personally experienced how a child can overcome challenges that would try an adult, he has added empathy for the children of Shalva, where he volunteers. He contributes to Shalva in an effort to give back to Israel, and in memory of the soldiers who gave their lives to save his.
The moment when the unbelievable happens before your very eyes, when the darkness is suddenly transformed to light, is a familiar occurrence in the Shalva centre in Jerusalem. For 26 years, Shalva has been helping children with special needs move beyond their limitations. Shalva programs and services are designed to provide individual treatment for the child while also strengthening the fabric of the family. Providing services for more than 500 infants, children and young adults, Shalva accompanies each child from birth to adulthood. Individually tailored programs are designed to help participants reach their full potential and integrate into the community.
As a volunteer, Gross sees how Shalva’s approach helps kids meet their challenges. “Shalva doesn’t see children with disabilities,” he said. “No. They see superheroes that just need to conquer some challenges. After volunteering at Shalva myself, I have come to realize that we’re all the same: potential heroes trying to overcome our struggles.”
Gross has moved past the scars of his experience in Entebbe. He married and is the father of four children. He named his youngest son Yoni in memory of Yoni Netanyahu, the rescue team’s commander and the older brother of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was killed in the raid.
At the Shalva dinner, Gross was awarded with the Shalva Spirit of Hope Award in recognition of how he has met his personal challenges and used that experience to help others.
To learn more about the work of Shalva, visit shalva.org.