Near-fatal war injuries led Anat Yahalom to decades of mutual support for injured soldiers and others. (photo from Jewish Federation)
In 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, Anat Yahalom was a young Israel Defence Forces recruit in the Battle of the Sinai.
“I was 18-and-a-half years old and the state of Israel was 25,” she said. “We were both young and at the beginning of our lives.”
A sudden Egyptian air attack changed her life forever.
“When they rushed me to the rescue helicopter, badly injured and bleeding, hovering between life and death and begging for my life, I used my last remaining strength to mumble, ‘Don’t let me die,’” Yahalom recounted in an email interview with the Independent. “That desire to remain alive and to live has always been with me. Over the years, every time that I’ve faced a crisis, I am reminded of that moment, and again I have that incredible desire to live – to never give up.”
Yahalom is to share her story of near-death, recovery and a life of dedication to others as part of the Israel@75 celebration in Vancouver. She will speak at Congregation Beth Tikvah, in Richmond, on Friday, April 28, 6 p.m., with an Israeli-style Shabbat dinner.
“Being wounded in battle is very different to being injured in an accident,” said Yahalom. “Many of the shrapnel pieces and explosives that caused my injuries have remained inside my body and will accompany me for the rest of my life. Being wounded in battle causes injuries that are external and internal, resulting in a complete breakdown of the body’s system, and to extensive scar tissue that needs a long, slow and complex rehabilitation.”
Shrapnel that remains in her body can cause recurring infections that require regular treatments to allow her to function.
In the decades since her injuries, Yahalom has founded Etgarim, an association supporting the integration of disabled children through sports, and the IDF women with disabilities forum. She is an athlete, hand-bike marathon rider for people with disabilities, wife and mother of three sons.
“Israel has a large proportion of people who have been wounded in battle and disabled,” she said. “Because of this, Israel’s healthcare system has developed the most innovative and effective medical treatments that have allowed many of the injured to return to society, to their families, to work. This is the essence of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is not only physical, but also emotional. While these are very different, they are equally important. Most of the time, society doesn’t differentiate between the two. Emotional injuries are often initially expressed in the form of depression, anger, impatience. Later on, they are also expressed by smaller things such as slamming doors, raised voices, threatening language, or senses that recall the battlefield. For me, the height of this was when my sons joined the IDF. I began experiencing an endless and overwhelming anxiety. Every small thing could trigger a huge reaction in me – from deep anger, to complete withdrawal.”
Yahalom said that those, like her, who were injured in battle found that the best way to deal with challenges and thrive was through social rehabilitation.
“We came to support and rely on one another like family,” she said. “We involved each other in all the small details, offered and received help of any and every kind. But, mostly, we made sure to meet regularly, to talk, to listen, to offer and seek advice. It was this process and this starting point that the idea of establishing centres for wounded IDF veterans was born, recognizing that social rehabilitation was the very essence of our strength.”
The messages of her life and of the organizations she has founded, she said, are unequivocal: “We can recover from any crisis if we stand together.”
“War is a terrible crisis, being injured is an endless struggle, and being disabled is with you forever,” she said. “Sometimes it is extremely difficult, and sometimes a little easier. But it is always there, a companion for life. A reminder for me that life and the desire to live is more important and can conquer anything.
“My family, the one that I created following my injury, my friends that are my chosen family, and the family of Eretz Israel, all accompany me throughout my life,” said Yahalom. “They allowed me to return to the world of the living, they help with the rehabilitation of my friends, and it is them that makes me continue to want to help in every way possible, to embrace, to encourage and to fill my heart and theirs with hope and faith that every crisis will pass.… This is the message that I bring to your community. In these stormy days of upheaval and crisis at home in Israel, I know that even this storm will pass and we will still be there. We will remember that life is more important, more precious and stronger than anything else. I’ve known this since that fateful day, Oct. 6, 1973, when I was given my life back – and I received it as a gift.”
Yahalom’s visit is one of many events taking place through May marking Israel’s 75th anniversary. The celebrations culminate in the Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, concert May 14 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, featuring the band Teapacks. Full details of all events are at jewishvancouver.com.