Sar-El volunteers from Canada, the United States, England, Germany and the Caribbean at a base not far from Sderot in 2018. (photo from Ed Rozenberg)
This past July, I found myself shlepping boxes full of medical supplies and loading them onto pallets. How did I get here? I was volunteering in Sar-El, or Sherut LeYisrael, which means “service for Israel.”
Sar-El enables people, both inside and outside Israel, to volunteer to provide assistance to the Israel Defence Forces while contributing to the country, experiencing Israel and integrating into Israeli society. At present, due to COVID-19 and its resulting limitations on visitors, it is rare to meet a non-resident volunteer but, hopefully, that won’t be the case for much longer.
Sar-El volunteering comes in two types: arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon or arriving on a Sunday in the morning and leaving after lunch on a Thursday (sleeping on the base).
This recent volunteering stint, my wife Ida and I went to a central pickup spot in north Tel Aviv and were taken by bus with the rest of our group to the medical division (Matzrap, which is Hebrew shorthand for Centre for Medical Supplies) of Tel Hashomer, a large army base about 25 minutes away from the city. The usual group has about 15 volunteers, evenly divided between the sexes. Before COVID, the groups would consist of about 25 people, also evenly divided between the sexes, and about 60% Jewish and 40% non-Jewish. My co-workers have ranged in age from 20 to 92.
On arriving at the base, we are taken to our dorm building, with men and women sleeping on separate floors. We are told that there is to be no alcohol, drugs or romantic liaisons. Discussions of religion and politics are strictly forbidden. The group is led by two or three madrichot (female leaders) who are part of an IDF unit trained to lead Sar-El groups. It is important to remember that Sar-El is a unit of the IDF and, while on the base, you are under IDF jurisdiction, which means that you can’t leave the base except with hard-to-get permission. We receive uniforms, which we’re required to wear from the morning till after dinner.
A usual day begins with breakfast at 7 a.m. and the flag-raising at 8:15, followed by the singing of Hatikvah. This is often a very emotional moment, as we volunteers from all over the world are assembled with the same purpose, namely, to do something important for Israel. I have been on 10 Sar-Els and have met people from Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, many European countries, South Africa, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. Volunteering with Sar-El is an extremely broadening experience and you make close friends for life.
Announcements come after the flag-raising. The madrichot ask us if there are any concerns or questions, and take care of them. We are then assigned to our workstations.
The work depends on the type of base. This was my fifth time in Matzrap, which deals with the packing and loading of medical supplies. Other parts of Matzrap deal with checking whether batches of medical equipment, such as stethoscopes, pressure gauges and night vision equipment, are functioning properly, or checking the expiration dates of drugs. The supplies are used in Israel, as well as by emergency units sent abroad to assist in disaster areas.
I first found out about Sar-El in early 2006 from an article in the Jerusalem Report. When the Second Lebanon war broke out, Ida and I flew to Israel and were assigned to a base in the Negev, where we loaded tanks, assembled army equipment, packed uniforms and weapons and loaded food.
One of my favourite activities in Matzrap is to help prepare worktables for adolescents with intellectual challenges. It is fulfilling to see these young people working and getting a feeling of accomplishment. There is always a small thank you ceremony at the end of the work period that I find quite touching. One thing that has struck me since moving to Israel in 2016 is the degree to which people here are encouraged to reach their potential no matter what their background and abilities.
Work continues till lunch at noon. After lunch and a rest period (and, for those who choose to participate, minchah prayers), we return to work till about 4 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m. and, at 7 p.m., there is an activity of some sort, either educational or entertaining, or both, such as quizzes, led by the madrichot. The atmosphere is relaxed.
Sar-El itself was the brainchild of General Aharon Davidi (z”l), a former head of the IDF paratrooper and infantry corps. In the summer of 1982, in the midst of the First Lebanon War, Golan Heights communities faced the prospect of losing their entire agricultural crop. The majority of able-bodied farmers and other workers were called up for army reserve duty and entire farms, with crops already ripened, were left unattended.
Davidi was then the director of community and cultural activities of the Golan and Jordan Valley. He sent a number of friends as a recruitment team to the United States and, within a few weeks, some 650 volunteers arrived to help. Those first volunteers expressed the wish that the project be continued. As a result, in the spring of 1983, Sar-El, the National Project for Volunteers for Israel, was founded as a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization. Sar-El is represented in more than 30 countries.
On many occasions, Sar-El volunteers work with soldiers who are assigned to the same workstations. At the beginning, the soldiers are amazed that there are people who actually volunteer for this but, after awhile, they feel more comfortable with the volunteers, they chat with them, get advice from older souls and practise their English.
The lunch on Thursday before the group returns to Tel Aviv can be a quiet time. By then, we have gotten used to one another, laughed, sweated and yelled at one another and many of us have become quite close. The madrichot always set up a WhatsApp group for anyone who wants to join and through which we get our notifications.
I have no doubt that, on balance, I have gotten more from volunteering for Sar-El than from any other contribution that I might have made through volunteering. It has been an enormously enriching experience for both Ida and myself.
Jack Copelovici and his wife, Ida, made aliyah from Toronto in 2016. Sar-El (Sherut LeYisrael) is one of the organizations for which they volunteer. They first volunteered for it in 2006.
Galit Baram, consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, says the allegations of recruiting are unfounded. (Consul office photograph)
Last October, a coalition of foreign policy and Palestinian solidarity organizations delivered a formal complaint to David Lametti, justice minister and attorney general of Canada, alleging that Canadians are being recruited for the Israel Defence Forces. Accompanied by an open letter signed by more than 170 supporters, the complaint seeks an investigation into the actions of Israeli diplomats and consular officials, among others.
Under Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act, it is illegal for foreign militaries to recruit Canadians in Canada. In 2017, at least 230 Canadians were serving in the IDF, according to the army’s statistics. The coalition, composed of Just Peace Advocates, Palestinian and Jewish Unity, and the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, alleges that Israeli consular officials have invited Canadians to speak with IDF recruiting officers at the consulate and have sent IDF soldiers to speak at Canadian high schools. In a written statement to the Canadian Jewish Record, which was cited in an Oct. 28 article online, Galit Baram, consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, said, “Any allegations against Israel in this matter are unfounded.”
The complaint drew some attention. Montreal-based newspaper Le Devoir reported on it in a front-page article on Oct. 19, under the headline “Israel criticized for recruiting on Canadian soil.” The article pointed to a recruiting invitation posted on the website of the Israeli consulate in Toronto in November 2019. “An IDF representative will conduct personal interviews at the consulate. Young people who wish to enlist in the IDF or anyone who has not fulfilled their obligations according to the Israeli Defence Service Law are invited to meet with him,” read the post, which included contact information to schedule appointments. Further investigations by Le Devoir yielded similar recruiting invitations from 2014 and 2018.
Baram said the invitations were directed only to Israelis. “In Israel, the law requires compulsory service,” she stated. “Every Israeli, male or female, must serve in the Israel Defence Forces. Israeli citizens living abroad are obligated to settle their status with the Israeli authorities.” According to the Foreign Enlistment Act, foreign representatives can recruit their own citizens in Canada, so long as the recruits are not also Canadian.
Baram acknowledged that recruiting officers may be sent to large Israeli communities to conduct interviews, citing Toronto as an example. According to the 2016 Census, however, roughly four out of five Israelis in Toronto are dual citizens, and approximately 3,125 Israelis in Toronto are not Canadian. When invited to clarify to which group the invitations were sent, the consulate declined.
The coalition’s concerns extend beyond Israeli or dual citizens, however. “Any suggestion that all Israel does is recruit their own citizens who have to do their military duty is complete nonsense,” said John Philpot, a Montreal-based criminal-defence lawyer and coalition spokesperson. The Devoir article reported on a visit by an IDF colonel to a Toronto denominational school “to talk about his experiences as a new recruit and as a senior commander.” On the same day the complaint was filed, The Canada Files published an article by Yves Engler, a Montreal-based writer and signatory to the letter, documenting what Engler considers to be extensive promotion of the IDF in Toronto Jewish day schools.
As one example, he pointed to a talk by Seth Frieberg, an IDF “lone soldier,” in January 2020 at TanenbaumCHAT, a Toronto Jewish high school and Frieberg’s alma mater. Lone soldiers are foreign recruits to the military without immediate family in Israel. Frieberg joined the Israeli army in 2013 and served 14 months as a paratrooper. In an interview last October, he credited his time at the Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he spent a year after high school, for partly driving his decision to enlist. His teachers spoke highly about Eretz Yisrael, the biblical land of Israel, and the importance of living there. He said he felt a greater connection to Israeli Jews, to the country, and was drawn to and admired the soldiers. He returned to Canada to complete an undergraduate degree at Western University and joined the IDF the following year.
The roots of his idea, however, began before his gap year. He was also motivated by a family history with the Holocaust and a course at TanenbaumCHAT. Two of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, one of whom, his grandmother, was active in Holocaust education. “She’d always talk about that, so I think I had this idea in my mind about the horrors of the Holocaust,” he said. In his Grade 12 history course, a connection was made between the Holocaust and Israel: he took from it the idea that “had Israel been there during the time of the Holocaust, [it] probably wouldn’t have happened.” In this and other ways, Frieberg said, he relies on Israel. “In the worst sense … if anything bad happened to Jews or myself in Canada, I always have Israel to go to.” He reasoned he should do something for Israel in return: “And that could be charity, volunteer, or going to the army.”
As part of TanenbaumCHAT’s IDF Day, the annual event at which Frieberg spoke, students wear olive-green IDF T-shirts, matching clothing, and sell baked goods with green icing to raise money for the military. By Frieberg’s estimates, he spoke to 80 students about his experience in the IDF, including patrolling the Lebanese border and West Bank, searching for three kidnapped youth, and operations in Gaza. Did his talk inspire others? He said, “You’d have to ask them…. I was just there to tell them my story.”
Last year’s events were organized under the leadership of Israelis and former IDF soldiers Ariel and Lee Kestecher Solomon. Ariel, the school’s Israel engagement shaliach, or emissary, was a commander in the IDF and volunteers with the Jewish Agency for Israel. According to the agency’s website, Israeli emissaries are sent to Jewish communities abroad for two to three years “to strengthen and deepen the mutual connection between Israel and members of the community.”
In his Canada Files article, Engler characterizes these activities – IDF Day, talks by lone soldiers, fundraising for the military, and former soldiers with extended placements in Jewish day schools – as enticement to join the IDF. When invited to comment, Renee Cohen, TanenbaumCHAT’s principal, did not respond to multiple requests.
Why countries like Israel might recruit foreign citizens is a puzzle that caught the attention of Kolby Hanson, post-doctoral fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. In a 2019 paper for Security Studies, he and co-author Erik Lin-Greenberg categorized the 25 countries that recruit non-citizens into three distinct groups. In an interview in October 2020, Hanson explained that countries either recruit for specific expertise or for sheer numbers to fill ranks, or, like Israel, “within narrow ethnic or commonwealth networks that are more symbolic programs.” As with India, Israel “[uses] the rules around their recruitment to make some statement about who they are and what the nation’s identity is.” Israel recruits foreign Jews for its military to assert its identity as a Jewish state and to establish deeper ties to Jewish communities abroad.
“Someone might grow up and say, ‘My cousin served in the IDF and that makes me feel like I’m really connected to Israel,’ or whether you know someone who came back after serving in the IDF,” said Hanson. Countries that recruit for symbolic reasons tend to have other programs, like expedited citizenship (as Israel has for Jews), to reinforce these ties.
The IDF itself is likely aware of the legal sensitivities around recruitment of Canadians. Hanson described an unusual exchange in an interview with Canadian IDF soldiers: “When we used the word ‘recruitment,’ we had a couple of people get tetchy…. They pounced on it and said, ‘No, no, it’s not recruitment. The IDF allows people to serve, but they don’t try to get people to.’”
In Canada, crossing the line into active recruitment is a legal issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear where exactly the line is. The Foreign Enlistment Act does not define recruitment, nor, according to Tyler Wentzell, doctoral student in law at the University of Toronto, is there case law.
A serving military officer and lawyer by training, Wentzell has published several articles on foreign recruitment and the history of the act. In an October 2020 interview, he said cases have been tried for recruiting for criminal or terrorist organizations, but not for the military of a sovereign state, for which the term would likely be interpreted differently.
“If you’re actually sworn into [a foreign] military in Canada, that definitely crosses the line,” he said, as would undertaking the stages of an intake funnel, including physical fitness and aptitude testing and evaluation. But, at earlier points, like attracting prospects, the line blurs. Is putting a Mountie on promotional material for Canada recruiting for the RCMP, asked Wentzell, or using a national symbol to promote the country? To complicate matters further, recruiting is also “a cultural sense that changes over time,” as with evolving Canadian attitudes towards high school rifle ranges and cadet corps.
In an October 2020 interview, Petty Officer Gian Barzelotti, a recruiter for the Canadian Armed Forces, described where he draws the line when recruiting in Canadian high schools. To students in Grade 10 or older, he advertises the benefits of joining the military, including a paid co-op program in which students can earn high school credit. With younger students, he emphasized, the CAF does not recruit. “We do talk about the military and who we are and what we do for Canada,” he said, but not about programs and benefits nor intake. “You’re not saying, ‘Go down this path and you’ll end up being in the military.’”
Tzofim Garin Tzabar, however, does just that. A branch of the Israeli Scouts that is 70% funded by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Garin Tzabar describes itself as the “Israeli lone soldier IDF program.” Its online promotional video advertises an “unbelievable three months of one unforgettable absorption process,” “at least 20 new friends,” “a family for life,” and that 30% of its participants are accepted to the IDF’s officer and commander stream. It also lists an office in Toronto.
Likewise, in June 2020, Nefesh b’Nefesh, an Israeli absorption organization, advertised a webinar entitled “Joining the IDF” on the website of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. According to the event listing, the webinar featured “everything you need and want to know about joining the IDF,” including the lone soldier program, the structure of the military, preparatory Hebrew programs, and post-secondary degrees relevant to the IDF. Last year, Nefesh b’Nefesh facilitated the absorption of 390 lone soldiers from North America to Israel. Although the UJA Federation did not endorse the webinar, it did promote it on its website.
In practice, it seems the Canadian government has never done more than slap an offending party on the wrist. During the Vietnam War, said Wentzell, the U.S. army accidentally placed a recruiting ad in a Canadian magazine. “There was a great deal of correspondence back and forth saying, ‘Hey, could you lay off this?… The response was pretty consistently, ‘Yep, sorry.’”
The government maintains an interest in keeping Canadians out of foreign militaries and conflicts. Wentzell illustrated this by way of a Canadian who served in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: “What happens when Benjamin Dunkelman gets in trouble on the other side of the planet? Do we get him home? Do we owe him anything? These were still live issues.” For the 200-plus Canadians serving in the IDF today, they still are.
“If Canada said to the Israeli consulate, ‘Stop all recruiting,’ [and] went to the schools and said, ‘You cannot have meetings where Israelis invite you to join the army’ … that would be a good step forward,” said Philpot.
To Philpot and the coalition, these acts are part of a “whole series of evidence” that point to IDF recruiting, including an event held by Deborah Lyons, Canadian ambassador to Israel. In January 2020, she hosted 33 Canadian IDF lone soldiers at her residence in Jerusalem to thank them for their service. “We at the embassy are very proud of what you’re doing. It’s really quite incredible,” she said. Philpot said all of this points towards recruitment.
Shortly after the complaint was filed, Lametti responded to questions in an unrelated press conference. He reiterated that Canadian law applies to foreign diplomats but referred calls for an investigation to the police and the public prosecution service. “I will leave the decision to the institutions we have in Canada to monitor the situation,” he said. In mid-November, the RCMP confirmed it was reviewing and assessing the evidence submitted.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, right, with Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin, and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon at the inauguration ceremony in August of a new home for female lone soldiers in Jerusalem. (photo by Yossi Zamir)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh was an 18-year-old new immigrant from Canada when she enlisted for the Israel Defence Forces some 30 years ago. Unlike most of her fellow recruits, she had no home to go to on weekends.
“I was a ‘lone soldier,’ without close family in Israel. There was no real framework that supported us – but much has changed since then, as this matter has become more acute,” she said.
Now a Knesset member (as a representative of the Blue and White coalition faction led by Benny Gantz), Cotler-Wunsh has taken up the welfare of the more than 6,300 lone soldiers lacking family in the country: immigrants, volunteers, orphans and youths estranged from their families.
“In retrospect, serving in the army was the most amazing exposure to Israeli society in many ways,” said Cotler-Wunsh, whose father Irwin Cotler was Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general from 2003 to 2006. “I did a squad leaders course and served in a very ragged anti-tank base at Nitsanim. The company slept in tents and went on marches in the dunes.”
The army gave her rent support and, on weekends, she stayed in a room in a Jerusalem apartment. “I lived with an elderly man who usually went away on weekends, so I was alone in the apartment,” she said. “To this day, I have connections with people from the Machane Yehuda market, especially the owner of the marzipan shop and the Tzidkiyahu delicatessen. These two would prepare boxes of food for lone soldiers at the end of Friday business, and we would get to Jerusalem after everything was already closed, go through the market and take the boxes of food prepared for Shabbat. To this day, I don’t forget them and they don’t forget me.”
Beyond material needs, she recalled the psychological hardship of being far from home.
“I know how important it is for lone soldiers to have their parents accompany them,” said Cotler-Wunsh, who served in the days before digital communication. “One aspect that has changed is parents’ involvement in day-to-day matters. Nowadays, it’s possible to convey to the lone soldiers’ parents a reality that they do not understand – and there’s no chance that they will understand – but they’re very concerned about. This communication calms both them and the lone soldier throughout their military service.”
“Lone soldiers need somewhere to live, a hot meal on Friday night … things other soldiers take for granted,” Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit organization that looks after their welfare.
The LSC, established in memory of an American immigrant soldier killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, currently operates nine apartment homes, offering low-rent housing to about 100 soldiers in Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, as well as social clubs catering to about 1,000 soldiers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. Only financial restraints are preventing the opening of more facilities and programs.
Beyond the social-psychological aspects, soldiers’ needs are often prosaic. “They need basic things like clean underwear, a toaster, somebody to look after them when they are sick,” Berman explained. “We have hundreds of volunteers who cook and do their laundry for them – many of them former lone soldiers or others immigrants.”
The organization’s staff also provide advice on how to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and attend military ceremonies, taking the place of their parents who cannot be there. “They say this means the world to them,” Berman said.
“The difficulties continue beyond their army service,” noted Cotler-Wunsh, who returned to Canada after studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “After 13 years in Israel and with a small baby, for the first time in my life I missed my family. I was pregnant with my second child and also wanted to do a second degree, at McGill University, and took the opportunity to be close to my parents.”
She returned to Israel 10 years later with four children and pursued a legal career that led her to the Knesset, where she has taken up a host of social issues, including the welfare of lone soldiers before, during and after their service.
“Nowadays, when they do have a support system, the loneliness hasn’t disappeared – it’s just been postponed. It’s harder when you’re used to an all-embracing system then, suddenly, to find yourself really alone. In any case, getting out of the army is a shock. For a lone soldier, it’s even harder to go from a hierarchic system to being an independent citizen who has to make decisions that will affect their life. That’s part of the reason why so many young Israelis go traveling after their army service.”
Over the High Holidays, the LSC is launching a global crowdfunding campaign to help lone soldiers get through the toughest time of their lives. For more information, visit charidy.com/lsc.
Daniel Ben-Talwas a lone soldier serving as a paratrooper before becoming a journalist. Over three decades he has penned hundreds of articles in a host of journals and websites around the world. Formerly an editor at the Jerusalem Post and the English version of Haaretz, he is now an Israel-based freelance writer, editor and translator.
Sheba is a trained physiotherapy dog. One of the patients he’s helping at Sheba Medical Centre is Nathaniel Felber, who suffered a head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. (photo from IMP)
Nathaniel Felber is an Israel Defence Forces soldier who suffered a critical head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. He has been slowly recovering, against all odds. After being in a coma for several months, he was moved to Sheba Medical Centre, where he’s been receiving intensive rehabilitation. After a brief setback following brain surgery last May, Felber has made remarkable progress, and a lot of the credit goes to Sheba – not only the hospital but its namesake, a trained physiotherapy dog.
“The dog relates to Nathaniel in a nonjudgmental way, happily accepting the food that Nathaniel offers or any other attention,” said Judi Felber, who has been at her son’s side almost constantly since the attack that upended their lives.
Prof. Israel Dudkiewicz, who heads Sheba’s orthopedic rehabilitation program, has noted a marked improvement in compliance, strength and endurance in patients like Felber, when performing physical therapy exercises with the dog.
“The dog takes attention away from the pain and difficulty of the exercise, enabling the patient to try to do more and to do it better,” explained Dudkiewicz. “I’ve watched patients who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to stand for just two or three minutes, but, when they pet the dog, they can be standing for 30 minutes and more without even realizing it.”
Felber builds strength and balance in his legs by standing and petting Sheba. He also throws a ball for the dog to retrieve, a game that repeatedly flexes his elbow, but without the tedium of the standard physio exercises for the same purpose. When brushing Sheba, Felber must exert enough pressure to run the brush through the dog’s fur, but not too much that would cause him pain.
The Felbers made aliyah from Silver Spring, Md., about 14 years ago, settling in Ra’anana with their three children and a dog. “Nathaniel loved our dog, and I think that interacting with Sheba the dog is very healing for him,” said his mother.
Dudkiewicz is delighted with Felber’s positive response to Sheba, as well as the responses of patients working with therapy dogs in general.
“We have seen dramatic improvement in patients performing physical therapy with dogs from both a physical and emotional perspective,” he said. “We aim to incorporate this as another treatment tool, such as hydrotherapy and other nonconventional therapies, for patients who can benefit from it.”
At just seven months old, Sheba is still a puppy, but his performance thus far points to a successful future. Dogs used in physical therapy must undergo a yearlong, rigorous training period. The staff must likewise be trained how to integrate the dog into their rehab programs. In the course of training, the dogs are tested periodically to see that they’re up to scratch. Dudkiewicz explained that different dogs are trained for different types of patients and their abilities. The cost of each dog, including training, is more than $30,000, meaning that its implementation in the department must be limited; however, Dudkiewicz said the results certainly justify the financial outlay.
“Neurorehabilitation is slower than anything else I’ve ever experienced,” said Judi Felber. “Nathaniel is not walking, or talking, or eating even independently – yet. But I try to focus on the positive: he’s responding to people, to us, his family. He’ll turn his head and give us his hand. He can nod yes and no and show us the number of fingers that we ask. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.”
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)
Calgary resident and philanthropist Lenny Shapiro recently announced that he and his wife Faigel are expanding their scholarship program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As part of a new five-year commitment, the couple is increasing the number and value of scholarships they will be awarding to students pursuing their university studies after completing their mandatory service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
A strong believer in the concept of tzedakah, Lenny Shapiro has donated to many nonprofit organizations in both Canada and Israel. He has long supported students at HU, having provided scholarships to hundreds of students over the years and, in July, he decided to make a substantial donation to be used over the next five years for scholarships for students who have served in the IDF. To add to the impact, Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) and Hebrew University will be matching a portion of his contribution.
At the heart of this action is Shapiro’s longstanding respect and appreciation for those who risk their lives in defence of Israel.
“I’m in love with the soldiers,” he said. “They put their lives on the line. Many have lost friends in battle. For those that then go on to study at Hebrew University who I can help, I feel they’re like my family. I see myself as being like a grandfather for them. Their needs are my needs, and I’m so pleased to do what I can to help them get their degree as they make their way through life.”
Shapiro has shared his passion for Hebrew University with the next generation in his family. One of his daughters, Robin Murphy, is a member of CFHU’s national board.
Born in Montreal, Lenny Shapiro grew up in modest conditions. After graduating from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) with a bachelor of commerce, he went on to head Allied Resources Management, part of the petroleum industry in Alberta.
Shapiro has always operated according to the principle that there’s no better exercise for your heart than reaching down and helping to lift someone up. His impact is reflected in the many letters he’s received over the years from HU students for whom his scholarships have allowed them to complete their studies.
“With the financial support I received from you, it’s easier for me to concentrate on my studies,” Julia Arziantzev wrote to Shapiro during the second year of her master’s degree in cultural studies at HU. “Without your scholarship, I doubt I would be able to keep up my average or even keep studying. Thank you for your generous assistance. It makes me optimistic to know there are people like you who are willing to help in such a tremendous way.”
Joel Chasnoff spoke at a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada on June 1 and he’ll speak at a CHW Montreal Zoom event on June 21. (photo from APB Speakers)
Michael Levin grew up in Philadelphia, joined the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier and died in a battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006. At that time, most Israelis weren’t familiar with the concept of a lone soldier – a legal term for a volunteer, usually (but not always) from outside Israel, who enlists to defend the Jewish state.
Levin’s death at 22 came just days after he returned hastily from his leave back home in the United States when he learned of the start of the Second Lebanon War. He flew back to Israel, hitched a ride to his platoon in Lebanon and took up the fight against the Iranian-backed terrorists. He was killed in an intense firefight in the Hezbollah-controlled village of Aita al-Shaab.
His grieving mother, Harriet Levin, was concerned that her son’s funeral would not have a minyan to say Kaddish and so, on arriving in Israel, she asked a few people to come to the military cemetery to ensure a proper Jewish burial. On her way to Mount Herzl, traffic was so congested she feared she would be late for her son’s funeral but, when she did get there, she discovered that the few people she had asked to spread the appeal for a minyan had shared the news widely. Media picked it up and more than 10,000 Israelis showed up to pay their respects.
It was a turning point in the Israeli consciousness, according to Joel Chasnoff.
Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and writer who shared his own story of leaving his Chicago-area home two decades ago to become a lone soldier. In a Zoom event presented by Jewish National Fund of Canada June 1, Chasnoff, who now lives in Israel, spoke of the changing understanding of lone soldiers – and his reflections on now being the father of soldiers. A decade ago, he chronicled his experiences as an IDF volunteer in the book The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.
Today, lone soldiers are a better understood phenomenon in Israel and supports are in place that were not when Chasnoff volunteered in 1997. There is now a network of Lone Soldiers Centres – commonly called Michael Levin Centres – around Israel, to help overseas volunteers adapt and smooth their way to a successful integration, coordinate holiday and Shabbat homestays and deal with the myriad complications that arise for a newcomer to Israel.
Chasnoff shared comedic experiences, including the challenge of proving he was indeed a lone soldier without Israeli parents, when government officials insisted that Levin’s father had never left Israel after his first visit in 1976. The stakes were basic – a lone soldier’s salary at the time was $160 a month instead of $80, plus a few privileges. But it required a sheath of documents from the States to prove that his father was indeed an Illinoisan, not an Israeli.
“Never mind that he had raised me in the U.S. and I have a very strong and good relationship with my dad. The Israelis believed that my dad was actually living in Israel the whole time and I was just trying to pretend that I was a lone soldier to get the extra $80 a month,” Chasnoff said.
His decision to join the IDF was sparked by a visit to Israel as a teenager.
“I got off the plane,” he said, “and, you know, you’re 17, your hormones are raging. What’s the first thing you notice being a teenager coming to Israel? How beautiful the Israelis are. The women were all tan and fit, the men were these hunks with muscles and crew cuts. It’s so odd because they have the same roots as we do, right? Except they look like supermodels and we look like Jews. How does that happen? That’s not fair.”
The soldiers he met were just a year older than he was.
“They were 18, and they had machine guns and berets and Ray-Ban sunglasses and forearms like bricks,” said Chasnoff. “And then there was me, slathered in sunscreen, wearing a fanny pack … stuffed with lactose pills.”
One of the eye-opening things Chasnoff discovered about the Israeli army, he said, is how democratic it was.
“I would even say insanely democratic,” he said, noting that soldiers argued about orders and fought with their superiors. “People ask me what’s it like in the Israeli army. I think the best way to describe it is, imagine a bunch of Israelis running an army. That is the Israeli army.”
This is why one of his platoon-mates was a darling among commanders: he didn’t speak Hebrew. The young man was raised in an evangelical Christian home in Oklahoma, but, at a certain age, learned that his mother had converted from Judaism. One thing led to another and he volunteered for the IDF.
“So, they made him a tank gunner,” Chasnoff said, “because, to be a tank gunner, you basically need to know six words – stop, go, left, right, forward, back. Tim was one of the best soldiers in our platoon because he didn’t have the Hebrew to argue back. When the commander would give orders, the guys would argue. Tim, by not having Hebrew, just did what he was told. And was an excellent soldier for that reason and one of our commander’s favourites.”
Unfortunately, a lack of Hebrew can be deadly in moments of military conflict. Chasnoff said some casualties in conflicts in Gaza may have resulted from linguistic challenges and he believes the military is doing a better job ensuring fluency in such situations.
While lone soldiers is a term associated with overseas volunteers, Chasnoff said that about half of the 6,000 lone soldiers are Israelis, mostly Charedim whose volunteer service or other factors estrange them from their families.
While lone soldiers were not so much in the Israeli consciousness a few decades ago, they are now a welcome oddity.
“I think, when you get a lone soldier in your platoon, people are very excited about it,” Chasnoff said. “Everyone wants to bring him or her home to show the family the sort of strange character who came all the way from New York City or Sydney, Australia, or whatever. People are really interested in what motivates them to serve, so they are invited. It’s very, very different than the old days.”
Addressing the broader differences between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Chasnoff riffed like the comic he is.
“We grow up with this myth that Israelis are, you know, just like us. They are Jews and we are Jews and we’re one big happy family. And then you get to Israel and you realize the Israelis are nothing like the American Jew. They speak their minds. They shout. They argue,” he said. “You’ll never be with an Israeli and wonder to yourself, ‘I wonder what she really thinks about me right now.’ I’m married to an Israeli for 21 years and I can honestly say that once in those 21 years has my Israeli wife apologized to me because, in the Middle East, apologies make you look weak and nobody wants to look weak. We had one huge fight where she actually apologized and it wasn’t even a real apology, it was an Israeli apology: she came up to me a few days later and said, ‘Yoeli, motek, I am sorry you’re such an idiot.’”
He also has plenty of material about growing up Jewish in America.
“My mom was actually one of these Jewish mothers who – let’s be honest – they have a special ability to worry about every situation,” he said. “You give them any scenario, they will figure out the potential thing that could hurt you in that scenario.”
For their annual family visit to Texas to see his paternal grandparents, Chasnoff’s mother would book the family on two separate flights so that, if a plane went down, the entire family wouldn’t be lost.
“That’s a typical Jewish upbringing,” he said.
When his zaidie gave him a jersey with the number of his favourite player and his own name, Joel, on the back, Chasnoff’s mother refused to let him wear it outside the house because a stranger would know his name.
“And, because he knew my name, I would think he knew me, so I would go with him,” he said. “You know why? Because I’m an idiot. That’s why there are no Jewish athletes. Not that we’re bad at sports, our mothers won’t let us wear the jersey.”
Readers will have another chance to hear Chasnoff speak this month. CHW Montreal is hosting a Zoom BBQ with the comedian on Father’s Day, June 21, at noon, Pacific time. Visit facebook.com/chwmontreal and click on Events for details. Funds raised benefit hospital workers at the Shamir Medical Centre and Hadassah Hospital in Israel.
The grave of an unknown soldier on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
As of Israel Independence Day last year, 23,741 Israeli soldiers had died during their service. The country has come to memorialize its fallen soldiers in one of three ways: 1) most commonly, it provides a grave and a headstone in a military cemetery, with information provided on the soldier, 2) when there is no official grave (that is, when no one really knows where the body of the deceased is), it inscribes the name either on a memorial wall or marker, and 3) it furnishes a grave and a headstone, but little or no information about the deceased is engraved on the stone.
Today, when a soldier dies, the following identification is to be established: the name of the soldier, their army identification number, national civilian identification number, army rank and army unit, as well as their job in the army. When they are buried, the headstone notes the full name of the deceased, their parents’ first names, country of birth (if outside of Israel), date of birth (according to both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars), aliyah date, date and place of death and age at the time of death. The stone also contains the emblem of the Israel Defence Forces. In a military cemetery, the tombstone’s content reflects a high degree of uniformity. One monument pretty much contains the same details as the next one.
In pre-state Israel and in the War of Independence in 1948, these practices were not yet in place. Young men and women – many of whom had just survived the Holocaust – fought to establish the state. They (and all other soldiers) had little military training. They might not have known Hebrew very well. Not uncommonly, they were the only survivor of their families.
Times were tense, at times verging on the chaotic. The fighting left limited time for socializing, for establishing relationships. So, if a soldier died, it was not surprising to have known them only by their first name. Under the circumstances, most fellow fighters would not have been acquainted with the soldier’s parents, would not have even known their names.
At the end of the War of Independence, about 1,000 of the 4,500 fallen were considered missing. It was the chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who initiated an intensive project of identifying the dead. The establishment of military cemeteries helped the identification process move forward, but, even after that, there remained anonymous soldiers, and headstones with missing information.
Recognizing this situation, Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi started Giving a Face to the Fallen. The organization has been in existence fewer than 10 years. Its team of some 52 volunteer investigators and activists comes from a variety of backgrounds. It includes bereaved family members, friends of fallen soldiers, judges, former career army officers and others. As the organization’s website states, all volunteers believe there is “a duty to remember and, in so doing, to … repay the debt we owe to those who gave their lives for the establishment of the state of Israel.”
All of the volunteers are in a race against time, trying to piece together information on 500 soldiers who fell fighting either in pre-state Israel or in the War of Independence. They ask the following questions: Did you (or maybe your grandfather or an older neighbour) know the fighter we are researching? Maybe you fought with such person either before the creation of the state or in the War of Independence? Maybe you still have pictures of your fighting unit?
The volunteers also try to fill in blanks by asking to see old photos of youth movement activities, aliyah preparation groups (aliyah registration cards have provided investigators with correct birth dates and with the names of relatives, see blog.nli.org.il/en/baumgarten) and family albums. Some soldiers do not even have a photo on file.
Besides trying to find people still alive who were acquainted with these fallen soldiers, volunteers search archives. It is real detective work. When successful, there is the rededication of a tombstone with the added information. To date, out of the more than 800 “untraceable” soldiers, they have pieced together the missing information for 120 of them.
The stories of the fallen soldiers of this period are poignant. Take the example of Tobias Marmolstein, who came from Bitshekov, Czechoslovakia. His father had died in Tobias’s arms at Mauthausen concentration camp. Twenty-year-old Tobias was killed as his Haganah unit fought to open the road to Jerusalem. He had been in Israel for just nine days. He is buried on Mt. Herzl.
Each life story has its twists and turns. For instance, over two decades passed before Shaul Yekutiel Urbach came to be buried in Israel. He arrived in Palestine in 1939 to visit Tel Aviv relatives. When the Second World War broke out, he was unable to return to his large family in Kielce, Poland, so he volunteered to fight for the British. The British sent him to fight in Greece. There, the Germans took him prisoner. The Nazis sent him to do hard labour in Schlesien, Germany. In a revolt against a Nazi camp officer, Shaul was wounded, and he died in a German hospital. After the war, his only surviving brother, Raphael Fishel – the rest of the family had been murdered at Treblinka – tried to have Shaul’s remains brought to Israel. For 22 years, the British stalled in releasing his body from their military cemetery. Finally, in 1967, Shaul was reinterred, on Mt. Herzl.
Uri Sagi has maintained that a blank headstone or one that is missing information makes the soldier invisible. A fallen soldier, Sagi said, should not be invisible.
As time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find acquaintances and family who can fill in the blanks with firsthand testimony. For more information on Giving a Face to the Fallen, visit latetpanim.org.il.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The author in the Sinai in October 1973, before his unit was attacked by two Iraqi planes, which caused the unit’s ammunition supply to explode, killing some soldiers and wounding others. (photo from Yom Shamash)
I would like to say that an event that happened 46 years ago left no marks on me and that I am over it. But then, I would not be honest. In fact, the experience left an indelible mark on my life and changed me completely.
In 1971, I returned to Israel – the country of my birth and early childhood – from Brazil with a Zionist youth group, to Kibbutz Zikim. I remember very well the prevailing thinking in Israel then. Four years after the victory of 1967, Israelis were quite confident. Egypt, the most powerful enemy Israel had, was neutralized. We were strong. We had conquered the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan. All in six days. I had absorbed this attitude and felt secure in my little world.
And then the war of 1973 exploded.
I served in the Sinai before the war; I was in a Nahal Brigade unit in which part of my service was spent on a kibbutz. On Oct. 6, 1973, I was on the kibbutz. It was Shabbat, Yom Kippur. Because Israel was caught off guard, there was no time to set up the unit in an orderly manner. As soon as we arrived at our position behind a high dune in the Sinai desert, we started shooting. My tank had a long-range cannon; we could not see what we were hitting 30 kilometres away.
Because my job was to pull the cannon’s trigger with both hands, I could not block my ears with my fingers, as all my tank mates did. As a result, I have a significant and permanent hearing loss.
On Oct. 13, 1973, our unit was decimated by two Iraqi planes. There had been a lull in the fighting and we had been resting on the sand. Suddenly, the two planes swooped from the sky, dropped bombs and disappeared in a matter of seconds. Very quickly, our own ammunition started to explode. Pieces of shrapnel started flying. The only thing to do was to run away from this inferno. Some soldiers were wounded, some died, and all who survived were traumatized.
Looking back now from the vantage point of 2019, many of us wonder about the heavy loss of young lives. Israel lost about 2,700 soldiers in that war. What did they die for? Defending the Sinai? Those of us who served in the Sinai know well that there isn’t much there except sand, stretching for miles; there isn’t much there to defend. What I didn’t know in 1973 was that, for several months prior to the war, Israel’s then-prime minister Golda Meir had rejected numerous initiatives by Egypt’s then-president Anwar Sadat to negotiate a peace accord. Was it worth it holding on to the Sinai? Especially since, in the end, Israel wound up returning the Sinai anyway?
The same could be said about Lebanon – more than 1,200 Israelis lost their lives in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. Was it worth it? We must ask this question of the parents of those soldiers who lost their lives. I wonder what they would say.
I am afraid that one day the West Bank and the Golan will return to their rightful owners, the Palestinians and the Syrians, and, years later, we will ask ourselves what the hell we were doing in these places, and in Gaza.
Two million Palestinians in Gaza and two-and-a-half million in the West Bank, who do not have the right to vote in Israel, will not disappear, and I see no reason why Israeli soldiers should be controlling the movements of Palestinians traveling within the West Bank and those wanting to leave or enter the Gaza Strip. If I told you that Israelis traveling from Tel Aviv to Haifa have to pass through Palestinian checkpoints, you would say this is absurd. And I would agree, but it is no less absurd than Palestinians going from Ramallah to Nablus having to pass through Israeli checkpoints.
And why are settlers in the West Bank consuming 10 times more water than the indigenous Palestinians? And why are Israeli soldiers protecting settlers – who should not be there in the first place – some of whom do not serve nor send their children to serve in the army?
There can be no peace in Israel until there is peace in Gaza and the West Bank. The occupation is a recipe for continuous wars and insecurity for all.
I recall clearly, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, returning my equipment at the army base. I pledged that I would never again wear a green uniform.
For a long time, I did not understand how and what changed inside me that October. No one talked about post-traumatic stress disorder; no one talked about personal feelings. But the recurring nightmares never stopped. The fear and anxiety stayed. Right after the war, I sought out a psychiatrist friend, who told me to leave Israel for awhile – I had planned to study in Jerusalem, but he said leave and decide later. I left. I came to Canada, started a new life, married, studied, had four kids, remarried, had a good career and am enjoying life with my wife, children and four grandchildren.
Since leaving Israel in 1974, I have been back twice for visits, in 1998 and 2008.
What happened on Oct. 13, 1973, changed me and shaped my views, my values, my activism, my appreciation for what is important in life. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned is that war is never the best option to resolve conflicts. Taking land from others is never a way toward peace. Military strength is not a guarantee of security.
I wish I could be optimistic about the future of Israel, but I am not. For me to have any optimism at all, at a minimum, the occupation would have to end.
Yom Shamash was born in Israel. At the age of 6, his family moved to Brazil. He returned to Israel as a member of the Hashomer Hatzair group and settled in Kibbutz Zikim, south of Ashkelon. In British Columbia, he worked as a public school teacher in Surrey and, since retirement, he has been working as a translator and babysitter.
Charleen Glaun, centre, receives her certificate of service from Sar-El from madrichot Inbar, left, and Carmel. Glaun hopes to volunteer with Sar-El annually from here on out. (photo from Charleen Glaun)
At last, I was on the plane to Israel. Was this really happening? I had waited so long for this day and, here I was, after 32 years, finally returning.
Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, I proceeded through the security check-in. The first question asked of me was, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“I’m coming on Sar-El,” I replied.
“What is Sar-El?” the security person asked.
“Volunteers for Israel,” I said, a little surprised he did not know about Sar-El.
I waited for his reaction, but there was silence. I blurted out, “I’ve been away for 32 years and this is my first trip back.”
He looked up from examining my passport and said, “What took you so long? Welcome back!”
I smiled and said to myself, “This is going to be the best adventure of my life! Thank you, G-d, for getting me here safely.”
Once I had my luggage, I found the sunglass stand where volunteers typically meet, and found Sar-El’s facilitator, Pam Lazarus, an expat who made aliyah 17 years ago. Since its founding in 1987 by General Aharon Davidi, volunteers come from around the globe for one- to three-week stints on an army base. Qualifications include a love of Israel, being of sound mind, having a clean bill of health, being physically fit and able to carry your own luggage. You do not have to be Jewish. There is a registration fee and the volunteer is responsible for the cost of the flight to Israel. While on the base, each person is assigned a room, which they will typically share with one or more people, and is given three meals a day. Some bases will even organize a free day trip to somewhere of interest, but individuals must fill their own weekends.
I was assigned to a medical supply base near Tel Aviv. This base does not have soldiers on it but rather reservists and full-time employees.
When I arrived at the base, I was given my army uniform. The correct size is not high on the priority list, I discovered. I spent the next three weeks in a very roomy pair of pants, which I held up with a belt, a khaki T-shirt and shirt, and an army jacket. I felt so proud wearing this uniform!
Army-issue clothing in hand, it was time to see where I was going to live for the next while. I had a roommate for my first four days, but had the space to myself for the remainder of my stay. Women are housed on the upper level of a two-storey building. Both floors have a washing machine. (Apparently, this is quite a luxury and not the norm.) All rooms have an air-conditioning/heating system and basic storage units. Three shower stalls delivered hot water at all times. I was at the Hilton of army bases! (I found out from my representative in Toronto that the living quarters on the base were newly renovated.)
A typical day is as follows. Breakfast in the main dining room is at 7:15 a.m. At 7:45 a.m., we meet up with our 19-year-old madrichot (supervisors) in the courtyard for the raising of the flag and the singing of the national anthem, and we get news from within Israel and abroad. Then, it is off to work until midday, when we make our way to the dining hall for lunch.
This base is the main military medical base in Israel and also the primary depot. Every 18 months, medical military units drop off complete medical supplies. They then pick up new and replenished supplies for the next 18 months, which are divided between bases. Medical supplies with expiry dates between six and 18 months are used first in hospitals and emergency rooms, while supplies with a six-month expiry date are used for training purposes and donations to developing countries. Medical kits are made up for many applications, such as atomic and biological chemical kits, combat doctors, and combat medics.
I had a great boss, Israel, who patiently explained exactly how to do things. Israel is a Bukharian Jew, a first-generation Sabra. He never stopped thanking us for our service, as did many Israelis I met off the base. They are grateful for the volunteers’ service. This, in turn, was so gratifying for us, knowing we were making a difference by giving back just a little to the country. It was an even better feeling when medical backpacks were returned to us with medical supplies unused.
The workday ends at 4 p.m., when volunteers are free to do whatever they like within the confines of the base. They are not at liberty to leave it, other than at the end of the workweek. Dinners are eaten early. Thereafter, the madrichot hold discussion groups or show movies. By 9 p.m., most people are ready for bed.
Weekends, volunteers may go anywhere in Israel, as long as we are at Tel Aviv’s main train station on the Sunday morning at 9:30, when we are taken back to our base. At present, there is a hostel in Tel Aviv specifically for Sar-El volunteers’ weekend stays. Accommodation is free, with meals included. This is a great alternative for those who are on a tight budget. It is not fancy, but it is near Tel Aviv’s hub and the beach.
One tends to forget that one is in a country in a constant state of war. The zest for life is unbelievable, which I noticed on my weekends in Tel Aviv. The bustling traffic; people sitting at coffee shops and in restaurants, or shopping at the Carmel Market; youngsters speeding down busy main intersections on their electric scooters; hip-looking men and women walking along the beautiful promenade with their dogs; beachgoers laughing and listening to music; picnickers on lawns with little children frolicking nearby; buskers entertaining the passing throng. What a beautiful, perfect picture it painted in an imperfect world.
Three weeks went by in a flash and soon it was time to return to Toronto. I looked for any reason that would enable me to stay, but, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. But it doesn’t have to end permanently. I will return to Israel. In fact, I am already looking at calendar dates.
I would highly recommend Sar-El for anyone who loves Israel and wants to do something worthwhile. Israel will welcome you with open arms and she will thank you.
To learn more about how you can experience your own “do good, feel good” adventure of a lifetime, email [email protected].
Charleen Glaunis a receptionist/caterer for an oil company in Toronto. She made aliyah in 1975 and spent the next 13 years traveling between Israel and South Africa, where she was born. Though aware of Sar-El since 1986, she did not have an opportunity to return to Israel until her December 2018 trip with the organization. Her heart has always been in Israel so, for her, the 2018 trip was “going home,” and she plans on returning with Sar-El before the end of this year, and each year going forward.
(Michel Rathwell) .משרדי הרשות המיסוי הקנדית באוטווה
רשות המיסוי הקנדית (הסי.אר.איי) הודיעה במהלך החודש שעבר לארגון היהודי-חרדי “בית עולות” מטורונטו, כי הוא יאבד את מעמדו כגוף צדקה לצורכי מס. זאת כיוון שהארגון העביר תרומות למכינות קדם-צבאיות בישראל ולגופים הנמצאים מעבר לקו הירוק. לפי תקנות המיסוי בקנדה “בית עולות” עבר על כללי החוק הקנדי למתן תרומות מצד קרנות צדקה. “בית עולות” כך התברר תרם כספים לפרוייקטים הקשורים לצה”ל בניגוד לכללי המס בקנדה. במקרה כזה הארגון לא זכאי לפטור במס. כן גם התורמים שלו עצמם לא זכאים לפטורים במס. על פי רשות המיסוי הקנדית תרומות הכספים למכינות הצבאיות על ידי הארגון שיפרו את היעילות של הצבא הישראלי. המידע בעניין “בית עולות” פורסם לאחרונה ברשת החדשות המקומית גלובל ניוז.
הארגון “בית עולות” הוא גוף צדקה יהודי-קנדי שמגייס מדי שנה עשרות מיליוני דולרים למטרות יהודיות, שחלקם הגדול מיועדים לישראל. הארגון פועל מאז אלף תשע מאות ושמונים והוא ממקום במקום השישים ושניים, בקרב רשימת העמותות לצדקה הפועלות בקנדה. בשנת אלפיים ושבעה עשרה “בית עולות” גייס תרומות בהיקף שישים ואחד מיליון דולר קנדי. שנה קודם לכן הוא גייס תרומות בהיקף ארבעים וחמישה מיליון דולר. ואילו באלפיים וחמש עשרה גוייסו ארבעים ושניים מיליון דולר. מרבית הכספים מועברים כתרומות לפרוייקטים מחוץ לקנדה. ולכן “בית עולות” נמצא במקום החמישה עשר בקרב רשימת העומותות הקנדיות לצדקה שמעבירות כספים לחו”ל.
רשות המס הקנדית שביצעה בדיקה בנושא “בית עולות” הודיעה לראשיו כי תרומותיו של הארגון למכינות קדם-צבאיות מהוות בפועל תמיכה בצה”ל. בנוסף נטען כי מדובר בהפרה של התנאים המחייבים גופי צדקה שפועלים שלא למטרות רווח, לא לתרום לפרוייקטים צבאים זרים. אז כספים שנתרמו על ידי תורמים שונים לא יוכרו כהוצאה מוכרת לצורכי מס. לא ברור בשלב זה כמה בדיוק כסף העביר “בית עולות” למכינות הצבאיות בישראל, ולאן בדיוק הכסף יועד.
“בית עולות” דחה את הפרשנות של ממשלת קנדה. בארגון אומרים כי התרומות נועדו לתמוך בפעילות חינוכית ודתית במכינות הצבאיות ולא לסיוע ישיר לצבא הישראל.
במקביל לתלונה בנוגע להעברת תרומות למכינות הצבאיות טוענת רשות המיסוי הקנדית, כי “בית עולות” תרם מיליון ומאתיים אלף דולר קנדי לגופים בשטחים הכבושים. בממשלת קנדה אומרים: סיוע להתנחלויות הישראליות בשטחים הכבושים עומד בניגוד למדיניות הציבורית של קנדה, וכן בניגוד לחוק הבינלאומי. ב”בית עולות” אמרו בתגובה לכך כי התרומות היו מיועדות לתמיכה במשפחות חלשות, בעיקר מהמגזר החרדי הגרות בשטחים. ברשות המיסוי הקנדית לא מקבלים את הסברי הארגון היהודי.
כפי שפרסמנו לאחרונה רשות המיסוי הקנדית בודקת מזה מספר שנים את פעילותה של קרן קיימת קנדה, לאור מידע שהתקבל לידיה כי הארגון עבר על כללי החוק הקנדי למתן תרומות מצד קרנות צדקה, ותרמה כספים לפרוייקטים הקשורים לצה”ל.
בקרן קיימת קנדה הגיבו לדבר החקירה בעניינם: “קרן קיימת קנדה תמשיך לעבוד במשותף עם רשות המיסוי לבדיקת הפעילויות שלנו. בעבר היינו מעורבים בפעילויות צדקה הקשורות בעקיפין בצה”ל. רבים מהפרוייקטים היו לטובת בין היתר איכות החיים של החילים ובני משפחותיהם. כל הפרוייקטים האלה נמצאים על שטחים השייכים לצה”ל והכסף לא הועבר לצבא. אנו לא ידענו שהפרוייקטים שלנו יהיו מטרה לחקירה של רשות המיסוי הקנדית, כיוון שהם נמצאים על אדמה בבעלות צה”ל. מייד שקיבלנו מידע על כך הפסקנו את התמיכה בפרוייקטים אלה. מזה מספר שנים אנו לא תורמים כספים לפרוייקטים על אדמת בצה”ל”.