Left to right: Amit Shmuel, Eitan Feiger and Matan Roettger. (photo by Bentzi Sasson)
On Nov. 24, Chabad UBC invited two former Israel Defence Forces soldiers to the Nest on the University of British Columbia campus to speak about their personal stories and life lessons from serving in the army.
Amit Shmuel, a former soldier in the elite Palchan unit, and Matan Roettger, a former soldier in the Kfir Brigade, shared some of their experiences in service; stories of their courage and the sacrifice they made protecting and defending the state of Israel, and especially of their perseverance in the face of suffering and adversity. Both suffered career-ending injuries in the line of duty, and their strength and resilience to mentally and physically recover from their trauma were remarkable.
The two soldiers were at UBC as part of a larger tour of college campuses all across North America, along with Belev Echad, an organization dedicated to providing financial and moral support to IDF veterans wounded in action and to easing their transition back into civilian life.
The local event was sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, which helps train young student leaders to become Israel ambassadors and activists on campus. As a Hasbara Fellow myself and having firsthand experience in Israel, I found the stories of Shmuel and Roettger to accurately represent the victory of hope over despair, the value of the sanctity of life, freedom and dignity that have been deeply encoded in the fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish community worldwide.
Just as the Maccabees 2,000 years ago rededicated the Second Temple from destruction to restoration, so too did these two modern-day Maccabees rededicate their lives from tragedy to triumph. They inspire us to not focus on what we cannot control, but rather on what we can: to elevate our attitude and response toward life’s misfortunes by sharing with others our light of faith and hope for a brighter future.
Eitan Feigeris a student at the University of British Columbia, class of 2024.
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.”
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.”