Left to right, Canadian Defence Attaché Col. Tony Lovett, Canadian Ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons and Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans chief executive officer Yuval Lipkin light a memorial candle. (photo from IDFWO)
Canadian Ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons, who attended a memorial lighting at Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans’ (IDFWO’s) office in Givat Shmuel to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, said, “Having had the opportunity to learn about the IDFWO and attend the bar and bat mitzvah in Jerusalem early after my arrival in Israel last year, I was, and remain, very impressed by the number of programs provided to support the widows and orphans of Israel’s fallen soldiers.”
The connection between Canada and IDFWO is at many levels. Every year, Canadian families open their homes to IDFWO orphans as they visit Toronto as part of the B’nai Mitzvah North America trip. And, as part of Toronto’s Bnei Akiva Schools’ effort to experience the Holy Land from a variety of perspectives, IDFWO organized for them to meet with the Israel Air Force at Sde Dov airport, where the pilots spoke about IDF orphans and the price they paid to protect the state of Israel.
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.