November 14, 2018

Israeli heroes: Some of them admit to needing help

At a recent charity dinner for wounded Israeli soldiers held in Israel's high-tech suburb of Kfar Saba, a soldier's mother, Diana Elankri, stood onstage and spoke of her son, Shimon —-  and of the day she watched him come back to life after being hit by a missile along the Gaza border.

A few months into his recovery, when the nights were stretching longer and lonelier and the weight of his injuries had begun to set in, Elankri said she got a call from Hope for Heroism (Achim Lachaim in Hebrew), a nonprofit organization and soldier-to-soldier network that provides financial aid and emotional support to wounded combat soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Remembering when she came to Hope for Heroism headquarters for the first time, she said, Project Manager Dekel Darchani “received us,  and he just looked at Shimon, and me also, and he said, ‘It’s OK. You don’t have to say anything. I understand.’”

Multiple soldiers at the charity event tried to describe this this wordless connection, this instant sense of brotherhood they feel whenever they meet another fighter who, like them, has survived the horrors of war. Those of us in the crowd who hadn’t, though, were lucky to detect the jolts of electricity that seemed to whiz past us, running between them, allowing them to operate on another frequency. The night was peaceful; dinner conversation was lovely; the stage lights twinkled. But an undercurrent of shared pain and past terrors passed among the soldiers in the crowd. They didn’t need to say anything to each other to know it — they could just smile, bump shoulders or clink their glasses with a nod.

“When you hear ‘injured soldiers helping injured soldiers,’ you sometimes think you will see damaged people,” said Arale Wattenstein, external relations director for Hope for Heroism, who is also a former officer for the paratroopers. Wattenstein suffered severe burns and a spine injury in 2005, when a terrorist in Nablus threw a Molotov cocktail at his army jeep. “But we are not. In our eyes, you’re the ones who are damaged. We created a group where it’s OK to cry; it’s OK to be damaged; it’s OK to go to a psychologist.”

In the six years since its inception, Hope for Heroism has grown to include about 350 soldiers, and has sent them on 15 delegations to the U.S., to cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New Jersey and New York.

The trips demonstrate to supporters and potential donors in the U.S. that IDF combat soldiers are receiving crucial services through the nonprofit — and, at the same time, show the soldiers how much they are valued abroad.

Before traveling to the U.S., “I always thought the Jewish out of Israel don't care about what happens here,” said Yaron B., a current lieutenant in the IDF who has been shot down on three different occasions — in Gaza, in Lebanon and in the Jordan Valley. As he spoke, Seattle mega-donor Dan Levitan walked by, giving the lieutenant a big American bear-pat on the back. “He won't tell you this, but he's one of the heroes of this country,” Levitan said.

Ehud Amiton, whose knee was crushed at a violent rally in the West Bank, exhibited his original photography at Hope for Heroism headquarters.

Operations at Hope for Heroism are run out of a large, ultra-modern, almost Malibu-style home in Kfar Saba. On the night of July 1, at the lit-up charity dinner, soldiers showcased photo projects throughout the house — a form of art therapy, as they described it — and debuted original songs on the main stage. These are just a couple of the dozens of member-initiated special projects, such as a soccer team and surfing lessons, that have sprung from the momentum of the rehabilitation process.

“It took something like more than one year to convince me to come here,” Hope for Heroism member Tomer Eliyahu told the crowd. “I didn’t believe that I was wounded, I didn’t believe that I needed help, and I didn’t want anybody to help me – because I’m a warrior, and warriors don’t need help from nobody.

“The reason that I’m standing here in front of you,” he said, “to tell you that for more than one year, I actually go to sleep at night and pray to God, ‘Please let me wake up in the morning because I want to live’ — is because of Hope for Heroism. I want to tell you from the depths of my heart that I love you.”

Eliyahu was speaking not only to his brothers in the organization, but to the few dozen Americans who had gathered around the fancy white dinner tables on the lawn. Because their dollars, and their belief in the soldier-to-soldier network, are ultimately what keep it buzzing: According to Executive Director Rabbi Chaim Levin, the organization’s budget has grown to almost $2 million per year.

Hope for Heroism’s leadership is hesitant to blame the IDF for not providing sufficient aid to wounded veterans. “There are always complaints [about the IDF], but we learned that we don’t need to deal with the complaints, and we need to deal with what we need to do,” Wattenstein said. “If someone needs help, let’s go and help him. We don’t ask questions.”

The soldiers themselves, however, are quicker to criticize the IDF. Although the Israeli government is required to provide medical aid to its wounded veterans, there is always a ceiling — and some soldiers claim the ceiling is much lower for mental disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dotan Yarimi, 28, said the IDF didn’t approve him for psychiatric help after his unit was ambushed in Ramallah: “To me they said, ‘You have problems from before the army.’”

According to Hope for Heroism officials, the IDF evaluates each wounded soldier based on his level of need, and awards him him the corresponding funds. (Israel’s Ministry of Defense could not provide its official policy by press time.) Anything beyond that falls on the soldier himself — or into the hands of Hope for Heroism.

Hope for Heroism member Tsahi Ben Ishay watches his friends and fellow soldiers play live music at a dinner event on July 1.

“For example,” said Wattenstein, “we have a few guys who are paralyzed in a wheelchair. And imagine, you have it in your mind that you will walk one day, but the government says, ‘You will never walk, period.’ So you say that you found the research in Google that there is something that might help in a chance of 1 to 10,000. So we will help you.”

All the soldiers know this story by heart: The partnership that would become Hope for Heroism was born in 2005, when injured IDF officer Gil Ganonyan met Levin on a trip to Seattle. Just one month later, the Second Lebanon War exploded over Israel's northern border. “I really felt like I had to do something, living in Seattle while all those guys were getting killed over there,” Levin said. So he reunited with Ganonyan and a couple other guys in Haifa, Israel, where they visited the bedsides of freshly wounded IDF soldiers and offered them what little financial aid they could.

“Ten months later, we brought a group of these soldiers who were injured during the war to Seattle, and there we started to really understand their needs,” the rabbi said.

Hope for Heroism Director Yaniv Leidner, who was shot by a terrorist while on a special mission in Nablus during the Second Intifada, remembered his first visit to Seattle: “In the time that we spent together at the delegation, we didn’t mean to create an organization,” he said. “But during this time, we realized that something very special happens when you bring together people that went through the same experiences. It doesn’t matter if someone was injured in Lebanon, or the West Bank, or if it’s a mental injury or a physical injury  — we understood that it became a very unique group, a family that can help each other just from the fact that they spend time together.

“Because of the same experience they are sharing,” he said, “they can understand each other just by speaking with the eyes.”