(Courtesy of SAR) As his April departure date neared, Ido was looking forward to his first trip to the US. But the IDF veteran was anxious about spending Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut outside of Israel.
But now that Ido has had more than a week to process the whirlwind of events he—and a group of fellow IDF veterans—experienced with the SAR community in Riverdale, NY, he said he realizes there was no reason for concern. The ceremonies and celebrations abroad were uplifting, inspiring, and “just as good” as any in Israel, he said.
Thanks to the experience, Ido said he now also understands the meaning of Zionism and the deep connection Jewish people in America and Israel share.
“Many of us agree it was the best week of our lives,” Ido said.
Every year, on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the SAR community invites IDF veterans to share their stories with students and faculty to enhance these momentous holidays. But this year, SAR took this opportunity even further. The community hosted 19 IDF veterans—who had served together in elite Sayeret Tzanchanim combat unit—for a week.
The veterans stayed in the homes of SAR families, spent their days and evenings with students and faculty participating in a range of activities, and—of course—commemorated Yom HaZikaron and celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut together with community-wide events.
But there was also a therapeutic element to the experience.
The veterans’ trip to Riverdale, NY was one aspect of their nine-month experience with the Peace of Mind organization. The nonprofit offers therapy to Israeli veterans who have experienced trauma during their military service.
Part of the goal of the trip abroad is to allow veterans to intensively work through their emotions and experiences, away from the distractions and responsibilities of home. The veterans traveled to the US with two therapists. Each day, they participated in about three hours of group therapy in the morning and four hours of therapy in the afternoon.
“Helping [the veterans] process their experience so that they can be the best versions of themselves—as they re-enter Israeli society—is the least we can do to give back and express our gratitude for their service,” said Jessica Jesselson, SAR Academy Parent Association Co-Chair, who—together with her husband Roni—played an instrumental role in organizing the weeklong trip.
In between, the veterans embedded themselves in the Jewish community, enabling them to experience some levity and fun and to foster connections with Jewish locals.
They played sports pickup games and attended a New Jersey Devils hockey game. They participated in the solemn Yom HaZikaron service, and then helped the community transition to the upbeat Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, which included a schoolwide musical Hallel service and a community BBQ with more than 1,000 attendees. They spent Shabbat with community members, visited various synagogues and then capped off the week with a moving Melaveh Malka Havdalah service.
“The community was amazing,” said Ido. “None of us really understood what Zionism was until we visited. They gave us so much love and listened to us.”
Nivo said that “100 years ago, everyone wanted a Jewish state.” To him, that’s what Zionism meant.
But what does it mean today?
He said his understanding of the concept was shaped by his experience with the SAR community: Seeing the Israeli flags waving all over the elementary and high schools, hearing constant “thank yous” for his service, having deep conversations about Israel and religion, realizing that he—and Jewish people who live 6,000 miles away—read the same books, celebrate the same holidays and care so deeply about the State of Israel.
“For the first time,” Ido said, “we saw a jewish community not in Israel. It really broadened my perspective about Jewish life and how close the community is to Israel.”
The extended time together, and the unstructured moments, enabled the veterans and students to connect and understand how much common ground they share.
“We would’ve always brought in soldiers to speak to kids,” said Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, SAR Academy, Principal. “But this was different. These aren’t people you just see for 30 minutes in uniform. They lived here. It was more real.”