The 2018 delegation of Zahal Shalom soldiers have arrived in Washington, D.C., for three days of learning and excitement. For all 12 disabled Israeli soldiers, made up of 10 men and two women, this is the first visit to Washington and for many the first visit to the United States.
Zahal Shalom is an organization of Northern New Jersey citizens from a variety of shuls who raise private funds to bring a group to the USA once every year. The Zahal program has been active for 26 years and has sponsored many hundreds of soldiers over this period. The soldiers are hosted by families in their homes along with buddy families that assist in the program to assure each soldier has a true family-oriented experience along with touring and scheduled events. An active board of directors makes sure that the two-week itinerary is packed with events, educational experiences, sightseeing and more, all with the hope of healing these heroes who have experienced serious trauma and injury during the course of their military careers. After one week of touring New York and New Jersey, the D.C. trip is chaperoned by board members and additional volunteers. A chartered bus is hired for the trip to D.C. as well as the daily touring in order to efficiently see the sights in a safe and orderly manner.
This year’s D.C. highlights included somber visits to the World War II and Vietnam War memorials, the Washington Mall and parts of the Smithsonian Institute. These soldiers marveled at the expanse and grandeur of the monuments and buildings. The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and other locations provide fantastic opportunities for thousands of photo ops. The Zahal Shalom banner was proudly unfurled in many prime locations for group photos and the mission was explained to countless curious onlookers. A daily group breakfast, lunch and dinner give the soldiers an opportunity to further bond with the chaperones, share and discuss the daily events, and eagerly plan for the next exciting day. Especially touching to this group was the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. They each have their own personal stories to reflect on and each have lost close friends in war and conflict in Israel. No trip to D.C. would be complete without a stop at 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. for a photo in front of the White House, and the soldiers took full advantage. The group marveled at the expanse of Union Station, which was a lunch stop that was also caught up in the wild celebration of the win of the Washington Capitals, the D.C. home team! All were amazed at the presidential portraits and other highlights at the Portrait Museum as well as a surreal special exhibit at the Renwick Museum. On the lighter side, one of our soldiers, Itsik, is a professional drummer in Israel and was invited at night to jam on stage at an offbeat D.C. hot spot. The entire group was there to root him on for an amazing impromptu and memorable event.
The highlight of the trip was a personal visit by Congressman Josh Gottheimer on the steps of Congress. Congressman Gottheimer is a strong supporter of Israel and a good friend to Zahal Shalom. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) said, “I always look forward to meeting with the delegation of heroes and IDF veterans with Zahal Shalom each year in our nation’s capital. For more than two decades, Zahal Shalom has helped strengthen the alliance between the U.S. and our ally Israel and improved the lives of so many wounded warriors who protect and defend the values that we, as Americans, hold dear. Thank you to all the families in North Jersey for opening your homes to these brave men and women and for doing your part to repair our world.”
The soldiers are never far from home, using their cell phones to stay in touch with family and friends and sharing every moment. The Zahal Shalom slogan is “In our homes for two weeks, in our hearts for a lifetime.” The bonds that have been created on both sides of the world are amazing and the relationships formed go on and on.
Zahal Shalom is always looking for volunteers to help with each annual program. For more information or to donate, call Shelly Goldstein 201 359 5028 or visit www.zahalshalom.com.
By Shelly Goldstein