The opening of “hearts and homes” to veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces has been in practice for almost 50 years. After the miraculous victory of the Six Day War in 1967, an organization called the Overseas Delegation Program was established with the purpose of showing gratitude to the valiant soldiers who were wounded while protecting the Jewish nation. Geneva, Switzerland was the first host city in this program. Since 1993, Bergen County has been amongst those communities that host groups of IDF Veterans annually. Other host cities in the US include Chicago and Pittsburg. Internationally, groups are hosted in Canada, Switzerland, Australia and the UK, with additional countries participating each year.
Zahal Shalom of Bergen County, now in its 23rd year, was organized initially by the Glen Rock Jewish Center. Today, it also includes congregations in Ridgewood, Fair Lawn, Wyckoff, Franklin Lakes and Teaneck. Each year, in conjunction with the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization (ZDVO), which hosts over 54,000 members, and Beit Halochem centers throughout Israel, Zahal Shalom hosts 10 to 12 wounded Israeli veterans in different Bergen County communities for a two-week trip to the US annually.
Months of planning go into every visit, including fundraising efforts, public relations campaigns, itinerary planning and many more considerations. While in the US, the veterans are offered hospitality of the highest order at the homes of their hosts in the different communities of Bergen County. In addition to “host” families, “buddy” families volunteer to assist host families during the 14 days of touring by accompanying them on trips, providing meals and evening activities and just “hanging out.” Often “buddy” families “bud” into host families in subsequent years. According to Shelly Goldstein, who assists with the PR efforts of Zahal Shalom, “Veterans who come to us as singles, come back years later with families to visit their host and buddy families, as the bonds created are lifetime connections. Often, hosts and buddies visit their ‘soldiers’ on family trips to Israel.”
Activities planned for the veterans are varied and exciting. They include discovering Manhattan; attending a Broadway show; touring Washington, DC, where they visit with local elected officials and touring sites in New Jersey. A highlight for the veterans as well as the communities is when they are invited to speak to public school students about their experiences in combat. Their young audiences are often awed by their presentations.
Richard Schnaittacher currently serves as the President of the Zahal Shalom Corporation. He resides in Ridgewood, where Temple Israel of Ridgewood will be hosting a fundraiser for the organization as part of the two-week visit in May. According to Schnaittacher, the selection process in Israel begins in December before the May trip with an elaborate application and screening process. Preliminary essays are required from the applicants. Then they must be approved for suitability for the program. One consideration is that they be 30 percent disabled, which includes physical as well as psychological impairments. “Dealing with varying physical handicaps as well as cases of PTSD takes special care and sensitivity. Our American participants are very special people. Miracles have occurred during these trips when veterans return to Israel after having experienced the love and care of their hosts with renewed optimism and hopefulness,” shares Schnaittacher. Himself a former IDF veteran, Schnaittacher fully comprehends the intensity of the army experience for young Israeli soldiers.
Every group of veterans is accompanied by a leader. This year’s group of 10 veterans will be accompanied by Sgt. Amir Rozenblit, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War. After a harrowing five hours of being trapped within a dysfunctional tank, facing a bombardment of Egyptian missiles and dozens of enemy infantrymen, and then being involved in a direct hit to his tank by a Shemel missile, Rozenblit survived. However, he suffered burns on his body and the loss of sight in one eye. Nevertheless, he is a perfect leader for the upcoming trip as he is an upbeat and optimistic
As Sgt. Amir recounts, “It was much easier to endure the injury, fight it and recover from it, than to cope with five hours of hopelessness, alone on the battlefield. Hours of helplessness, but not of weakness. Thanks to the resourcefulness exhibited by my comrades—and the generous help of the One in Heaven responsible for miracles—I can now smile as I think about those difficult, unforgettable hours.”
Steve Fox, a Teaneck resident involved in many community activities, has volunteered his family to be a “buddy” family for the upcoming Zahal Shalom trip. “When my friend Shelly Goldstein called me about Zahal Shalom and asked if we would like to participate, I immediately agreed. Our son is an IDF veteran who served with the Givati Brigade as a lone soldier and we are very proud of him and of all chayalim. If we can help soldiers who were wounded while defending Israel by being a buddy family or a host, it is the least we can do to show our appreciation for their sacrifice.”
Zahal Shalom invites the community to view its website www.zahalshalom.com and consider becoming involved in the program through hosting, buddying or contributing generously.
By Pearl Markovitz