Photos: Bentzi Sasson, Moishy Lew
The tension between religious Jews and the Israel Defense Force has been hotly debated and fiercely criticized in the media during the past few months – both in Israel and abroad. But for one community of observant Jews in New York, you’d be hard pressed to find it.
“Our soldiers in the IDF have shown their unwavering commitment to the land of Israel, the land which G-d gave to us to cherish and protect,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler of Chabad Israel Center in the Upper East Side, at a dinner hosted by the community to honor wounded Israeli soldiers and victims of terror this past Friday night.
“They have shown this commitment with their very lives. The most important thing we can give them is our love and admiration.”
The dinner was part of a 10-day trip organized by Belev Echad, founded by Rabbi Vigler in cooperation with Rabbi Menachem Kutner of Chabad’s Terror Victim Project in Israel, and a host of supporters in the New York community. Now in its fifth year, Belev Echad brings wounded soldiers and victims of terror to New York City for the trip of a lifetime, to help them forget their traumas for but a moment, replete with tourist thrills and one community event after another in their honor.
“I never had much to do with Chabad, but when I see how they respect the soldiers, it challenges everything I thought about them,” said Ido Levy, an Israeli expat who attended the Friday night dinner.
Another participant, a woman with strong left-wing beliefs, was similarly surprised and walked away professing a new-found respect for Chabad.
To be sure, Chabad Chassidim are known to be supporters of Israel in general, and soldiers of the IDF in particular. But this event was unique in that it brought together hundreds of people from the community to sit with the soldiers and show them how much they’re loved and how much their sacrifices mean to them.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, spoke at the event about the respect the soldiers deserve. Preschool children presented cards to the soldiers. Members of the community, from all across the spectrum of religious observance, came to say thank you for their courage and bravery.
“It’s amazing what appreciation can do,” said Rabbi Vigler. “It’s one of the best forms of therapy for these heroes.” Hodael Yechezkel’s mother can attest to that.
Hodael Yechezkel is one of the soldiers being honored in the program. He had been on a top-secret mission in the northern border of Israel, where a group of elite units had come together for a highly sensitive, clandestine operation against the Hezbollah. The mission was completed successfully and everything went according to plan…until they began to head back.
Suddenly, the group was ambushed with explosives and a hail of terrorist gunfire. Hodael’s jaw was broken. Shrapnel flew into his body, including his right eye, which blinded him.
Because of the covert nature of their operation, helicopters were not able to evacuate the wounded. Hodael could not scream in pain. Instead, his comrades carried him on a stretcher for hours until they reached safety.
He was then immediately sent to the hospital, where doctors began complex surgery to try and restore his vision and heal his facial injuries. Hodael still has more operations to come; his rehabilitation is not yet complete.
But when his uncle, a resident of Long Island, came to see him in Manhattan as part of yet another reception to honor the soldiers in the Belev Echad delegation, he called Hodael’s mother and told her, “You should know one thing Chabad is doing with your son. They’ve given him dignity.”
To his mother, that meant more than anything else.
Another honoree, Moti Shemen, was 13 years old when he was celebrating the bar mitzvah of a friend at a banquet hall in Ashdod. In the middle of the party, Moti and a buddy of his walked out of the hall, where they came face to face with a terrorist.
Armed with an M-16, the terrorist’s mission was to spray the entire hall with machine gun fire. When he saw Moti outside, he shot him twice in the leg, then in his hand – which he had raised to protect his heart from being hit. Then, unexpectedly, the terrorist’s machine gun jammed.
Rabbi Schneur Goodman, Chabad shliach in Ashdod and close friend of the family, was in the hall at the time. He told his wife, “I’m going to save Moti. If anything happens to me, know that I love you and continue to raise the children.”
At grave risk to his own life, Rabbi Goodman went outside and pulled Moti into the hall, where his daughter quickly applied a tourniquet to the wounded leg. In the meantime, the terrorist had thrown two grenades into the building but they failed to detonate and police were able to apprehend him.
“Moti literally took the bullet for his community,” explained Rabbi Vigler. “How can we not make this effort to show our respect?”
Belev Echad is a project of Chabad Israel Center on the Upper East Side in conjunction with Chabad Terror Victims Project. Bios of the honored soldiers and victims of terror, as well as photos and videos in a running blog of the trip, can be found at www.chabadic.com/BelevEchad