By Rochelle Ginsburg
Photos: Bentzi Sasson
Achiya Klein, an officer in the Israel Defense Force, was working with his unit on a recently-discovered terrorist tunnel between Gaza and Israel, 20 meters underground, when an explosion rocked the tunnel and knocked him unconscious.
“When I woke up, I couldn’t see anything,” said Klein. “But I felt my all of my body and I knew I was in one piece.”
Achiya was instantly blinded and horrifically burned. Five of his comrades were also injured in the blast and he was evacuated to a nearby hospital. Three days passed before he regained consciousness and the long road to recovery could begin.
“One day my father came to my room [in the hospital] and told me I was chosen to be part of a delegation to America. [He said] I have to be healthy to go.” He still could not see and had undergone multiple surgeries, but the excitement of a trip motivated Achiya to keep going. A month and a half later he was able to go home.
Today, six months after the violent blast, he’s in New York City as part of Chabad Israel Center’s fifth annual Belev Echad program, a 10-day trip honoring Achiya and nine other injured Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. The trip is a whirlwind of fun and support, a much-needed respite from the physical wounds and emotional scars that plague these young heroes daily.
“Belev Echad accomplishes more than what any doctor can do,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler, director of Chabad Israel Center and founder of Belev Echad, at a private dinner for the honorees on Wednesday. “The greatest form of therapy is when we say thank you to these soldiers and show our appreciation, when we tell them how much their sacrifices mean to us.”
“We all feel so privileged to be in one room with heroism, with courage,” said former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon at the dinner. “I give many speeches as part of my career but I was never as emotional as this evening.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor underscored the bravery of these soldiers. “They experience the bitterness of war and carry wounds that will never heal. You can be proud of this next generation, that they will take us from strength to strength,” he said. “We have to be strong, resolute and determined to defend ourselves, because no one else will do it for us.”
This determination is no more apparent than in Achiya’s statement during his speech at the event. “I’m still an officer in the army,” he said proudly. “We are still working in Gaza to find all the tunnels. We know there are at least 25 of them.”
The Belev Echad trip includes a visit to Ground Zero, helicopter ride over NYC (an especially meaningful experience for one soldier whose last two helicopter rides were evacuations under fire), Wall Street, the United Nations Building, VIP tour of Yankee Stadium, cruise to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a Broadway show, shopping sprees, museums, day trip to Bear Mountain on specialized motorbikes, Lag Baomer celebrations and numerous events with the community in their honor.
Rabbi Menachem Kutner, director of Chabad’s Terror Victim Project in Israel, who encourages the soldiers and victims of terror in their hospital rooms and handpicks the honorees of each trip, pointed to the broader power of these visits. “Your support and solidarity are the answer to our enemies. When we are together, united, we have the strength to overcome everything.”
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.