The six Israelis stood quietly at the front of the classroom while the eighth graders at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale watched a short film depicting the experiences of young Israeli soldiers who had been wounded in combat. The students didn’t flinch from the often-graphic imagery of violent ambushes by Hamas or Hezbollah, or hospital scenes showing doctors’ efforts to stitch them back together.
And they listened even more intently when one of the young men portrayed in the film, who was in the room, shared his experience of losing his eye, and his struggles to re-enter Israeli society.
These visitors were the fourth delegation to Westchester since the group Hope for Heroism was launched in 2007 by injured Israeli soldiers to help one another.
“The purpose of this program is to heal soldiers who are injured physically and mentally, and to have soldiers help one another so the circle repeats,” said Oshry Azran, who had taken a bullet to his chest during a sniper attack in 2002, and was the de facto leader of the Westchester group. “This is the best therapy. It’s for us to get to know each other.”
Not all the wounds these young Israelis carried were visible. Other participants in the Hope for Heroism program, which has about 350 participants in Israel, spoke about their struggles to deal with post-traumatic stress, and their anxieties about launching a new life, starting a family and coping with their new reality.
In Israel, Hope for Heroism offers wounded soldiers a variety of programs and services. These include vocational training and job placement; financial assistance, as needed; recreational opportunities, with soccer games, music, theater and photography workshops; meetings to discuss their common experiences, and an extensive outreach effort to inspire a love of Israel. Each year, some participants from Israel travel to Seattle, the New York area, Tampa, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Cape Town/ Johannesburg to meet with students, community groups and others interested in their stories and work. While in New York, the Israelis not only went to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bowl, but also visited the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan and met with wounded American veterans, to help them develop a similar organization.
Half of the New York delegation goes to Long Island, with the other half staying with host families in Westchester. “I started doing this four years ago,” said Peter Hochfelder, a financier, who initially connected with the group through a friend in Seattle and was determined to bring it to New York. For the first time, all the host families in Westchester were, like Hochfelder himself, also Schechter parents.
“I’m offering someone an opportunity,” said Hochfelder. “We don’t ask anything of the hosts other than opening their hearts and their ears. When you do this, you’re definitely doing a mitzvah. The host family is getting more than they’re giving to the soldier. It’s an incredible window into why being a Jew is important, why Israel is important and why people are giving up their lives to defend Israel. That’s the dynamic, the unintended benefit. When we expose our children to this, they can’t believe how passionate these guys are.”
His son, Charles, a junior at Schechter, added, “It’s amazing to be around Jewish guys like this who are not much older than I am and hear about the horrors of war that they’ve lived through because they were defending Israel. It also gave me a sense of pride to host such amazing heroes in my home and share them with my school and my friends.”
Ronald Burton, a lawyer and Schechter parent whose family also hosted some soldiers, said, “These were ordinary, yet extraordinary, young men from Israel, who had fought for their family, their unit, their brigade, their homeland ... and ours. Our family has never felt more connected to ha’aretz [the land] as we did this past week. These heroes became part of our family, and we were so much the better for the experience.”
For Schechter educators, the ongoing opportunity to meet with these Israelis was incomparable.
“We want to bring our love of Israel, a core value of our school, into the classroom, and today’s program connected our students to injured soldiers who have a real story to tell,” said Irit Goldner-Khon, a Schechter High School Hebrew teacher.
“These interpersonal experiences with Israelis make a difference. Today’s program gave us the feeling of being one big nation who cares for each other, not to mention that our students developed a new appreciation for how Israeli soldiers deal with overcoming obstacles.”
Added Rabbi Harry Pell, rabbi-in-residence at Schechter, “As Jewish students living comfortably in Westchester, it’s essential that our students see Israel as belonging to them too, coupled with the reality that defending the State of Israel comes at a cost. When the wounded soldiers visit our school, they inspire us through their life experiences, and through the positive and caring outlook that they maintain despite their injuries. This is a beautiful side of Israel that our kids need to see, not that soldiers become injured which is inevitable, but that they are committed to caring for one another and continuing to support and protect the State of Israel ‘lamrot hakol’ — despite everything that has happened to them.”
By staying with these families for a week, the families and former soldiers form deep connections.
As Hochfelder, a father of four, said, ‘When my children go to Israel, they stay with these guys. I feel like these are my children. The experience transforms them. They get this incredible love and compassion. It’s an incredible two-way street. These guys are away from Israel, as a unit, and it frees them up to experience and share. They’re seeing families that appreciate and admire what they’ve done. It’s so cathartic for them to tell their stories.”
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