A year and a half after the left side of his body was torn head-to-toe by shrapnel in the Gaza war, 23-year-old Ron Lichi was enjoying a relaxing tour of the Empire State Building, the White House and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s gravesite, among other American tourist destinations.
Lichi, along with nine other soldiers wounded in the Gaza conflict, was in the U.S. for 10 days through a “Belev Echad” (one heart) trip provided by the Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side and the Chabad Terror Victims Project. With $100,000 raised purely by Rabbi Uriel Vigler and his wife Shevy from neighborhood donors, the soldiers selected for the trip were able to visit sites in New York City, the Hamptons, Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C.
“The trip has been a very good break from all the treatments and the physical therapies and those kinds of things,” said Lichi, who was a commanding officer in the Golani unit and was hit by friendly fire. “The most important thing for me on this trip was this community — the people who opened up their houses for us. It was amazing to know that there’s support for Israel, even abroad.”
On Shabbat, Lichi and his friends were able to see this support in full force, at an event jointly hosted by Rabbi Uriel and the leadership of Upper East Side synagogue Orach Chaim, where 400 people showed up in their honor.
“Even people who would never step foot into our Chabad center came in support of the soldiers,” the rabbi said.
For Rabbi Vigler, one of the highlights of the experience occurred at the Rebbe’s ohel, or gravesite, on Friday morning of the trip, when he had a particularly touching moment with a soldier named Ben, who has one paralyzed arm and another replaced by a prosthetic.
“He asked to put on tefillin,” Rabbi Vigler said, emphasizing that the request was entirely out of the soldier’s volition. “He said, ‘The last time I put on tefillin was the day I got injured in Gaza.’ So I’m figuring, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I want to put on tefillin because that day, the tefillin saved my life.”
Ben’s father, who had accompanied his son as an aide, strapped on tefillin as well, according to the rabbi.
Previously, the Terror Victims Project has organized trips for wounded soldiers to Australia and to Aspen, Colo. – both also hosted by local Chabad houses. The Uriels worked extensively with Rabb Menachem Kuttner, who leads the Chabad Terror Victims Project in Israel, and Rabbi Mutty Fogelman, the New York liaison.
“I was astounded this week,” Rabbi Fogelman said. “The soldiers were ecstatic – they were thrilled the entire week, from the moment they got off the plane till here where I’m standing with them in the airport. More than one of them told me they never expected to experience anything like this. They go to operations after operations and they’re in rehabilitation for their wounds. They were going through hell basically. We wanted to provide a complete 10 days of R and R.”
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