Six months ago, Ziv Shilon, a captain in the Israeli army, was wounded when an explosive device detonated in his face. He was guarding an area near the Gaza Strip when it happened, he told the crowd of 100 people at a recent program in New York City.
Shilon gripped the microphone in the pair of metal clips that functions as a hand after nearly a dozen surgeries. “I’m just a soldier that came to do his job, and there are thousands like me on many fronts in many roles all around Israel,” he said, adding that his wish is to be able to return to serve his country and help keep the Jewish people safe.
He was one of several speakers at a plated dinner in a Manhattan hotel, a private event that gave him and nine others affected by violence a chance to mingle with area businesspeople as part of a 10-day tour with Belev Echad. A joint effort by Chabad-Lubavitch Israel Center of the Upper East Side and the Chabad Terror Victims Project, the organization brings wounded Israeli soldiers and civilians to the United States to connect with area Jewish communities.
Now in its fourth year, Belev Echad, or “One Heart,” gives Jews in America the chance to show their support and appreciation for Israelis, and to get to know their guests while offering them a night out.
“Our goal is to create wonderful memories, filled with laughter and kindness, for these incredible human beings,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler, co-director of the Chabad Israel Center. “We hope to inspire the New York community, as well as the magnificent people of Boston, that we will always overcome evil, senseless and cowardly acts.”
At the dinner, Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni spoke of how Israel is flourishing because of the resilience and determination of its citizens, and the sacrifices these young people and their families have made. “You realize that thanks to their actions, thanks to their bravery, we are able to celebrate today Israel’s independence,” he said. “So I’m here in the first place to say ‘thanks’ to our young war heroes.”
Arriving in the United States for a 10-day tour. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Maj. Gen. Yaacov Ayish, Israel’s defense attaché to the U.S., made a special trip from Washington, D.C., to attend the event; Shilon roomed with his son in officer training school, where they were cadets together. “I’ve been to many of these,” he said. “This one, when you feel the vibe, seeing the people, it’s electrifying. It’s something totally different. You can feel the words going directly into the heart.”
“They make us feel like kings”
Manhattan Chabad community member Gamliel Nagar has attended the dinners since it began. “It shows you we’re all family, connected to each other,” he said. “And we need to help each other.”
Nagar said that everyone can learn a lesson from the soldiers and terror victims, whose positive attitudes are just part of what they bring with them from abroad. Their visits inspire balance and perspective, he added, and serve as a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted: “You see all these people, they’re suffering so much—and they’re still smiling.”
Guests were treated to a video of the soldiers’ travels since their arrival: their balloon-filled airport welcome, a helicopter ride, bowling, a trip to Yankee Stadium and visits to the area preschool, among other stops. They plan to spend a Shabbat with the community, and then head to Philadelphia for more touring.
For Nati Hakshui, this is the first time he’s been to the States. He is traveling with his brother, Yossi, and both of them just can’t get enough of the sights and sounds of the city.
“It’s amazing, it’s unbelievable. You see what you see on TV and in the movies. It’s like a dream,” he said. The adventures have taken him far from the world of ongoing rehab that he needs after an August 2011 missile attack cost him one leg and left the other damaged by shrapnel.
Rabbi Uriel Vigler, co-director of the Chabad Israel Center. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
“The support of family and friends and the Chabad organization, they helped me to be stronger and to get healthier faster,” he said. Yossi Hakshui recalled how Rabbi Menachem Kutner, of the Chabad Terror Victims Project in Israel, visited his family while the brothers were hospitalized, offering help and hope.
Nati Hakshui added that he remains grateful for the support from his new friends in New York as well. “We are thankful for everything the community over here is doing for us,” he said. “There are no words to explain how much fun and how much good feeling we get from the things they do for us—so much love, so much embracing . . . they make us feel like kings.”
For Shay Zach of Brooklyn, the event is an annual affair. Once a soldier himself, he said he respects the group of Israelis and what they have given for their nation. “We need to do everything we can to help them; it’s a very good cause.”
Charles Glatter, of Manhattan, said he and his wife, Gili, are fond of the event and relish the chance to talk with the soldiers. In years past, they have taken the group out for dinner. “This year they were totally booked before we were able to offer them dinner,” he said. “When you look at yourself in the mirror, you say ‘What more can we do to help? We’re not doing enough; we should be doing more.’”
Issy Bank and his wife, Batia, came in from Queens to support the organization they consider so central that for Issy’s 60th celebration last year, the couple asked for contributions to Belev Echad in lieu of birthday gifts. “For Israelis, it’s obvious,” he said. “I was a medic in the army; I treated people like this, and I appreciate what they did.”
Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni spoke at the dinner.(Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
Bank, whose daughter is also involved with the organization, said he hopes to leave the visitors with warm memories and the community’s best wishes. He said the goal is to “give them a little bit of our hearts and a little bit of appreciation for what they gave—and they gave a lot.”