Israeli veterans wounded in their country’s last major military operation in the Gaza Strip arrived in New York City Sunday for a much-anticipated 12-day tour of locations in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States.

Organized by the Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side and the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel’s Terror Victims Project, the Belev Echad trip – its name translates to “with one heart” – will take the 10 former soldiers to synagogues in New York, and tourist sites in Washington, D.C. and Niagara Falls. According to Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, associate director of the Terror Victims Project, the tour, which models similar programs that have taken place in the past two years in Aspen, Colo., gives the soldiers a break from a grueling regimen of surgeries and rehabilitation.

In light of current events, Swerdlov stressed that it also allows people outside of Israel express gratitude for the soldiers’ sacrifices.

“The idea is to give them confidence and hope for the future, so that they realize that people appreciate their sacrifice,” said Swerdlov. “They come back with a whole new look on life and determination for the future.”

One of the soldiers, who goes by the name of Idan, took a bullet straight through his knee during intense fighting in Gaza as part of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead launched in response to a daily barrage of rocket attacks from the Palestinian-controlled territory. Doctors gave the sniper a cast and classified the injury as minor only to discover later that it was far more severe. Idan ended up needing complex surgery to sew pieces of his knee back together.

Today, Idan requires twice-weekly outpatient therapy and walks with a cane. The constant pain and stress has taken its toll, leaving the veteran suffering from depression.

Swerdlov, whose organization most recently coordinated a skiing trip for wounded soldiers to Aspen in March, noted that each time, a local Chabad House has hosted the veterans as guests.

“We’re so happy there are communities around the world who are willing to show these soldiers a good time,” he said.

Wounded Israeli soldier Izzy Ezagui enjoys Australia’s waterways during a 2009 trip.
Wounded Israeli soldier Izzy Ezagui enjoys Australia’s waterways during a 2009 trip.

Rabbi Uriel Vigler, director of the Chabad Israel Center, has been planning this series of events since November. His organization has raised nearly $100,000 to pay for all of the functions, room and board, from a broad swath of supporters in New York.

“They’re showing such amazing support,” said Vigler, a South-African native. “Everybody loves the soldiers. Our community is an Israeli community, and they know what it means to sacrifice a limb or an eye in the army.”

Two major synagogues in the area, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) and Congregation Orach Chaim, are joining in to show their solidarity at a community dessert gathering at Orach Chaim after the close of the Jewish Sabbath on June 12.

“The community is talking about it big time,” said Orach Chaim president Jamie Lassner, “especially in light of recent events. We very much want to support those who fight for the right thing. It’s going to be unbelievable.”

Neta Navon, who attends the Chabad Israel Center with her family, agreed. The 34-year-old Israeli native and mother of two has been helping to plan the trip for months.

“I want these guys to have the time of their lives; they deserve it,” said Navon. “They’re going to have a dream come true here, and for us it’s also going to be very satisfying.”