Tyler Hochman describes his effort to send 280 wheelchairs to Israel with a metaphor.

“I’m picturing myself as a little snowball,” says the 13-year-old resident of Beverly Hills, Calif. “And I’m going to grow, get more people involved, keep getting more people to help, and eventually my little snowball … is going to help the entire world.”

It all started with a wish to do something meaningful for his Bar Mitzvah. In the end, Hochman raised $42,000 and enlisted organizations on two continents to his cause: the American Wheelchair Mission, Chabad-Lubavitch of California, and the Chabad Terror Victims Project in Israel.

Hochman came to the American Wheelchair Mission through his father, Nathan Hochman, a former assistant U.S. attorney who met the organization’s director, Chris Lewis. A visit to the non-profit’s website sold the teenager on the idea of aiding individuals’ mobility.

“What really hooked me was that they don’t help one person, they help 10 people,” said Tyler, pointing out that the donation of a single wheelchair has a profound impact not just on its rider, but on his or her family and community as well.

According to the organization, more than 100 million people in the world are in need of wheelchairs, but cannot afford them.

But Hochman also wanted to help out the Holy Land.

“I felt a connection to my homeland,” said the Brentwood School eighth grader.

A partner at Hochman’s father’s law firm, suggested Chabad of California, and Rabbi Chaim Cunin arranged to have the wheelchairs distributed throughout Israel by the Chabad Terror Victims Project.

“Some of these people had wheelchairs that were broken or falling apart, and some were waiting for someone like Tyler to come along and help them,” said Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, associate director of the Chabad Terror Victims Project.

Hochman thought up the wheelchair distribution as a socially-responsible way to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.
Hochman thought up the wheelchair distribution as a socially-responsible way to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.

Hand-Delivered Hope

A wheelchair typically costs about $500, but the American Wheelchair Mission purchases them in bulk, reducing per unit cost to $150. It then ships them out by ocean freight.

Hochman, who donated 20 percent of his Bar Mitzvah money to the project, raised the rest of the funds by creating a video, “A Little Snowball,” about the ambitious plan and sending it to family, friends, businesses and philanthropic organizations. The wheelchair mission arranged for Hochman to personally deliver several wheelchairs to Los Angeles residents, so that viewers could get an idea of how each contribution affected lives.

One of those who benefitted from Hochman’s L.A. distribution was Vietnam veteran Lon Arotsky.

This summer, Hochman and his family flew to Israel to distribute the wheelchairs with Swerdlov. The rabbi dubbed the chairs “Hoch-Mobiles” and took the family to hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes and private homes throughout the country. Israel’s Channel 2 covered the project on its local news program.

Lewis, the son of actor Jerry Lewis and the grandson of a rabbi, went along for the trip, his first to Israel. The project also represented the first time that he and Cunin collaborated together on a program, although he’s been a supporter and friend for years.

“I don’t know why it took me 52 years to get to Israel,” said Lewis. “It was phenomenal.”

Hochman visited the hard-hit Negev Desert city of Sderot, where he presented a wheelchair to a man who lost his leg in a Palestinian rocket attack.

“That was my greatest feeling of joy, when I saw that I gave this man hope again and told him there will be people there to help you,” said Hochman.

The youth pointed out to those watching this year’s West Coast Chabad Telethon that Israeli Arabs also benefited from the wheelchairs.

“It seems that all that stuff that comes out in the news is really negative, but I wish they’d take the time to see we don’t hate our neighbors,” said Hochman. “We welcome them and give them help when they need it.”

“He’s a tremendous kid with a special energy and a special spirit,” said Cunin. “This mitzvah continues to inspire people in many ways to do something out of ordinary to help someone.”