The American Friends of Israel War Disabled Inc. has been hosting trips to the United States since 1975, but this year the trip was different.
For the first time in the program’s history, the Israeli war veterans on the trip, which concluded this week, were all in wheelchairs.
“We did not know if the veterans in wheelchairs would be able to make the trip to the United States,” said Sandy Kushner, overall chairperson of the program.
Her fears were put to rest immediately as the veterans were eager to do every activity planned throughout the weeks they were here.
“They do not have the words ‘no’ or ‘can’t’ in their vocabulary,” Kushner said. “It is simply amazing.”
The American Friends of Israel War Disabled Inc. is a non-profit program, which has been working in Pittsburgh for 33 years. Each year the program costs approximately $25,000, with all funds raised through families involved in the program.
“Every year we send out a letter to all the families that have been involved in our program,” said Ronna Harris, program chair. “And every family makes at least some sort of donation.”
The veterans selected for the program must meet certain criteria. Candidates must have more than 50 percent of their disability related to war injuries or injuries received in police service.
This year, four veterans were chosen, and a caregiver accompanied each. This year, the veterans this year were Arnon Amit, Reezak Salach, Hagat Zahavi and Moshe Elbaz. Their caregivers were Matan Shemer, Abdu’ El Karim Salach, Moshe Zahavi and Abraham Elbaz.
In past years, veterans were selected because of brain injuries or post-traumatic stress from war. Kushner visited Israel this past year and stayed with a group of Israelis who were confined to wheelchairs. She thought they would be the perfect group to bring on this year’s trip.
Traditionally, veterans on this program would be partnered with host families during their stay in Pittsburgh. But because most homes are not wheelchair accessible, the veterans were provided living quarters through the Family House program.
The Family House program provides housing for families that come to Pittsburgh to seek medical care.
“The Family House was more than willing to host our families for a reduced rate,” Harris said.
Harris, who will take over the program from Kushner next year, said that they would not pursue another group comprised entirely of veterans in wheelchairs.
“There is something wonderful to be gained from families hosting,” Harris said. “We do not want to let that slip away.”
The program offers many activities for the veterans while they are in Pittsburgh. Activities included a trip to Buffalo, a ride on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, an overnight stay at Emma Kaufmann Camp, a night at PNC Park to see a Pirates game and a trip to the Zoo.
“We didn’t miss a beat in this year’s program,” Kushner said.
Veteran Arnon Amit, who was injured in a car accident, spent his 22nd birthday a Pirates game, and was given birthday wishes from the Pirate parrot.
“It was really special for me,” Amit said.
Caregiver Moshe Zahavi, who is himself in a wheelchair, could not pick a specific event that stuck out in his mind.
“I feel the best part of the trip is the people not the place,” he said.
Zahavi could barely hold back his emotion as he attempted to express his gratitude.
“My words are little, but my heart is big for this program,” he said. “I have never wanted someone to do something for me, but everyone has been so great.”
Zahavi’s wife Hagat, who was injured in a car accident as well, echoed her husband’s sentiment.
“Everyone here is like a diamond,” she said. “One thing was that I ate way too much food; everyone invited you to lunches and dinners.”
(Brandt Gelman can be reached at email@example.com.)