Organization benefiting veterans gets facelift
Looking back and aheadVolunteers looking to revitalize program with great history

Organization benefiting veterans gets facelift

412 Friends of Zahal is new name for Israel War Disabled Veterans foundation in Pittsburgh.

Sylvia Robinson (crouched, center) with the 1976 class of Israel war veterans, standing outside of the U.S. Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives
Sylvia Robinson (crouched, center) with the 1976 class of Israel war veterans, standing outside of the U.S. Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

New volunteers are making an old communal program familiar again. Last month, Barbara and Sandy Zell hosted an evening dedicated to the revitalization of the Israel War Disabled Veterans foundation in Pittsburgh. The program, which was brought to the Steel City four decades ago by Sylvia Robinson, is now calling itself 412 Friends of Zahal and continues to work with the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization and Beit Halochem as it has done for years, explained Barbara Zell.

Joining Barbara and husband Sandy in shepherding the program are Molly and Justin Braver, Brad Orsini and Ella Ziff.

The group, which took over for Ronna Harris Askin after she led the corps for approximately eight years, is currently working on a “tentative schedule” regarding the springtime visit of Israeli veterans.

Those seeking to join the committee’s efforts are welcome, explained Zell. “The more people we have involved the better it is.”

As of now, the committee is seeking people to house veterans, spend time helping at an event, host a dessert or pizza party, join a committee to plan events, donate a package to an auction, help fundraise or even write a check, said Zell.

There are many ways to help, but there is also one primary reason to do so, explained Sandy Zell.

“Israel is the only country that would accept us as Jews, no questions asked,” said the co-committee chair. “We are a matchbox in a football stadium, and Israel is still maintaining their democracy and freedom.”

The relationship is somewhat similar to an insurance policy, he explained. “If anything would happen in our country, we have a place to go, and these are the guys fighting to make sure that insurance policy stays in place.”

“These are the people who are protecting Israel,” echoed Orsini, who is the director of security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “They are protecting the homeland.”

About six months after Orsini, a former FBI agent, came to the Federation, he was introduced to the veterans program.

“I had the privilege to speak with a lot of these veterans,” he said. “As a Marine it was an honor.”

Such lasting effects were attested to by Sylvia Robinson, who established the program in Pittsburgh nearly 40 years ago, in an August 12, 1996 recording with the National Council of Jewish Women.

Robinson recalled how she was introduced to the program after visiting Switzerland with her husband Donald. She remarked that if Geneva could host such a program with only a Jewish population of 5,000 then certainly Pittsburgh, with a population of 40,000 Jews, could do the same.

Throughout the interview, Robinson highlighted her involvements in other communal endeavors, but saved extraordinary praise for Israel’s disabled veterans.

Committee members for 412 Friends of Zahal: (Top row) Ella Ziff and Brad Orsini; (Middle row) Barbara Zell and Molly Braver; (Bottom row) Sandy Zell and Justin Braver. Photo courtesy of Sandy Zell

When the first veterans arrived the initial families who agreed to host deserved a tremendous amount of credit for participating, she said, since “they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.”

What those first volunteers discovered though was that it was an incredible opportunity to connect.

“The last day we took them to New York for the day, and to see them off for the night, and at the airport here in Pittsburgh everybody was crying, everybody was hugging and kissing,” Robinson said in the interview. “I turned to Chantze Butler, she was one of the families, I turned to Chantze and said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life because it moved people so much.’”

Robinson passed away Oct. 11, 2018.

Shortly thereafter, Robinson’s daughter, Carol, received “a number of notes” from people who the mother had met and befriended because of the program. One of the messages related how an Israeli veteran had come to Pittsburgh years earlier. He had become friendly with his host family so much that the host family’s daughter visited his family when she went to Israel.

Lo and behold, while the daughter was there, she fell in love with someone in the veteran’s family. They married and now live in Israel.

“It’s not what the program was designed for, but it speaks to the many kinds of relationships that were made because of these visits,” said Carol Robinson.

The fact that there is this renewed interest is “just a wonderful tribute to my mother’s efforts,” she added. “The same things that were meaningful to her, and the same connections, still resonate with members of our community.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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