As they have done for 40 years, a group of local residents are opening their arms and homes to visiting Israeli disabled veterans. Through May 19, members of 412 Friends of Zahal (formerly known as Israel War Disabled Veterans foundation in Pittsburgh) will serve as hosts, local tour guides and friends to eight visiting veterans.
“It’s the least we can do to bring them over and let them have an American experience,” said Sandy Zell, chair of 412 Friends of Zahal.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh on May 5, the vets have visited Mt. Washington, Pamela’s, Grove City Premium Outlets, Zone 28, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Community Day School and Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh.
A casual kickoff to their two-week Pittsburgh stay occurred on May 5 at Congregation Beth Shalom with a dinner attended by community members, program supporters, Mayor Bill Peduto and
Chief of Staff Dan Gilman.
“First and foremost, to the Israeli veterans that are here in Pittsburgh, welcome. You’re our friends, and we want to be able to say thank you not only for the work that you’ve done in Israel, but for helping to keep this bond between Israel and the United States strong,” said Peduto.
In remarks to the group, Peduto referenced how he first traveled to the Jewish state two months earlier and the incredible welcome he received.
“There is a bond between Israel and Pittsburgh that is strong, and it’s a bond that basically was strengthened through tragedy. When you say you’re from Pittsburgh to anyone in Israel, there’s an immediate outreach,” he said.
Israelis value Pittsburgh’s singular response to Oct. 27, he added, and moving forward, with “actions that you’re taking tonight, through generosity and compassion, love and understanding,” Pittsburghers can continue demonstrating that bond so that other cities will follow.
Attending last week’s meetup was important to the mayor “for a couple of reasons.”
“Number one is I was asked, so when somebody reaches out and and asks if you can stop up the street to welcome a group of veterans who are visiting from Israel, it’s pretty much just a reasonable request. But the second reason is Pittsburgh’s still in mourning and we have to get back to normal. This has been something that’s been a part of this community for 41 years, and it needs to be enhanced. You got to find positive to take away negative and so I had to be here.”
412 Friends of Zahal has a tradition dating back from Ronna Harris to Sandy Kushner to Sylvia Robinson of welcoming veterans, explained Zell. The group’s hope is to be “bigger, better and stronger” than ever before.
Shalom Katar, a visiting vet who served in the Six Day War, said he was greatly impressed with Pittsburgh and its residents.
“I think we will have a really nice time here,” he said.
Ira Frank, of Squirrel Hill, hopes so. Being able to develop a “personal connection and to thank them,” is what this experience is about, he said.
“We want to show them how strong, resilient and wonderful our community is,” echoed Brad Orsini, a 412 Friends of Zahal committee member.
On May 7, the vets spoke with seventh- and eighth-grade students at Community Day School and shared stories relating to military service, what life is like in Israel and connections with the United States. Following the conversation, a group of eighth-grade docents guided the vets through the school’s iconic memorial, the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture.
Two days later, the vets celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) by helping break out color war at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh.
During an elementary and middle school assembly, school principal Rabbi Sam Weinberg announced that Israel’s birthday would be marked by a comprehensive lecture on the history of its wars from those who served. The vets played along and two minutes into what seemed to be an unending oration, their address was interrupted by a video announcing the start of a school-wide celebration (complete with a schnitzel lunch).
Being able to welcome the vets and show them Pittsburgh was personally meaningful, explained Zell.
“Israel is our home,” he said, “and no matter what happens in the world, Israel will always accept you as a Jew.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.