For Meir Elhadad and seven other Israeli war veterans, the recently concluded trip to Pittsburgh and other American cities was a much-welcomed respite.
It could even become a life-altering experience.
Elhadad was the leader of an eight-member group of Israelis — six men, two women, one Druze, seven Jews — visiting this country on the annual two week-trip sponsored by the American Friends of Israel War Disabled Inc. (AFIWD).
All the participants were somehow wounded in the service of their country, Elhadad said. “Some were wounded in battle, some in regular action — accidents and other stuff.”
One participant was Israel’s equivalent of a Navy Seal. Elhadad, a 53-year-old lawyer from Tel Aviv, served as a paratrooper in the IDF.
But no matter where they served or how they were wounded, he said this annual trip is a respite from the “tension” of life in Israel
“They are always around the political tension in Israel, and they don’t have a getaway,” Elhadad said. “This program is that miracle. All of a sudden, they can leave everything [behind]; they don’t have to take care of anything; they have no worries. They live in these with people who take care of them. It’s like a window to another life. For some it can change their lives.
He offered one example of a participant from a previous trip, a man Elhadad said was “frozen in life.” The trip permitted him to rest, think and imagine his life taking another direction.
“He came home went to law school,” Elhadad said. His mother said she found her son again. This is what it (the trip) does.”
During the two-week trip, each of the eight veterans was paired with a Pittsburgh family. They visited sites, joined activities and traveled to Buffalo, where they saw nearby Niagra Falls, and Lancaster, where they visited Amish country.
Ronna Harris Askin, president of the organization, said many families continue to stay in touch with the vets they hosted.
“I just returned from Israel and met with two of our past vets. [We] spent an afternoon at Beit HaLochem, the facility that selects and prepares the vets to be in the delegation. We took a wonderful tour and spent time with Todd Holblum, the director of the program in Tel Aviv. There are also Beit HeLochems in Beer Sheva and Haifa. … It provides all sorts of social and emotional and medical support. That is a whole other story.”
Elhadad said his team grew very close during the trip. They shared videos and photos of their host families and communicated constantly when they were away from one another.
Upon their return to Israel, “each and every one of us is filing a report,” he said. “As the leader of the delegation have to file a report about everything: the hosts, the people we met, the structure of the tour and so on. It’s more of a testimony than a report. Then we read it and learn what we have to do to improve.”
In addition to Elhadad, this year’s Israeli delegation included Alona Brigg, Eliyao Hackman, Arie Zaken, Yossi Makladah, Hertzel Aloni, Keren Graff and Shmulik Peretz.
Their host families in Pittsburgh were Jim and Maureen Busis (with their children, Ethan, Hannah and Abigail); Max Levine and Hilary Spatz; Brian Cohen and Ilyssa Manspeizer (with their children, Jacob, Tal, Gili and Ori); Alan and Lauren Mallinger; Helen and Richard Feder; Paul and Jean Reznick; Barry and Beth Josowitz (with their children, Alex, Torey and Shayna); and Dr. Pinchas and Aviva Rosenberg (with their children, Jonah, Eli and Liam).
Cheryl Blumenfeld and Nancy and Morry Cohen were the program coordinators for this year’s visit.
The American Friends of Israel War Disabled Inc. is a nonprofit program, which has been working in Pittsburgh for 36 years.
Pittsburgh area families, including Donald and Sylvia Robinson, started the program here after Sylvia Robinson saw a similar effort in Switzerland, according to Harris Askin.
The program selects eight veterans a year to make the trip. One year, the entire delegation consisted of veterans in wheelchairs.
Each year the program costs approximately $25,000, with all funds raised through families involved in the program.
“We exist solely on donations,” Harris Askin said. “Host families from the past each receive a solicitation letter in about February each year. Families send in the money. It is truly remarkable. We get a few larger checks from a few foundations. … Most other donations are about $100 to $180. It is remarkable that we can do this, but I send the letter and the money comes.”
She said 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.
Elhadad, who has led previous delegations for AFIWD, said he was impressed by Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh is another planet,” he said. “Everything is clean. And we were luckly that this time we came in spring. Everything is blooming and blossoming and people are nice. We met the Israeli community … we’re having fun.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)