When you live in Israel, serving in the army is part of the fabric of life. But woven into that complex tapestry is the knowledge that too many citizens have paid the ultimate price in order to protect their homeland. Those they leave behind are submerged in grief and sorrow, left with the daunting task of making their shattered lives whole again while wondering how to move forward after their devastating loss.
The IDF Widows & Orphans Organization (IDFWO) was created in 1991 to represent the survivors of fallen soldiers, many of whom find themselves experiencing feelings of isolation and abandonment.
The only such organization recognized by the state of Israel and the Ministry of Defense, IDFWO’s support network provides services to orphans, widows and widowers of those who died while serving their country in the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, and the Israel Police.
Located in the center of Israel in Givat Shmuel with numerous branches all over the country, IDFWO works with over 8,000 widows and orphans, helping them navigate their way through the many significant milestones of life.
First graders are given backpacks filled with essentials when they start school, while IDFWO celebrates bar and bat mitzvahs in gala style with a roster of impressive dignitaries, including the president of Israel and the minister of defense. Young adults who begin their army service do so with a full supply kit given to them by IDFWO and upon completion of their army time receive university scholarships.
The hundreds of IDFWO orphans who get married each year receive a generous financial gift from the organization enabling them to begin their new life with a little something extra in their wallets.
“We are there for all of those milestones,” explained Yuval Lipkin, executive director of the IDFWO. “We know that we can’t possibly fill the void left behind by the death of a parent but we do whatever we can to let them know that we are them for them, every step of the way.”
IDFWO has an annual budget of about 10 million NIS with 20 percent coming from the Ministry of Defense and an equal amount paid in by widows and widowers as a membership fee. Friends of the IDF and Keren L’Yedidut are instrumental in helping IDFWO carry out its mission of providing emotional and financial aid and creating a strong support network to IDF widows, widowers, and orphans.
The organization has just seven paid employees but scores of volunteers who agree to a minimum three-year commitment with IDFWO.
“The connection our volunteers build with our widows and orphans is extremely important,” said Lipkin. “We tell our volunteers up front that they cannot come for just one year because the people we are helping have already lost someone they love so we can’t have volunteers just coming and going.”
Otzma camps give children who have lost a parent a wonderful opportunity to be with others just like themselves while having plenty of fun. Children ages six to 18 enjoy four to five exciting days of entertainment on Pesach, Sukkos, Chanukah, and during the summer in an environment that focuses completely on them and allows them to build lifelong friendships.
“There are plenty of activities but the most important thing is that they are together and they all speak the same language,” said Lipkin.
“Here everyone is an orphan so no one stands out because they have only one parent. This is the one place where they can really be themselves.”
Knowing their children are well cared for while in camp gives single parents a well-deserved respite.
“A mother can have four or five days off to do whatever she wants to do,” noted Lipkin. “In this case, one plus one equals four, not two, because everyone benefits.”
In addition to hosting magnificent bar and bat mitzvahs in Jerusalem where youngsters mark their milestone moment with their peers, friends, and family, IDFWO also takes children who are coming of age on a three-week trip to North America.
“This year we are starting in Chicago then going for a weekend in Toronto, followed by a visit to Niagara Falls before we finally finish up in New York,” said Lipkin. “During the trip they see all the attractions, and the American families who host them really embrace them, reminding the children that they are never alone.”
A Europe leadership seminar for teens ages 16 to 18 is another once in a lifetime opportunity for kids of IDFWO. In addition to spending a week in Europe and learning about the Jewish roots that run deep in so many cities, participants have an opportunity to delve into their own Jewish identity while also acquiring valuable leadership skills.
But while IDFWO runs many programs for the youngest victims of loss, widows and widowers are also the beneficiaries of its efforts.
An annual widow’s retreat gives participants a five-day escape from the harsh realities of life while enjoying trips, lectures, workshops, and professional entertainment. Sharing a vacation with others in similar situations offers a multitude of benefits with participants typically returning home refreshed and rejuvenated.
An adopt-a-widow program pairs up new widows with those who have already been in their shoes for various lengths of time, and medical and financial grants alleviate some of the financial burdens that come with the loss of a spouse.
Other projects include one-day getaways and a singing group that meets weekly, giving IDFWO family members of all ages opportunities to recharge their batteries while engaging in healthy recreational outlets.
Lipkin said that as long as the need continues to exist, IDFWO will continue “giving 110 percent” for orphans, widows and widowers, helping them navigate every step of a difficult journey.
“In the moment of tragedy we are there from the very beginning, embracing them and supporting them,” said Lipkin. “It is as if they have fallen into a big hole where there is nothing but blackness, but we are there to take them from the darkness to a new dawn.”