A delegation of 12 disabled IDF veterans took off for New York last week in the framework of a special tour sponsored by the humanitarian organization Belev Echad, with the goal of offering the soldiers an opportunity for emotional respite during the drawn-out process of returning to life.
“Our purpose is to give these heroes a break, to show them the world-famous sites and attractions in the Big Apple, and to embrace them in the love of the local Jewish community in order to furnish them with the strength to return to life,” the organization explained.
The mission has another, broader, objective – it’s also about sharing the experience of an Israeli civilian and soldier defending his people and homeland, and educating Americans to the truth of what is really transpiring in Israel.
“During the course of the 10 days our soldiers meet thousands of people from our community who are moved by the sacrifices our soldiers have made. The soldiers touch people’s hearts in an unimaginable way. Belev Echad – which in English means ‘With one heart’ isn’t just a slogan, but a way of life,” said Shevy Vigler, who co-founded Belev Echad with her husband Rabbi Uriel Vigler.
This tour was guided by Doron Akiva, 25, a resident of Petach Tikva, who fought valiantly to protect his country and barely made it home.
Like most Israelis, Akiva was 18 when he was drafted in 2014 into the elite Rimon commando unit. He was trained as a sniper and served as a squad leader.
Following two-and-a-half years in service, and following a period of operations in the Judea and Samaria, the unit was transferred in March 2017 to the Qalandia refugee camp, situated just north of Jerusalem.
“We were on a mission to nab a terrorist, and I was stationed at the entrance of the house,” Akiva recounted. “I was guarding from outside to ensure that the coast was clear, and while I covered for my unit, they managed to arrest the terrorist we were after.”
“As soon as the prisoner was in custody, we began hearing noises from every direction, and a terrorist ambushed me from a roof of one of the nearby houses and dropped a cinderblock on my head from a height of four floors. I lost consciousness, but somehow, was still aware of what was going on. My eyes were closed, but I could feel and hear everything around me, and I was aware that I was lying on the floor, unable to move,” he remembers.
“As soon as the cinderblock made contact with my head, the terrorist lifted another block to finish me off, but at the last second, my buddy Guy ran toward me and dragged me out of death’s path and underneath a protruding roof to protect me. It’s only because of Guy’s quick thinking and action that I’m alive to tell this tale, because even with it, I barely made it,” he said.
“Unfortunately he wasn’t entirely fast enough, because a second later, the second cinderblock crashed onto my foot. When I came to a few minutes later, I was not sure what happened. My comrades wanted to take me in a stretcher, but I was scared that the extra time it would take them to evacuate me would leave us susceptible to another assault, so I somehow pulled myself to my feet and, assisted by my friends, evacuated the area. My body was one mass of agony. My neck was exploding in pain, and I couldn’t move my left hand, but I still had no idea how badly I’d been wounded,” he shared.
“After an hour and a half of walking, we crossed the [security] fence, and I was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital where I was subjected to a slew of tests and medical treatments, where they soon revealed that three of my neck vertebrae were torn,” he said.
Following a difficult period spent lying motionless in the hospital followed by another four months at home in bed, Akiva commenced intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, which lasted for about a year and a half until he was able to regain most functions.
“Most,” he stressed. |Because in the aftermath of my injury, I lost my capacity to compete in martial arts matches which meant the end of my lifelong dream of being an Olympic champion. It was odd because, after all that I’d endured, this realization was what truly crushed me. My dreams had vanished in a puff of smoke, or more crudely, a dropped cinderblock.”
The organization that helped him emerge from his depression was Belev Echad. In July 2018, Doron was invited to join a group of wounded IDF veterans to New York, in the course of which he met Rabbi Vigler, “who showered him with warmth and admiration and opened his heart and home to him, letting Doron know that he could still go far in life.”
“Rabbi Vigler taught me that disabled people like me can still live our dreams. Maybe not the ones we always thought, but other new and meaningful ones. Most of all, he taught me never to give up hope,” said Akiva.
“Belev Echad is actively involved in helping these IDF soldiers rehabilitate in a nurturing, emotional and spiritual way. These trips, hosted by many in the NYC Jewish community, provide the soldiers with a memorable, meaningful adventure that remains with them for life. We’re so proud of what they do to help safeguard our country, and the trip is one way for us to express that appreciation,” says Yossi Nasser, Belev Echad Board Member.
After Doron and his new buddies returned to Israel, Belev Echad stayed in touch. Today, Doron directs the sports department and mixed martial arts at the Belev Echad center in Israel. After experiencing the trips himself and witnessing the long-term benefits in his own life, he has also started leading new groups of injured IDF veterans to New York, teaching them by personal example and witnessing the rehabilitative effect of the journey on the soldiers time and again.
This week, Doron had his group of veterans toured the Stock Exchange and Statue of Liberty, drove around in Lamborghinis, and were treated to a luxury helicopter tour.
Belev Echad hosted them along with 300 guests for an elaborate Shabbat dinner, and over 1,000 will be joining for the upcoming Purim parties.
In the course of the most recent trip, the veterans met with the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan.
“Every time I meet with these heroes, my heart bursts in feeling and love of our dear soldiers,” Erdan said. “I told them, that the State of Israel owes you a huge debt of gratitude, and I’ll continue doing everything in the international arena to protect you and the IDF’s freedom of action. You’re an inspiration to us all!”