When the local Friends of the Israel Defense Forces join for a gala dinner on Dec. 11 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the guests of honor will not be a few major donors or civic dignitaries but 30 Israeli soldiers.
"We never honor an individual, only a group of soldiers," said Leo David, founder of the organization's Western regional branch.
The soldiers, male and female, serve in different combat units, and each has lost a relative in war or through terrorist attacks.
They will be hosted for a week by Friends of the IDF (FIDF) as part of its Legacy Program, one of the national organization's many activities to provide some enjoyment and recreation for Israel's defenders.
With Israeli resources strained to assure quality training and equipment for the army, navy and air force, the mission of the FIDF and its Israeli counterpart, the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers, is to provide the extras and comforts to relieve the daily pressures of combat service.
The projects include building recreation clubs, sports centers, synagogues, swimming pools, theaters and libraries. In addition, there are scholarships for veterans, packages for wounded soldiers, financial aid and summer camps for families of fallen soldiers and wide-ranging cultural programs.
Friends of the IDF is the American partner of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers, an independent, non-profit organization that supports social, educational and recreational programs and facilities for the young men and women soldiers of Israel.
The Association is the outgrowth of the Committee for the Welfare of Soldiers, founded in 1942 by David Ben-Gurion. The committee's first order of business was rounding up donations of blankets for the pre-state settlement's fledgling Jewish Brigade.
The association is not subsidized by the government, the Israel Defense Forces or any other body.
Through Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, the association receives funding and other support to carry out its programs. FIDF support includes building, maintaining and operating 17 modern and sophisticated facilities, establishing and renovating hundreds of clubrooms and fitness rooms on IDF bases, and caring for IDF soldiers through a variety of programs.
The Wounded Soldiers Program assists hospitalized soldiers, wounded during terrorists' attacks, operational activities and other circumstances.
The soldiers receive help with such items as personal kits, laptops, cable television, personal and hygiene items, access to armored ambulances, medical simulators, medical transportation vehicles and respiratory devises.
According to FIDF, there are between 14,000-20,000 hospitalized soldiers every year in 15 hospitals in Israel.
The SPIRIT Program provides rest and relaxation facilities to Israel's combat battalions and units. Combat soldiers spend a week at these FIDF-funded facilities, which offer all-inclusive meals and snacks, Air-conditioned rooms with cable TV, swimming pools and saunas, interactive games and dance halls, movies, internet and live performances.
Over 13,500 soldiers benefited from the SPIRIT Program in 2007.
FIDF programs also include mobile gyms, which allow Israeli soldiers and sailors to stay in shape.
Recently initiated is the Adopt a Battalion program, in which an individual or group supports one of the IDF's 130 combat battalions for a three-year period.
At a cost of $25,000 a year, the program underwrites special breaks in the training and fighting routine, such as fun day at a recreational facility, sports day, or a celebration marking the end of the 18-month training period.
Other special events honor outstanding soldiers or marking Rosh Hashanah and Passover observances.
Donors receive regular reports and photos on the progress of the adopted battalion, opportunities to meet with soldiers, and, after three years, a plaque certifying the donor as an honorary member of the battalion.
The Lone Soldier program provides hospitality and support services to the thousands of Israeli soldiers who have no family in Israel.
The FIDF also provides services to the families of soldiers who have fallen in defense of Israel -- nearly 3,000 bereaved individuals benefit from these programs, according to the organization.
Since the state's founding, some 22,500 Israeli soldiers have died in line of duty, and the Legacy for Fallen Soldiers program tries to lighten the burden of the bereaved families.
The program provides vacation and recreation weeks for the widows and children, summer camps for kids, trips to the United States, and special help for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
Legacy offers the bar and bat mitzvah age children of fallen soldiers a 10-day visit to the United States, where they are hosted at local summer camps and travel around the United States. FIDF sponsors all costs, including flights, camp fees, accommodations and entertainment.
Soldiers who continue to serve their country while overcoming the loss of a family member killed in action can also participate in FIDF's Legacy program, which brings both male and female active-duty soldiers to the United States for a period of 10 days. The soldiers can have fun, relax, visit major cities such as New York and Los Angeles, and connect with local Jewish communities. They also have the opportunity to interact with other group members who have also experienced the loss of a family member.
And 30 of these Legacy program soldiers will be the honored guests at FIDF's Dec. 11 gala.
The event will also include music by David Foster, featuring Lionel Richie, Katharine McPhee and Charice, with media mogul and philanthropist Haim Saban, and his wife, Cheryl, serving as dinner co-chairs.
For more information, contact FIDF Executive Director Miri Nash at (310) 305-4063 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Women of the IDF
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