It’s a long way from the battlefields of Lebanon, where Haran Yaffe almost lost his life, to the Westside campus of Vista del Mar, where a class of high school students with emotional, developmental and learning problems assembled last week to listen to the former Israeli soldier and up-and-coming composer/singer.
Yaffe quickly leaped across the gap, recognizing a common struggle between himself and the 150 students, all of them overcoming the odds to lead normal and productive lives.
“If you want anything enough, you can get it,” Yaffe said, to the applause of the audience.
In the summer of 2006, when the Second Lebanon War started, Yaffe, now 27, volunteered to join his old unit of combat engineers, and on Aug. 10 his luck ran out.
The convoy of tanks and armored carriers in which he was riding came under withering fire, and he and his commanding officer became trapped in a burning tank.
Comrades defied the hail of bullets and shells to rescue the two men, but when Yaffe arrived at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the doctors took one look at his shrapnel-riddled body, which he described as “road kill,” and gave him only the slightest outside chance to survive.
Nevertheless, the doctors tried a series of innovative surgeries and were able to save his life, but that was only the beginning of Yaffe’s fight to resume his career as a composer, pop singer and guitarist.
“For a year, I was held together by pins, I got a new stomach muscle, and it took me 18 months before I could move the fingers of one hand,” he told the group.
Yaffe demonstrated how far he had come by unzipping his guitar case, pulling out his instrument and singing his own hit composition “Boker b’ Tel Aviv” (Morning in Tel Aviv), followed by Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Almost instantly, the teenagers in the audience started grooving and clapping to the tune, and when the question period began, hands popped up all over Vista del Mar’s chapel.
“What gave you the courage to go on?” one boy asked, while others wanted to know what was the lowest point of his life (“When I was told that I couldn’t play the guitar anymore”), his favorite singer (“Frank Sinatra,” to the groans of the audience) and how does he feel now (“I get some blank spots when I try to think”).
Later, Yaffe talked to The Journal about his background and present career. He mentioned his grandfather, who was one of the few fighters to survive the Warsaw Ghetto revolt; his current music studies in New York; and his soon-to-be-released first album.
By now a polished public speaker, Yaffe travels frequently around the United States on behalf of Beit Holochem, the Israeli disabled veterans organization, and to wounded American soldiers back from Iraq.
While in Los Angeles, he also spoke and performed at Kadima Hebrew Academy, Israeli Remembrance Day services, UC Irvine and at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood.
Asked about his motto for life, he pointed to a small disc hanging around his neck with the inscription, “You Only Live Once, But If You Live Right, Once Is Enough.”
Vista del Mar opened in 1909 as the Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California and will kick off its centennial celebration on June 7.
Last year, its affiliated organizations — Vista del Mar Child & Family Services, Reiss-Davis Child Study Center, Julia Ann Singer Center, Home-SAFE and Family Services of Santa Monica — provided care, schooling and counseling for more than 5,000 children and their families.
Vista del Mar receives the bulk of its income through county, state and federal agencies, but relies on private contributions, overwhelmingly from Jewish givers, for its operations and capital improvements. A $25 million major gift campaign is currently under way.