An officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Paratrooper Brigade, Arale Wattenstein was injured during a 2005 operation in the West Bank. The vehicle he was traveling in was going about 50 mph when it was struck by a Molotov cocktail. Wattenstein jumped out when the vehicle caught fire, breaking his spine in three places.
Wattenstein, 29, told his story to a crowd gathered at a Brentwood home on Nov. 14. When he got to the part about his injury, the crowd gasped.
“No, it’s OK,” he said. “I’m great now.”
Wattenstein said he owes much of his recovery to Hope for Heroism (HFH), an Israel-based nonprofit that provides care for Israeli soldiers wounded in combat. Wattenstein spoke as part of an HFH-sponsored visit.
Wounded Israeli soldiers, like wounded soldiers everywhere, have difficulty re-entering society, and HFH encourages soldiers to help other soldiers. By participating in HFH programs, injured soldiers become inspirational leaders, who in turn help other soldiers with recent injuries.
Since its inception in 2008, the organization has served more than 300 soldiers.
HFH’s goals include providing financial aid to wounded soldiers, mentoring, a vocational program to help soldiers start businesses and outreach to the Diaspora.
Ten Israeli soldiers visited Los Angeles Nov. 11-19. Trips like this one allow the soldiers to bond with one another, to form relationships with their Jewish-American host families and to sightsee. Since 2007, delegations have visited New York, New Jersey, Seattle, London, Cape Town and Paris.
“The main purpose is for the soldiers to get a chance to get away from their daily routine of rehabilitation and bond with each other and these families,” said Rabbi Chaim Levine, executive director and co-founder of HFH.
HFH members visit newly injured soldiers while they’re still recuperating in the hospital; they also visit with them in cities when they are trying to reintegrate.
In addition, HFH provides a sports program, a music project, English tutoring, and a support group for soldiers’ spouses and fiancés.
Playing together in sports and collaborating on soldier-initiated arts projects often helps soldiers open up to each other, which aids in the healing process. The soldiers have been through traumatic experiences and often feel that they can only relate to other wounded soldiers.
“No one around me understood me. Not even my closest friends, my family,” said Barak Miron, a former combat medic who was injured during a rescue mission in Lebanon in 1999 and joined HFH only nine months ago.
HFH initially held events in living rooms, at the beach and in rented facilities, but opened its own center, Beit Achim (Hebrew for “House of Brothers”), in Hod HaSharon in 2010. Run by HFH members, the house is a cooperative that features group and individual therapy, tutoring and soldier-initiated projects.
Roy Grylak, another of the soldiers in the L.A. delegation, was shot fives times during the second Lebanon War — in his right leg, right arm, jaw and back. Grilak continues to suffer from nerve damage in his leg. He drops by the HFH center for meals, to rest, to watch TV, swim and even to get massages.
“When I have free time from my studies, I come,” Grylak, 27, said.
HFH was inspired by a trip Levine took to Israel in 2006, during the second Lebanon War. Formerly a director of Jewish organizations in Boston, Toronto and Seattle, Levine traveled to Israel to see how he could help. There, he met Gil Ganonyan, a former team commander in the IDF, who had been wounded in 2004 during operational activity in Bethlehem. As a member of an elite unit, Ganonyan was shot in the neck when he was sent to catch a senior Hamas terrorist.
Visiting Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, Levine watched as Ganonyan, who had been injured only two years earlier, went from hospital bed to hospital bed, reaching out to newly injured soldiers.
A bond developed between Levine and Ganonyan. In 2007, a delegation of soldiers wounded during the second Lebanon War traveled to Seattle, where Levine was living. When the soldiers returned to Israel, Ganonyan and an additional injured IDF officer, Yaniv Leidner, continued reaching out to injured soldiers. This became the two-fold model of the organization: delegations of injured soldiers sent abroad for brief rehabilitative vacations and soldier-to-soldier mentoring back in Israel. The organization registered as a nonprofit in 2008.
Whether their injuries are physical or emotional, any wounded soldier is eligible to join HFH. Currently, the organization is growing at a rate of approximately five soldiers per month, said Levine, who help runs the organization from Seattle. He also officiates many HFH members’ weddings.
Shlomo Lev, one of the participants in the L.A. delegation, didn’t want to discuss how he was injured. Tall, lanky and wearing glasses, Lev said he prefers not to think about it.
But Lev, 31, is happy to talk about how HFH has changed his life. After his injury, he thought life was over and that he wouldn’t make it to the age of 30. HFH gave him the tools to believe in himself. Today, he is studying for a law degree at an Israeli university.
On Nov. 13, the Los Angeles delegation of wounded soldiers gathered at the Malibu Pier. Standing on boulders that overlooked the beach, they took photographs while they chanted the melody of “Seven Nation Army,” a popular song by American band the White Stripes.
Afterward, they headed to the ocean for a surfing lesson under the instruction of Operation Surf, a surfing clinic for wounded and activity-duty military personnel. Members of Shalhevet High School’s surfing club also showed up with snacks and water and cheered the soldiers on.
Between a Lakers game, Universal Studios, Hollywood nightclubs, Venice Beach and Herzog Winery, the group’s week in Los Angeles was jam-packed with some of the best the city has to offer.
But the highlight was the car rides with the other soldiers, Lev said. The time spent traveling with the soldiers and getting to know everyone was his favorite part. Everything else was “a bonus,” he said.
One of five L.A. families to host the delegation — each family hosted two soldiers — the Glaser family was interested in seeing how their adopted soldiers would interact with their own children, particularly their 14-year-old son, whose exposure to war is limited to the “Call of Duty” video game, said Jon Glaser, his father.
“I wanted my kids to get an understanding of what the realities of war are about and also have an understanding, a better understanding, of Israel and the sacrifices that are required by service by all Israelis to the military,” said Glaser, a Brentwood resident who works at an investment management firm.
The host families’ children and the soldiers appeared to hit it off. At the Glasers’ home on the night of Nov. 14, where a reception took place that was attended by all of the soldiers, the host families and friends of the host families, the soldiers were horsing around with several of the American-Jewish children as if they were their own younger brothers.
After dinner at the Glasers’ home, the group of Israeli soldiers came together for a photograph. They called the sons of the host families to come over and join the picture. As had been their habit throughout the trip, the soldiers started chanting the White Stripes song. One of the host family’s sons took out his iPhone and began playing the song.
And as “Seven Nation Army” played, the soldiers and sons sang together.