As the black SUVs pulled up to the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy on West Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills, a star-struck reception began. More than 500 students waved miniature Israeli flags and sang “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” Twelve Israeli soldiers, in their olive and powder-blue uniforms, entered the campus under a wreath of blue and white balloons. They were quickly rushed by children who wanted hugs and high-fives from the soldiers, and to pose for pictures with them.
“This is a very special moment for our kids,” said Chevi Rimler, a staff member at the school, which includes pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The soldiers were at the school as part of a weeklong visit to Los Angeles sponsored by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides an array of social, educational and economic services to soldiers and their families. Besides a whirlwind of kosher dinners, private parties and school appreciation days for all grade levels and across the region, the main purpose of the soldiers’ L.A. trip was to be honored at the FIDF’s Western Region gala on Oct. 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
It was an emotional first visit to America for Anastasia Bagdalov, a 21-year-old deputy commander medic from Tel Aviv. The trip offered some respite from the tension Bagdalov faces on duty. She recalled how, two years ago, she and fellow soldiers survived a terrorist attack on an army bus at the Israel-Egypt border. Bagdalov subsequently received military commendation for assisting wounded passengers and for saving the life of a badly injured soldier.
“When I come to places like this … I am speechless,” she said, seeming to be overwhelmed by the school’s warm reception. The soldiers ate lunch with students, and the youngsters presented them with challahs they had baked.
Among the excited students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy on Oct. 24 was 13-year-old Avi Weinreb. He spoke at his school’s presentation about his bar mitzvah project to raise money for FIDF’s Lone Soldiers Program, which aids foreign-born soldiers with no immediate family in Israel. “I wanted to help in whatever way I could to help these volunteer soldiers have an easier time while defending our homeland. It was the least I could do to show my gratitude,” Avi said.
The Lone Soldiers Program is one of the many programs provided by the FIDF. Founded in 1981 by Holocaust survivors, the FIDF finances scholarships; offers soldiers vouchers for basic necessities; helps to pay for prosthetics for wounded veterans; and provides educational training, recreational retreats, spiritual services and more. The FIDF also hosts programs for bereaved families and builds facilities such as housing, sports centers and synagogues.
“The FIDF does not supply the IDF with arms; the State of Israel does that. We take care of them,” said Miri Nash, the group’s Western Region executive director. The Western Region gala, attended by 1,100 people, was the culmination of a yearlong national campaign that raised more than $20 million, Nash said.
Also in the delegation visiting Los Angeles were L.A.-born Tamir Lerner, 22, and brother Addee, 19, who came as a secret and surprised their parents when they appeared at the gala. Tamir Lerner, a corporal combat solider stationed on the Gaza border, said he feels like a tourist in his own hometown. “I haven’t been in L.A for a year and four months, and we get on the 405 freeway, and I’m getting excited,” he said.
He described his appreciation to FIDF for giving soldiers “things to brighten our day,” while on duty, including towels, neck warmers and chocolates. Another member of the delegation, who has served as a drone pilot captain for seven years and who cannot be named for security purposes, said he also felt grateful for contributions made by the FIDF.
“It’s wonderful to see that some people were thinking about you, care for you,” the captain said.
During the assembly, Harkham Hillel Academy students asked the soldiers how often they got to see their families, what food is like on base, what they do for fun and if they were nervous when they first joined the army.
Shira Razi, 13, later said she was inspired by the soldiers’ visit. “I didn’t know they were so passionate about their jobs and so happy in protecting Israel,” she said.