For head of IDF Widows and Orphans group, Yom Kippur a reminder of a love lost
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For head of IDF Widows and Orphans group, Yom Kippur a reminder of a love lost

Tami Shelach, chairperson of organization that represents families of fallen soldiers, struggles to discuss her husband, a pilot who was shot down and killed over Egypt in the war 43 years ago

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Tami Shelach, chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, left, alongside an undated photograph of her deceased husband, fighter pilot Ehud Shelach, who was killed during the Yom Kippur War. (IDFWO)
Tami Shelach, chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, left, alongside an undated photograph of her deceased husband, fighter pilot Ehud Shelach, who was killed during the Yom Kippur War. (IDFWO)

For Tami Shelach, the head of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, Yom Kippur is a time of heightened emotions and remembrance.

It’s not the holiday, the fasting and introspection; 43 years after the October war in 1973, the highest of Jewish holy days is a reminder of the husband she lost so long ago.

“Even two months before Yom Kippur, I’m already in this mood. That’s just how it is,” she told Time Times of Israel.

Shelach’s husband, pilot Lt. Col. Ehud Shelach, was shot down and killed over Egypt during the first days of the conflict. Speaking about him more than 40 years later, in the comfort of her office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Shmuel, still brings tears to her eyes and forces her to leave the room to regain her composure.

“When you start talking about it, you get thrown back into that time. There’s nothing that you can do. It’s not easy,” she said.

Children from the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of Israels Memorial Day in his office on May 9, 2016. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Children from the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of Israels Memorial Day in his office on May 9, 2016. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Earlier this year, Shelach took over as head of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, a group that provides material and emotional support to the orphans and widows (and widowers) of fallen soldiers from the IDF, as the name would suggest, but also from every security and defense agency in Israel — the Israel Police, Border Police, Shin Bet security service, Mossad and Israel Prison Service.

It maintains close ties with the Defense Ministry, which supplies approximately 20 percent of its budget, and regularly runs events with Israel’s president, prime minister and army chief of staff.

IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz teaches an IDF orphan how to put on tefilin for the first time at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, in an undated photograph. (courtesy)
IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz teaches an IDF orphan how to put on tefilin for the first time at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, in an undated photograph. (courtesy)

For instance, a mass bar mitzvah event in Jerusalem for orphans later this month is set to be attended by President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Yet Shelach says her goal is to focus not on the large projects, which have been running for decades, but to help the aging widows of Israel’s earlier wars, many of whom now live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

“Our widows have aged. Widows from the Yom Kippur War were once young, but we’ve gotten older,” Shelach said.

“People think now that their kids are out of the house, their needs have gotten less, but that’s not the case, they’ve gotten larger,” she said.

For Shelach, of course, the desire to help war widows is a personal one.

Two sides of the same base

Sitting in a modern office chair at her organization’s conference table, Shelach recalled falling in love with her husband in the 1960s.

Ehud Shelach was born in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in central Israel, but his family later moved to Tel Mond, east of Netanya on the coastal plain. Tami and Ehud first met in school — he was a year older than her — and then they met again at the Tel Nof base in central Israel, which was and remains home to both an Israeli Air Force base and the paratrooper’s Center for Flight and Special Training.

Her husband was a fighter pilot on the air base, she served on the paratrooper’s side, folding parachutes. (Until today, this process is done by hand.)

After they got married in 1964, Shelach moved into the base’s family housing.

By 1973, her husband had become commander of a fighter squadron in the air force. After moving between different air bases, they were again living in Tel Nof.

‘It was in October, we didn’t know what to pack. Clothes for the winter? Clothes for the summer?’

Out of concern that the Arab armies would attack Israel’s army bases, the air force instructed Shelach and the other spouses of the pilots and officers living on the base to pack up their belongings so they could be transported to safety, she said.

“It was in October, we didn’t know what to pack. Clothes for the winter? Clothes for the summer? We didn’t know how long we’d be away from home,” she said.

“Not every war is six days,” Shelach said, referring to the 1967 war.

Shelach, along with a friend, went to her parents’ house in Even Yehuda, outside Netanya.

‘When he turned and looked at me, he didn’t have to say a word.’

 

Both Shelach and her friend were the wives of pilots, so when the head of the air force’s human resource department walked up to the house on October 10, it wasn’t immediately clear who would be receiving the bad news.

“We were sitting on my parents’ porch. The kids were on the playground. We both saw the military car pull up. Each of us thought that it was her husband, coming to visit. But then suddenly the head of human resources came out of the car. We each thought, are they coming to tell her or to tell me?” she said.

“When he turned and looked at me, he didn’t have to say a word.”

‘Hit by an Egyptian missile’

On the fourth day of the war, Ehud Shelach had flown on a mission near the city of Suez, next to the eponymous canal, as part of a counterattack at the Mezach outpost, where Egyptians had been pounding Israeli forces.

“And he was hit by an Egyptian missile,” she said.

The army knew that Ehud had bailed out of his plane, but they didn’t know if he had died or been taken captive, until they received a list from Egypt of prisoners of war. He wasn’t on it. The army now knew that Ehud had been killed, but as his body remained inside Egyptian territory, he was still technically considered missing.

Fighter pilot Ehud Shelach, husband of Tami Shelach, chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, who was killed during the Yom Kippur War, in an undated photograph. (Israeli Air Force)
Fighter pilot Ehud Shelach, husband of Tami Shelach, chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, who was killed during the Yom Kippur War, in an undated photograph. (Israeli Air Force)

“At the time, they couldn’t carry out searches because, well, there was a war,” Shelach said. “So he had that [missing] designation for about six months, until the Egyptians allowed [Israel] to search for him. He was then found and given an Israeli burial.”

Shelach was left with two young children, aged four and seven, who had only a vague memory of their father.

“He had a job that meant he got home late and left in the morning before they’d woken up,” she said.

“They remember him through pictures,” she added.

For a short period after the war, she returned to Tel Nof, but then moved to Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, to a house she and her husband had purchased before he died.

Two weeks after she moved into her new home, Shelach met her life partner, who was himself a widower, she said.

‘We were like the Brady Bunch’

Between them, they had six children — three girls and three boys — which they raised together.

“We were like the Brady Bunch,” she said, referring to the 1970s American sitcom.

When the three sons joined the military, they were all invited to the IAF’s prestigious pilot’s training course and, remarkably, all made it through the program and served as fighter pilots, following in Ehud Shelach’s footprints, she said.

“Today, one’s a colonel and the other two are lieutenant colonels. And one of my son’s sons is also a pilot. He finished the pilot’s course last year and is now a fighter pilot,” Shelach said, beaming with pride.

Widows helping widows

Shelach has been involved with the IDFWO since the 1990s, when the group was established, and in February was chosen to be its new chairperson, taking over for Nava Shoham-Solan, who had served in the position for seven years.

It is the only organization recognized by the government to represent the country’s widows, widowers and orphans.

Shlomi Nachumson, youth director for the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization hugs an orphaned child at his home in the West Bank on May 11, 2016. (courtesy)
Shlomi Nachumson, youth director for the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization hugs an orphaned child at his home in the West Bank on May 11, 2016. (courtesy)

The IDFWO runs four camps each year for the children of fallen soldiers, police and other security service officers: one during the summer, as well as during the Sukkot, Hannukah and Passover holidays, when Israeli children have vacations from schools.

It provides schools supplies to orphans beginning first grade, hosts weekend vacations for widows and widowers in Israel and, in some cases, provides its members with financial assistance up to NIS 10,000 ($2,600).

In addition to hosting the orphans’ bar mitzvah group ceremonies, the IDFWO also celebrates the religious occasions and holidays of its non-Jewish members.

Chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, Tami Shelach, hands out gifts to Bedouin Muslim widows in southern Israel on September 28, 2016. (IDFWO)
Chairperson of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, Tami Shelach, hands out gifts to Bedouin Muslim widows in southern Israel on September 28, 2016. (IDFWO)

“We have Druze and Christians and Muslim widows,” Shelach noted.

Last month, for instance, the group held a special event to hand out gifts to Bedouin Muslim widows in southern Israel.

The IDFWO staff, including Shelach, is entirely volunteer, save for its executive director Yuval Lipkin and a handful of employees. The rest receive a nominal scholarship for running the group’s camps and other activities across the country, she said.

Shelach now wants to expand the group’s efforts to provide more for the aging widow population.

“I can only add. I don’t see any room to cut,” she said.

‘Some widows didn’t have children. We already send them a birthday card, I want to send them a gift too. But I can’t do it, financially’

With many widows now in nursing homes and living without their families, Shelach wants to reach out periodically to give them “something to tell their friends about,” she said.

The problem is one of funds, Shelach said.

The IDFWO receives some of its budget from the Defense Ministry, while the rest comes from members’ dues and private donations, mostly from the United States, Canada and the UK, she said.

“Some widows didn’t have children. We already send them a birthday card, I want to send them a gift too. But I can’t do it, financially,” she said.

IAF pilot Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov, 34, died Wednesday, October 5, 2016 while ejecting from his F-16 fighter jet while trying to land at the Ramon air base in southern Israel. (Courtesy)
IAF pilot Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov, 34, died Wednesday, October 5, 2016 while ejecting from his F-16 fighter jet while trying to land at the Ramon air base in southern Israel. (Courtesy)

In addition to the upcoming anniversary of her husband’s death, which she commemorated early this year as it coincides with the IDFWO’s bar mitzvah event, Shelach said she was again reminded of her loss with the crash of an F-16 fighter jet earlier this month, which claimed the life of its pilot, Maj. Ohad Cohen-Nov.

Following the incident, Shelach sent out a message to Cohen-Nov’s pregnant wife and daughter, expressing her condolences on their loss.

“As the wife, mother and grandmother of Israeli Air Force pilots, this case is particularly hard. I will hug the young widow and her toddler and tell them from personal experience that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that the IDFWO will help them to get there,” she said.

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