The isolated, sun-drenched West Texas town of El Paso is nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains and snakes along the US-Mexican border in line with the contours of the Rio Grande. It might be an unlikely place for a group to gather to honor a slain Israeli soldier. But this is an unlikely story.
In July 2006, IDF Commander Benji Hillman, whose family immigrated to Israel from London when he was four years old, was killed in action in the Lebanese village of Moran Aras at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War. He had been married for three weeks before his death. This summer, Benji’s family and friends will honor the fallen soldier by opening a $3.5 million guesthouse in Ra’anana, the Hillmans’ hometown, for Israeli soldiers without family and from disadvantaged backgrounds who need a place to stay during their army service.
“Our goal is to provide these boys with general assistance, a warm bed, good food, and a room of their own away from the army,” according to the Benji Hill Foundation’s website. “And, of course, all the love, care attention and help they need at ‘Habayit Shel Benji’ (Benji’s Home), which will serve as a hostel for these soldiers — with all the comforts of home.”
According to those who served with him, Benji had a particular sense of responsibility for the lone soldiers under his command — those who left their friends and families overseas to serve in the IDF.
‘Our goal is to provide these boys with general assistance, a warm bed, good food, and a room of their own away from the army’
In addition to functioning as a hostel for up to 50 lone soldiers, Benji’s Home will also include an educational and vocational center that can accommodate 1,000 soldiers each year with the aim of helping them acquire the skills necessary to remain in Israel after their service.
During the groundbreaking ceremony for Benji’s Home two years ago, Ra’anana resident Terry Mowszowski said she had a “fleeting thought that it would be nice if I could do something personal to honor Benji’s legacy.” She is the mother of a son who returned from the army unharmed, but says that some of her friends’ sons did not.
“Last year, it came to me that I might be able to contribute to Benji’s Home,” says the South African-born immigrant. “I am the owner of a computerized Gammill Supreme Longarm sewing machine — the only one in Israel — and decided, with my two partners and quilting friends, to launch a project called ’50 Quilts for 50 Beds.’”
Since then, Mowszowski and a group of Israeli quilters have been hard at work producing 50 quilts to donate to Benji’s Home — one for each bed. She said the quilts will send a powerful message to the mothers of the lone soldiers — who may be far away — to know that their boys are being cared for.
Benji’s Home “will embrace them and make them welcome — right down to a quilt on his bed to cover him and wrap him in love, to show him our appreciation and thanks no matter who he is or where he is from,” she said.
But assembling quilts is expensive and hard work. So far, friends and family have helped sponsor the quilters in order to raise funds to cover the costs of fabric, batting, and other necessary items.
Thanks to a chance encounter years earlier, though, Mowszowsi’s group has one less quilt to worry about.
At the International Quilt Festival in Houston four years ago, an El Paso quilter and prominent member of the town’s Orthodox Jewish community, Susy Rothschild, spotted a yarmulke on the head of Terry Mowszowski’s husband and struck up a conversation. Since then, Rothschild and Mowszowski have been discussing their shared hobby over the phone and via email, cementing their friendship. Both of their daughters, too, married and had babies around similar times. Rothschild’s youngest daughter, Shira Moskowitz, moved to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. When her grandchild was born in February, Rothschild went to Israel and took the opportunity to visit Mowszowski in Ra’anana.
Benji’s Home ‘will embrace them and make them welcome – right down to a quilt on his bed to cover him and wrap him in love, to show him our appreciation and thanks no matter who he is or where he is from’
“I introduced her to my project when she came,” says Mowszowski. “She went back home inspired by the project introduced it to her local quilting group.”
Unanimously, the El Paso quilters decided to contribute a quilt to the project.
“We’ve always extended hospitality to [local US army base] Fort Bliss and its soldiers,” quilter Ann Geyer told the El Paso Times. “This makes my heart overflow. It shows how connecting threads from around the world keep us together, no matter where we are, who we are.”
Rothschild said she was deeply moved by the story of Hillman and “grateful for the opportunity to honor his memory with a mitzva.”
“My daughter, Shira, and new grandchild live in Israel. My other daughter, Jordana, studied medicine at Tel Aviv University, and my two boys just graduated from college and may very well move to Israel, too,” she says.
‘This makes my heart overflow. It shows how connecting threads from around the world keep us together, no matter where we are, who we are’
Rothschild said her group might decide to produce another quilt for the project and explains that, despite the perception that quilting is an old-fashioned and dying art, it is actually in the midst of an explosion of popularity. She notes that the Houston quilt festival drew more than 60,000 people from around the world last year.
Shira and her family are spending Passover with her family in El Paso. When they return to Israel next week, they will be carrying the El Paso quilt and plan to hand deliver it to Mowszowski in Ra’anana.
“Although I’ve had a few individuals from the US help with this project, the El Paso quilt is the only coordinated group effort,” says Mowszowski. “Their participation is heartwarming and very special to us.”