CANAZEI, Italy — If any of the IDF veterans and terror victims are nervous before they head out to conquer the Dolomites’ cragged peaks, they don’t show it. And on the mountain – most of them equipped with special ski and snowboard equipment, accommodating their prosthetics and wheelchairs – they casually soar down the slopes with their instructors, skiing circles around the fumbling beginners (such as this reporter), and gracefully tackling everything from the demanding Sella Ronda route to the paths around the majestic Marmolada – the Queen of the Dolomites.
As she glides across one placid stretch, Tzippi Bloomberg, 29, begins to sing.
“This week, there was a slope that was calm, and I suddenly started singing. I haven’t felt that way in a long time,” says Bloomberg, who was shot in the back and paralyzed in a terror attack at the age of 15. In 2001, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire at Bloomberg’s family’s car near the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron, killing her mother, Techiya. Her father, like her, remains wheelchair-bound.
The soft-spoken Israeli woman two weeks ago was on a group trip, organized by the Erez Foundation nonprofit, which is run primarily by IDF veterans of the alpine unit and staffed entirely by volunteers. The goal: empowering disabled Israelis — primarily severe cases, including amputees, paraplegics and the blind — through winter sports, by way of a rigorous, army-like training program.
Bloomberg, who described herself as “very athletic” before her injury, has been on several trips organized by the Erez Foundation, including in France several weeks ago. Two years ago, she briefly considered competing professionally, but ultimately decided against it since the training would require her to spend several months abroad every year.
But when she started out, it was “very difficult.”
“You fall and you fall and you fall, and then suddenly you manage to do it,” she says. “And when you get it, it’s incredible.”
A military ethic
The nonprofit Erez Foundation was founded some 20 years ago by Lt. Col. Shimon Pariente, the longtime commander of the IDF’s elite alpine unit on Mount Hermon. It’s the only organization in Israel to train disabled Israelis to ski, in a program that kicked off some 11 years ago. The foundation’s activities also extend to bringing some 2,500 sick children to the Hermon annually, and search and rescue efforts for missing Israelis abroad in mountainous areas after insurance policies run dry (in April 2015, they sent a team to Nepal to search for Israeli hikers, after the deadly earthquake).
While strictly a civilian organization and run by some 70 volunteers, the make-up of the instructors – most of them former or current reservists in the alpine unit — gives it a distinctly military, distinctly Israeli flavor. Every winter, the organization brings hundreds of disabled Israelis to the Hermon and skiing simulation centers for training, and those that see the arduous process to the end (a considerably whittled down number, around 40), go to Europe, accompanied by individual Israeli instructors.
“The second stage, of training, looks more like team-building for [the elite IDF unit] Sayeret Matkal than the activities of a nonprofit,” says the director of foundation, Eyal Yarimi.
Yarimi — who in the early days of the organization’s activities taught his good friend, Gadi Yarkoni, who lost his sight during his army service, to ski — speaks intently about the professionalism, discipline and “codes” that characterize the organization. He emphasizes that the skiing is only a tool, with the final goal being empowerment, restoring a sense of possibility, and ultimately, reintegration into society.
Preference is given to soldiers and terror victims who are blind, paralyzed or amputees and are classified as 100% disabled, he says, but not exclusively (for example, a 14-year-old girl who lost her foot in a car accident over a decade ago accompanied the most recent trip). And the organization looks mostly for “motivation, the passion in their eyes,” in vetting candidates, he says.
“[When] you take someone who is disabled, with an amputated leg, plus post-trauma, and let him tackle the slope, and he gets through it – we see incredible ramifications in life itself, with everything that has to do with integration into society, with accepting the disability,” Yarimi says.
There are hundreds of stories like Bloomberg’s and the disabled ex-soldiers on the trip, he notes. Graduates of the program include Noam Gershony, injured in an Apache helicopter collision during the Second Lebanon War, who went on to win a gold medal in the tennis Paralympics.
The organization relies on donations and the pro bono efforts of some companies who cover the costs of the equipment, training, office costs and publicity. On the Europe trips, the cadets cover their expenses while the organization covers the costs of the equipment.
“There are no salaries, there are no offices, there are no refunds for gas, nothing,” Yarimi says. “[Just] a hardened code of volunteering. It’s a code that we are very strict about, very proud of.”
Golani soldiers reunite
During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Yehiav Levi, 32, served in the 51st Battalion of the Golani Brigade, alongside Maj. Roi Klein, who was famously killed when he hurled himself on a grenade to save his men. When the troops were ensnared by Hezbollah during the Battle of Bint Jbeil, Levi was one of three medics who were able to treat the over 30 wounded, after several of his fellow medics were injured.
In the thick of the ambush, and with what he described as not nearly enough medical supplies, he had to “make very difficult decisions,” Levi recalls. Many of the soldiers sustained severe or fatal internal injuries, he says, compounding the nearly impossible task. Several soldiers, including a good friend, died in his arms.
Nearly 10 years after the war, the statistician — who got married in 2010 and has two children – remains in a process of rehabilitation.
“Every generation pays its price,” he says. “I don’t have any bitterness – it’s a price that every person knows he can pay when he is drafted.”
Levi, who prefers not to detail the extent of his injuries, says he felt the skiing was comparable to a year of rehab. While he has skied privately several times, this was his first trip with Erez Foundation, and he effusively says that it “simply brought me back to life.”
Like Levi and most of the ski instructors, Ohad Avraham is also a former Golani Brigade soldier from the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit. In December 1997, Avraham was badly hurt in Lebanon after a bomb went off as the soldiers were en route to an operation, resulting in the amputation of his leg from the knee down and injuries to his hand and second leg.
The straight-talking, snowboarding computer programmer says the program didn’t change his life per se, but certainly boosts confidence and “gives you a sense of a return to normalcy.”
Before his first trip to France, “I got nervous, straight up,” he says. But it’s “pretty much one-on-one, so there’s no group that you’re holding back. You only hold back the instructor, and he’s there for you.”
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t have done this alone,” he adds, referring to going on ski trips abroad with friends.
‘Feel like everyone else’
After the terror attacks and the wars, Israel’s injured largely fall out of the public eye. And some of them end up here – on a mountain, collecting moments of triumph after years of rehabilitation.
‘In the snow, I feel like everyone else’
Off the record, some of them recall in harrowing detail the circumstances of their injuries, allude to the difficulties of the rehabilitation, the ongoing trauma, depression; the other side of this positive ski story. But in an understandable effort to safeguard their privacy, they are reluctant to go public with this information, opting to focus solely on their skiing experiences.
One of the Erez instructors, Tal Rapaport says there’s a sentence that often “repeats itself, at the end of every day: ‘Today I felt like I was not disabled.’”
It’s a sentiment that Bloomberg, separately, voices.
“In the snow, I feel like everyone else. The same routes. There’s nothing that they can do that I can’t,” Bloomberg, who also suffers from chronic pain, says. “It’s an amazing feeling, and I don’t feel that way often.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel again a week after the trip, Levi says the benefits of the trip haven’t worn off.
“I’m still on a high, can’t you hear?”