‘Rehabilitating together’: Wounded Israeli veterans find relief, forge bonds in NY

Trips organized by the non-profit Belev Echad give injured IDF soldiers the chance to connect with US Jews and with each other

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

A group of wounded Israeli soldiers on a tour organized by Belev Echad at the United Nations in New York City, May 17, 2022. (Courtesy)
A group of wounded Israeli soldiers on a tour organized by Belev Echad at the United Nations in New York City, May 17, 2022. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — David Axel was on patrol with the Border Police in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2015 when a terrorist approached him from behind and swung an ax at his head, missing by inches.

Axel grappled with the attacker, who managed to flee. Axel then chased him through the narrow streets near the Damascus Gate, pushing bystanders aside before tackling him. He struggled to gain control of the assailant on the ground, as a crowd gathered around them.

“During the fight, he took out a knife and stabbed me in my leg,” Axel recalled. “I don’t remember too much from the scene because I lost a lot of blood. I can remember my officer coming to pick me up, take the knife with the blood, ask me if I’m okay.”

He spent two months in the hospital, and then a short time recuperating at home. He had only enlisted five months before the attack and wanted to finish his service with his friends.

“I finished the three years, but during these three years, there were a lot of signs of PTSD. But I didn’t tell anybody about it because they thought, ‘David is a hero, he’s okay.’ Nobody really knew what I was feeling,” Axel said.

After the military, he worked as a security guard for tour groups. When one of these groups approached the Old City, he became distressed and overwhelmed as his PTSD resurfaced. He decided to leave Israel days later.

While he was abroad, he got a message from Belev Echad, a support group for wounded veterans that organizes trips abroad, among other activities. He was skeptical, but agreed to meet them when he returned to Israel and joined the group for a trip in 2018.

“My parents couldn’t understand me, my friends, my sister, nobody,” he told The Times of Israel this week in New York. “I came on the trip, met amazing guys who can understand me better than a psychiatrist. We’re really good friends to this day.”

Axel was in New York City with the organization for the second time, now as a group leader, on Belev Echad’s latest trip abroad. The New York-based non-profit runs the tours for wounded Israel Defense Forces veterans to give them some fun, connect them with US Jews and let them bond with each other.

A group of wounded Israeli soldiers on a tour organized by Belev Echad in New York City, May 17, 2022. (Courtesy)

Rabbi Uriel Vigler and his wife Shevy organized the first tour for wounded soldiers in New York in 2010 as a one-off, local initiative. The veterans “enjoyed it immensely,” he said, and the local Jewish community “came out in droves. There were hundreds of people coming to Shabbat dinners and events.”

The group ran similar trips for the next few years, until the 2014 Gaza war left many more soldiers wounded, and Belev Echad decided to step up its activities. It became an official organization in 2017, Vigler said.

‘Closing a circle’

Besides the trips, Belev Echad, which means “With one heart” in Hebrew, manages a house for wounded soldiers near Tel Aviv with a jacuzzi, pool, therapy services and other amenities. Group members visit wounded soldiers in the hospital and provide medical and career help, among other activities that fill in the gaps in government care. A staff of 13 wounded veterans does outreach and organization in Israel.

Axel said his role as a staffer on the trip was like “closing a circle.”

“I feel better with myself when I’m doing good things for everyone here,” he said. “When I’m helping with rehabilitation for someone, it helps my rehabilitation as well.”

Vigler shied away from any criticism of state care for wounded veterans, but the topic became a major story in Israel last year when a veteran with PTSD set himself on fire outside a government office over frustration with his treatment. One of the Belev Echad trip members said he had to “go to war with the Defense Ministry” to get all his benefits, but that overall, care was good in Israel. There are over 50,000 disabled veterans in Israel.

Vigler said the non-profit has run around 30 trips to New York, with around 12 veterans on each tour. The latest group included ex-soldiers who hung up their uniforms just months ago, and others who were many years out of their mandatory service. The group included a real estate broker, a detective, an illustrator, a software developer, a computer science student and a foreman at a construction firm.

The week’s itinerary included a helicopter flight over the Statue of Liberty, a performance by the Blue Man Group, a meeting at the United Nations with Israeli envoy Gilad Erdan, a morning at a spa, and trips to the Fifth Avenue Apple store, the Ground Zero Memorial, the Brooklyn Bridge and a Jewish pre-school.

The group asked a startup entrepreneur at his high-flying office if his company’s technology could be used to improve Israel’s image abroad, quizzed a stock broker about the workings of the market on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and was hosted for breakfast by an Israeli restaurant owner who lost a brother in Lebanon. The American supporters they met with consistently exchanged contact information with the veterans and encouraged them to stay in touch.

A Belev Echad group tours the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, May 17, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Showered with love

Just getting out of Israel can take a weight off the veterans’ backs.

“It lets us free our mind, traveling here in New York — a kind of forgetting of all the situation in Israel, like the terror,” Axel said. “Everyone here [in the group] has got PTSD or pain in his body, so this trip in New York makes us relax, gives us a release.”

Israel is also full of combat veterans, diminishing their relative prominence. By contrast, “here in New York, the community treats them like VIPs, showers them with love,” Vigler said. “That does wonders for a person.”

Belev Echad is funded by private donations, mainly from US Jews and Israelis living in the US. Israel is a polarizing issue in the US, but polls show that American Jews overwhelmingly consider caring about Israel an important part of their identity. Some 40,000 people representing a broad spectrum of Jewish groups are expected to march in support of Israel in New York City on Sunday.

This week’s group of 12 illustrated the myriad ways soldiers are hurt during their service. Two were severely wounded by friendly fire; one injured his spine when his tank overturned in Gaza, trapping him inside for hours; one was almost killed by flesh-eating bacteria in his shoulder; and another was traumatized by evacuating the dead and wounded from Lebanon.

The different injuries mean different hardships, some physical, others psychological, from nightmares to debilitated limbs. One mentioned in passing that a near-fatal infection incurred during training that required five months in the hospital was not a “sexy” wound — meaning that it carried the hardships, but not the prestige or attention, of a battle scar.

Matan Eizenberg, one of the trip members, was an officer in the Golani infantry brigade serving in the West Bank city of Hebron. Late at night, after a briefing, one of his soldiers asked him to review something. Then the soldier’s micro-Tavor rifle went off accidentally, firing a 5.56 millimeter round into Eizenberg’s right hip.

Matan Eizenberg during his army service. (Courtesy)

The gunshot fractured his pelvis, tore a major artery and a central vein in his leg, and damaged his bladder, and the heavy blood loss damaged his optic nerve. He spent two months incapacitated in the hospital, underwent four surgeries, and did another year of rehab. He still cannot run properly and standing too long makes him weary and pains his leg.

He said the trip, his first time in New York, gave the veterans an opportunity to open up to each other in a way that was not possible at home.

You don’t want to talk to [family and friends] about your wounds. You don’t want to stress them out and make them worry

“Everyone relates to each other, so it’s comfortable for us to tell our stories. It’s not like at home, where we have our family and friends who can’t identify with us,” he said, adding that he tried to avoid burdening people close to him at home.

“You don’t want to talk to them about your wounds. You don’t want to stress them out and make them worry,” he said. “My family was with me every day for two months in the hospital. You want to let them out of that place, to release them back to their life.”

The trip members talked casually about their injuries with each other in between activities, discussing which PTSD treatments had been most effective for them on the minibus driving through Manhattan.

“Here you see how it’s okay, and how much you identify with each other, and everyone has their story and connects and it makes us stronger,” Eizenberg said. “It feels like we’ve been friends for years.”

Vigler said trip participants tend to remain close friends after the trip ends and participate in Belev Echad activities in Israel.

“The best rehabilitation is not with the psychologists and physical therapy,” Eizenberg said. “There’s someone to talk to here, which makes all the difference. Instead of rehabilitating alone, we’re rehabilitating together.”

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