Injured Israeli Soldiers Take a Breather in New York

An injured Israeli veteran tours the sites in New York City as part of a trip organized by the Chabad Israel Center and the Chabad Terror Victims Project. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)
An injured Israeli veteran tours the sites in New York City as part of a trip organized by the Chabad Israel Center and the Chabad Terror Victims Project. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

By Karen Schwartz

May 17, 2011 1:00 PM

Kfir Levi looked out the bus windows onto Manhattan’s traffic-filled streets.

“I want to tell you that I love the cars here,” he revealed. “You have cars here that you don’t have in Israel.”

The 28-year-old injured soldier, part of a group of veterans touring the sites as part of the Chabad-Lubavitch run Belev Echad program, pointed at the buses, trucks and SUVs.

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“It’s fast,” he exclaimed, giving a passing car a big thumbs up.

Levi, a member of the elite Givati Brigade, has endured almost 200 operations since he was struck in the face by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Gaza Strip in June 2002. His compatriots on the trip – coordinated by the Chabad Israel Center in New York City and the Chabad Terror Victims Project in Israel – are just like him: They’re getting on with life in the face of horrendous injuries and complications.

“The whole idea is to give them an opportunity to forget the pain, forget the medicine, the operations and rehabilitation, and give them time only to smile and be happy, to see nice places, nice people and have fun,” said Rabbi Menachem Kutner, director of the Chabad Terror Victims Project.

The soldiers’ 10-day tour will take them to New York and Washington, D.C., with the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the White House, U.S. Capitol and a reception at the Israeli Embassy all on the agenda. Other stops on the tour include a Friday night community dinner with an expected Upper East Side crowd of 450, a trip to the Cambria Heights, N.Y., resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, a boat cruise with 500 young professionals and a trip to Times Square.

The is the second year that Belev Echad has brought soldiers to New York, although Kutner’s organization also partners with Chabad Houses in Aspen, Colo., and Australia to provide ski trips and other tours for injured veterans.

Such breaks give participants the strength to continue their rehab and take it to another level, asserted the rabbi, who maintains contact with 3000 families in Israel who have been affected by terror attacks.

Rabbi Uriel Vigler, director of the Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side, said people come out in droves to thank the Israeli soldiers, making the Friday night dinner especially special.

“It touches their hearts in an unimaginable way,” he said.

On Saturday afternoon, a group of synagogues on the Upper East Side will join together for another big event honoring the soldiers, which could draw around 1,000 people, added Vigler. “They’ll be speaking about their experiences. The Upper East Side community will get to meet the soldiers firsthand and talk to them.”

Kfir Levi, 28, has endured almost 200 operations since being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in June 2002. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson)

An Army of Children

Yesterday morning, the chatter slowed on the bus and the guitar playing softened as the tour guide held up a map, pointing out Central Park, Lincoln Center, Times Square and Trump Tower. The soldiers poured into the streets, stopping at Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building and the famous Wall Street Bull for tours and pictures. Inside Grand Central, they marveled at the Main Concourse’s ceiling, with its stars up above, and headed down through the food court, where a woman came out from behind the counter at one establishment to hug the soldiers and thank them.

“I don’t know anyone, but to see them means a lot to me,” said a surprised Shelly Shalom, who is from Jerusalem and now lives in Queens.

“These are our soldiers,” she said, wiping away tears. “You think about all those children. They are children when they’re going to the army; it’s so much pain to see them like that.”

After everything they’ve been through, she was glad to be able to show her support. “I wish them all the best. I don’t want them to feel any pain for one day in their life, and that they enjoy every part of the trip.”

Yosi Sokolsky, the group’s tour guide, said it was very moving to be able to show the group of young people around. He will spend several days on their bus, explaining the various landmarks in New York and going with them to Washington D.C. to tell them about the place and its history, before riding with them back to the airport next week. He said he hopes to help them enjoy their time as much as possible. An ex-soldier himself, he said it is important to give the soldiers the attention and respect they deserve, and to give them a chance to have fun.

“To take them out of themselves, this is what’s important about it,” explained Sokolsky. “Their life is hard, to cope with a physical condition every day, socially and work-wise.”

Levi tried to make Shalom stop crying.

“Don’t cry, I’m alive, you need to smile,” he said.

The group posed for pictures together, their arms around each other.

It was a day of new experiences for Amihay Landau, 26, who is visiting New York from Tel Aviv for the first time.

“It’s a great place,” said Landau.

He said he liked the architecture, with the Empire State Building and its observation deck his favorite stop so far: “It’s like we were in the clouds.”