Wounded IDF veterans visit New York in a healing journey
Wounded IDF veterans visit New York in a healing journeyBelev Echad

A delegation of disabled IDF veterans left Israel Monday, March 7, for New York in the framework of a special tour sponsored by the humanitarian organization Belev Echad.

The goal of the trip is to offer these soldiers an opportunity to rehabilitate emotionally in the drawn-out process of returning to life.

“Our purpose is to give these heroes a break, to show them the world-famous sites and attractions in the Big Apple, and to embrace them in the love of the local Jewish community in order to furnish them with the strength to return to life.”

But it’s not uniquely about the soldiers; it’s also about sharing the experience of an Israeli civilian and soldier defending his people and homeland, and educating Americans to the truth of what’s really happening in Israel.

“During the course of the ten days, our soldiers meet thousands of people from our community who are moved by the sacrifices our soldiers have made. The soldiers touch people's hearts in an unimaginable way. Belev Echad – which in English means ‘With one heart’ isn’t just a slogan, but a way of life,” says Shevy Vigler, who co-founded Belev Echad with her husband Rabbi Uriel Vigler.

This 10-day tour was guided by Doron Akiva, 25, a resident of Petah Tikva whose life story is familiar to Belev Echad - it is the same tragic story of thousands of Israeli youth who fought valiantly to protect their fellow citizens and barely made it home.

“I was just 18 when I was drafted in 2014 into Rimon, a unit in the famous Givati Brigade, after which I was assigned to a commando unit as a sniper and the squad leader of a physical combat unit. Following two-and-a-half years in service, and following a period of operations and detainments in the Judea and Samaria Region and Ramallah, our entire unit was transferred on March 28, 2017 to the Qalandia refugee camp. We were on a mission to nab a terrorist, and I was stationed at the entrance of the house. I was guarding from outside to ensure that the coast was clear, and while I covered for my unit, they managed to arrest the terrorist we were after and spirit him away,” Doron relates.

“As soon as the prisoner was in custody, we began hearing noises from every direction, and several minutes after we’d begun driving, a terrorist ambushed me from a roof of one of the nearby houses and dropped a cinderblock on my head from a height of four floors. The cinderblock made direct contact with my skull. I lost consciousness, but somehow, was still aware of what was going on. My eyes were closed, but I could feel and hear everything around me, and I was keenly aware that I was lying prone on the floor, unable to move.

“As soon as the cinderblock made contact with my head, the terrorist lifted another block to finish me off, but at the last second, my buddy Guy ran toward me and dragged me out of death’s path and underneath a protruding roof to protect me. It’s only because of Guy’s quick thinking and action that I’m alive to tell this tale, because even with it, I barely made it.

“Unfortunately he wasn’t entirely fast enough, because a second later, the second cinderblock crashed onto my foot. When I came to a few minutes later, I wasn’t sure what happened. My buddies wanted to take me in a stretcher, but I was scared that the extra time it would take them to open the stretcher would leave us susceptible to another assault, so I somehow pulled myself to my feet and, assisted by my friends, evacuated the area. My body was one mass of agony. My neck was exploding in pain; and I couldn’t move my left hand, but I still had no idea how badly I’d been wounded.

“After an hour and a half of walking, we crossed the fence, and I was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital where I was subjected to a slew of tests and medical treatments—CTs, MRIs, the works, where they soon revealed that three of my neck vertebrae were torn.

“Following a difficult period spent lying motionless in the hospital followed by another four months at home in bed, I commenced intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, which lasted for about a year and a half until I was able to regain most functions.

“Most. Because in the aftermath of my injury, I lost my capacity to compete in martial arts matches which meant the end of my lifelong dream of being an Olympic champion. It was odd, because after all that I’d endured, this realization was what truly crushed me. My dreams had vanished in a puff of smoke, or more crudely, a dropped cinderblock.”

The ones who helped him emerge from his morass of depression were those at Belev Echad. In July 2018, Doron was invited to join a group of wounded IDF veterans to New York, in the course of which he met founder Rabbi Uriel Vigler who showered him with warmth and admiration and opened his heart and home to him, letting Doron know that he could still go far in life.

“Rabbi Vigler taught me that disabled people like me can still live our dreams. Maybe not the ones we always thought, but other new and meaningful ones. Most of all, he taught me never to give up hope,” Doron says.

Belev Echad’s Co-Director of Programs in Israel Raz Budany, who led Doron’s group, was also instrumental in helping the young man regain his will to live. The two of them engaged in many heart-to-heart conversations that continued until the wee hours of the night, discussing the trauma of sudden change from intrepid warrior to physically-disabled veteran.

“Belev Echad is actively involved in helping these IDF soldiers rehabilitate in a nurturing, emotional and spiritual way. These trips, hosted by many in the NYC Jewish community, provide the soldiers with a memorable, meaningful adventure that remains with them for life. We’re so proud of what they do to help safeguard our country, and the trip is one way for us to express that appreciation,” says Yossi Nasser, Belev Echad Board Member.

After Doron and his new buddies returned to Israel, Belev Echad continued keeping in touch, refusing to let the inspiration of the ten days dissipate and sponsoring them in various capacities so they could pursue new dreams. Today, Doron directs the sports department and mixed martial arts at the Belev Echad center in Israel. After experiencing the trips himself and witnessing the long-term benefits in his own life, he’s also started leading new groups of injured IDF veterans to New York, teaching them by personal example and witnessing the rehabilitative effect of the journey on the soldiers again and again.

This week, Doron and his group of veterans were wined and dined in Manhattan’s finest establishments, toured the Stock Exchange and Statue of Liberty, drove around in Lamborghinis and were treated to a luxury helicopter tour. Belev Echad hosted them along with 300 guests for an elaborate Shabbat dinner, and over 1000 will be joining for the upcoming Purim parties.

“The embrace of the Manhattan community restores them to life!” he says gratefully.

In the course of the most recent trip, the veterans met with Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan.

“Every time I meet with these heroes, my heart bursts in feeling and love of our dear soldiers,” expresses Erdan. “[David] Ben Gurion often negated the importance of the UN, focusing instead on Israelis in Israel, but I explained to our soldiers that achieving international legitimacy for what we do in Israel is essential. I described my efforts to fight on their behalf for recognition and to expose the anti-Semitic lies and hypocrisy that characterize much of the international conversation about Israel and the IDF.”

“I told them, and I’ll say it again: The State of Israel owes you a huge debt of gratitude, and I’ll continue doing everything in the international arena to protect you and the IDF’s freedom of action. You’re an inspiration to us all!”

At the airport
At the airportBelev Echad

With Ambassador Gilad Erdan
With Ambassador Gilad ErdanBelev Echad
At the UN
At the UNBelev Echad
Disabled IDF vets enjoy a helicopter ride
Disabled IDF vets enjoy a helicopter rideBelev Echad
Visiting New York
Visiting New YorkBelev Echad