Eight Israeli soldiers took the stage at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center Aug. 19 to share inspirational stories about their road to recovery from near-fatal combat injuries. More than 125 people attended the Achim LaChaim (Hope for Heroism) program at the Ruth Hyman JCC in Deal.
Through Hope for Heroism, a nonprofit organization created in 2006 by disabled Israeli officers, injured combat soldiers are connected with each other to aid in their mutual recovery and return to productive, meaningful lives.
This was the group’s first visit to New Jersey, in a weeklong program organized by Yossi and Shouli Teichman of Ocean Township, Shmulick (Sam) Manor of Rumson, and Carl Gross of Monmouth Beach. The program was held in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
“Six months ago Yossi Teichman asked me to get involved. He didn’t even finish the sentence and I said, ‘I’m in,’” said Manor. “Being with these inspiring individuals for a week made me realize that many of us are spoiled in America and need to learn how to put things in perspective.”
“I don’t understand how anyone in the Jewish community could have refused if asked to help with this event,” said Gross. “I have a 21-year-old son and a 25-year-old nephew whom we raised. The only difference between my kids and these soldiers is that they put their lives on the line and suffered in order to defend our homeland.”
Many of the soldiers struggled to express themselves in English as they related their combat experiences. Audience members were visibly moved as one soldier recalled the moment he lost his legs, and another spoke about being awake while undergoing an operation in the field. Another remembered pausing to wipe sweat from his brow and being startled when his hand became covered with blood from a wound inflicted by a sniper.
Hope for Heroism group leader Guy Preiss, 28, described waking up in the hospital after an attack eight years ago in Tulkarm — to discover he had lost both legs.
“I woke up with a smile, and people thought I was crazy,” he told the gathering. “I was just so grateful I got the gift of survival. It’s really one of the best things that’s happened to me — and not just because I no longer have to change my socks every day,” he said, sparking a round of laughter.
“Now I am motivated by the desire to help my brothers-in-arms. We inspire each other, we stand behind each other, we share the same feelings. We give them their life back. Period.”
“Many of us can’t even talk to our mother and father about what we went through, because we don’t want them to suffer,” said 29-year-old Yossi Cohen, who was shot in a West Bank ambush in 2000. “For many years afterward, I couldn’t find myself anywhere. Until one day Guy came to my house, and he knew how to find the real me inside my wounded self. We are the only ones who can really help each other because we share the bad things and the good.”
David Bekhor, who has been involved with Hope for Heroism for three years, traveled to Deal from Florida to meet with the group; Rabbi Chaim Levine, who is part of the Hope for Heroism management team, came from Seattle.
“I remember one soldier who survived face-to-face combat with a Hizbullah leader in the first Lebanon War. They shot each other in zero range,” Bekhor told a NJJN reporter. “Twelve years later, he still suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, and had to sleep each night with a knife.
“Hope for Heroism helped give him the strength to recover emotionally. I was with him when he tossed that knife out to sea.”
Each of the soldiers spoke about their career goals, which include industrial management, business, and medicine. Michael Amoyev, 22, said he intends to become a dentist “to help make people smile.”
Osnat Cudkevich, a teacher from Marlboro, emerged from the theater with “tears of pride” in her eyes. “It’s inspiring to witness the strength that comes from their souls. When they tell their story, you are amazed at how they came back to life,” she said. “As an Israeli living here, it is very close to my heart. We understand and appreciate the way they dedicate their souls to their country.”