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United in Pain, United in Hope

Through wondering tears, the people stare.
“Who are you, the silent two?”
And they reply:
“We are the silver platter Upon which the Jewish State was served to you.”
(“The Silver Platter” by Natan Alterman)

A few years ago, I had the honor and joy to accompany a delegation of IDF orphans on a trip to North America on behalf of the IDF’s Widows and Orphans Organization. The local Jewish community hosted a group of two dozen teens who visited the sites and enjoyed Shabbat with local families. That Sunday, as one generous family hosted the group at their extravagant lake house, I found myself standing on the edge of the water, breathing in the beautiful air and observing the teens from a distance. At one point, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the teens on the mission. “Hi, Shahar. May I ask you a question?” “Yes, sure,” I replied. “This family hosting us is very nice.” “Yes, they are,” I said smiling. “Did they know my dad?” he inquired. “I don’t believe so,” I responded. “Then why are they so nice to us? Who are we to them?” “Well, our great Jewish family extends oceans and seas. They don’t need to know your father to love and appreciate him and you. This has always been the secret strength of the Jewish people. So, feel at home, and let’s go and enjoy that wonderful barbecue,” I said as we headed back together.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh; all of Israel are responsible for each other, indeed.

TAPS mission in Israel with President Herzog (credit IDFWO)

The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO) is a non-profit established in 1991 as the only organization recognized by the State of Israel to represent the widows, widowers and orphans of Israel’s fallen soldiers. This past Memorial Day weekend, the IDFWO joined hands with TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, to breathe meaning and soul into the U.S.-Israel alliance. TAPS is a U.S. non-profit organization whose mission is to provide compassionate care to all those grieving the death of a military loved one, and it’s been in existence since 1994. 

Through both organizations, the unique bond between Israel and the United States of America came to life. Four Israeli teens, all of whom are IDFWO orphans who lost their fathers during their army service, visited the U.S. and were hosted by TAPS. Their visit included partaking in the 28th Annual National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in Virginia over Memorial Day Weekend. In May 2022, a TAPS mission that consisted of three widows and their children arrived in Israel and was hosted by IDFWO bereaved families. Together, they got a chance to observe and participate in various memorial events and ceremonies in Israel in honor of fallen IDF soldiers and their sacrifice, the “silver platter” upon which we all are served our freedom.

IDFWO teens at TAPS camp with US Chief of Joint Staff Gen Milley (credit: TAPS)

Traci Voelke is the engine behind making this connection and bringing it to life. Traci’s high-school sweetheart, husband of 12 years and father to their two sons, Andrew and Benjamin, was killed on duty while in Afghanistan in 2012. Army Maj. Paul C. Voelke, of blessed memory, was a West Point graduate who had served in the U.S. Army for 14 years, including four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was just 36 years old when he died. Traci visited Israel for the first time in 2015, where she fell in love with the country and was awed by the respect and honor the nation bestows upon its heroes. It was then that she decided to work further and bring American and Israeli bereaved families together, despite being an ocean away. Traci returned to Israel in May 2022 as part of an official TAPS-IDFWO mission and even hosted the IDFWO teens during their recent visit to the U.S.

Suddenly, that horrible thing that happened to us in the U.S. wasn’t just unique to us. It was universal.

“When my older son was younger, we saw that there was a TAPS trip to Israel on offer. So, we applied, and even though our family is Jewish-American, neither myself nor my boys had ever been to Israel before,” Traci told me. “We took a chance, and my older son connected with Israel on such a deep level. Staying with the host families and getting to know the people made such an impact. Suddenly, that horrible thing that happened to us in the U.S. wasn’t just unique to us. It was universal. In 2022, we were honored to visit again, and my younger son experienced a similar impact.”

The IDFWO Mission includes four teens: Uri, Shira, Maya, and Shay, who are visiting the U.S., together with their group counselor, Nitzan Ben Eliyahu. Eliyahu has been a social worker working for the youth department of the IDFWO for the past three years.

“It is a significant mission, and I enjoy participating in it,” Nitzan told me. “The partnership with TAPS is an exciting opportunity. My experience conducting similar support camps for the orphans in Israel has taught me the impact of such experiences on the children. It is an opportunity for them to bond, and most of the time, they don’t even need to speak. Such is the power of their shared pain.”

Uri Keidar, who’s 14, is from the city of Modiin in Israel. He is the son of Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar z” l. Dolev died in battle with Hamas terrorists near the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Shira Cohen, 18, is from Binyamina. She is the daughter of Ido Meir Cohen, who died of cancer caused by training in the Kishon waters. Ido died in 2010 when Shira was only six years old. Shai Sheffer, 16, is the son of Lt. Col. Avior Sheffer, a combat pilot with the Israeli Air Force. Avior died of cancer after dealing for many years with contaminated materials. Maya Zohar is the daughter of Maj. Dudi Zohar, an IDF pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash during training in southern Israel.

“Some of my best friends go to these camps,” Uri told me. “It’s great to have someone who knows what you’re dealing with. Other people can’t understand what you’re going through, and this is a chance to bond with people who know your pain. I miss having my father around. He was my best friend.”

We often speak of shared values between the U.S. and Israel. Yet, upholding the lofty principles of freedom and democracy is quite the task in a world where many countries are still hostile to these very ideals. Memorial Day in the U.S., as with Yom Hazikaron in Israel, is a constant reminder that defending those freedoms doesn’t come free. Those bereaved families are the ones who paid the heaviest price of all, losing loved ones, so that all of us—here in the U.S. and Israel—can lead our free lives.

We salute every one of them for their sacrifice and their loved ones’ service for the good people of Israel and the United States of America.

Words alone cannot express our gratitude.

Nothing sums it up better than this TAPS statement about the Israeli teens’ visit to the States:

“We’re so happy our friends from IDF Widows & Orphans Organization joining us for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) National Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp had a chance to share their experiences with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and his wife Hollyanne Milley.

Love and grief transcend national borders, and together we will all remember the love, celebrate the life, and share the journey.” 

Source: Jewish Journal

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