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NEW YORK—The face of an IDF soldier from Long Island, NY beamed as he greeted his parents, who smiled back at the annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) national gala March 13.
Those parents, whose son is considered a “Lone Soldier,” serving in the army of Israel without parents or family residing in Israel during his military service, cried tears of happiness—or perhaps relief—as they watched him, camouflaged and smiling, crowded among a group of his comrades.
On the same night, Mir Hadassi was tasked with a different mission. As she memorialized her son late son Yonatan—a member of Maglan, the IDF Special Forces—images of him as a child, then as a young man, and finally, as a young soldier were projected on screens. Hers were tears of inconsolable grief. Mir recalled the joys of Yonatan’s days and the love in their last conversation the night before he was killed, during the start of the Second Lebanon War.
These were some of the deeply mixed emotions that characterized this year’s FIDF gala at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Pride in the young soldiers of Israel’s army, concern about the active dangers against the civilian population, and determination to aid the programs that assist IDF members during and after their service ran strong.
A crowd of 1,300 people attended, and more than $26 million was raised to benefit the soldiers who keep the Jewish state strong and secure. The gala drew business leaders and philanthropists, current and former American and Israeli military officials, and representatives of diverse Jewish communities from around the world.
The crisis in Israel’s south kept IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, scheduled to be the event’s keynote speaker, at home. He joined the gala via satellite. Standing near an anti-missile battery near Ashdod—close to Israel’s border with Gaza--Gantz spoke across thousands of miles, charming and educating his audience about events and about Israel’s military response.
“So far,” assured the general, “it’s staying quiet. Everything is safe and quiet, but it is frightening to see missiles.” Upon announcing that Israel had “succeeded to hunt down 23 terrorist in three days,” Gantz received a strong round of applause.
“The balance between defensive capabilities and offensive capabilities is very important to us,” said the general. “The Iron Dome and active defense systems that we have now are a serious and historical milestone. I think we did right and we will do it in the future as well.” Thanking the FIDF supporters, he added, “This is very important for us to know that we are not alone.”
Gantz noted the presence of several IDF members in the audience. The introduction of “Captain Shira,” an IAF officer, generated enthusiastic applause. On the other side of the ballroom was Captain Seva, who—though he suffered injuries so severe that he is wheelchair bound—continues his active IDF service.
Greetings from Netanyahu and Shalit
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in live remarks via satellite, assured, “The Jewish State has the capacity to resist attacks. The Israeli army is the guarantor of our future.”
A free and healthy looking Gilad Shalit—who also spoke to the FIDF crowd via satellite—brought universal joy throughout the room. For five years, efforts to secure the release of Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity went unanswered. This year, Shalit, home in Israel, had the opportunity to express his gratitude for the support he had received during his captivity.
As is the tradition of the FIDF gala, announcements of contributions to programs benefiting the soldiers of the IDF concluded the event. Whether the donation was for $180 from a wounded soldier or $1,000 from a teenager offering his bar mitzvah gifts, Dinner Chairman Benny Shabtai acknowledged each one with gratitude and appreciation.
The $1.1 million pledged by the FIDF Young Leadership Division and the record-setting $9.25 million pledged by International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) President and Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, helped the 2012 event raise an unprecedented $26 million.
FIDF’s work for soldiers
Many of the soldiers FIDF assists are alone in Israel—some distanced from families that are outside of the country, others alone because of family estrangement. At the gala, FIDF traditionally seats active IDF soldiers throughout the room—giving donors a unique opportunity to meet the young people directly benefiting from their support—and 2012 was no exception.
Lieutenant Jacob Smith, a platoon commander in the Givati Brigade, exemplifies the value of FIDF work. A sabra with a South African background, he traveled independently around Europe as a young teen and then returned to Israel to join the IDF, where he said his service “has been very challenging,” involving significant interaction with Arab civilians. A “lone soldier,” Smith is helped by an adoptive family and the FIDF “Dignity Program.”
Captain Liron Golan is commander of Medical Corps training for the IDF. This Netanya native completed her BA in Emergency Medicine at Ben Gurion University while serving in the IDF, and then entered the officer’s course. Her work has included responsibility for all IDF paramedics, from training through placement. Golan was part of the IDF delegations in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Nico Konyn, an IDF captain, is an assistant to the head of the North America planning department. He made aliyah at 26, and began his service in the IDF as a “lone soldier.”
Konyn has served in the IDF district attorney’s office then as IDF district attorney in Judea and Samaria. His work involves a significant component of work with American government officials. Nico calls the IDF “very humanitarian and just.”
Sgt. Sharon Grisaru of Herzliya is a paramedic in the Kfir Brigade. Grisaru has lived in Canada, and has studied chemistry and the social sciences. In her work, she has treated soldiers and civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian, who require emergency treatment.
Safety comes first
Instead of joining his soldiers in New York, Chief of Staff Gantz remained on the home front to combat the reality of an active threat to the safety of Israelis.
Indeed, concerns about safety engendered a somewhat subdued atmosphere at the 2012 gala. The cadre of high-ranking Israeli dignitaries usually in attendance was noticeably smaller.
“This should have been a very nice trip,” said Gantz, “[but] obviously I decided to stay here [in Israel] due to the escalation that we had here.”