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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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A modern Jewish hero

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Passover may be behind us, but the experiences still linger and will likely remain with us for a lifetime.

On April 1, COR held our annual pre-Pesach community lecture at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto congregation, and as guest speakers, we were honoured to have Rabbi Ari Senter, the kashrut administrator of Kof-K and Arale Wattenstein, external relations co-ordinator for Hope for Heroism, an organization that assists disabled Israeli soldiers.

Wattenstein was a commander in the Israel Defence Forces. He recalled for us his first Pesach in the army. He was on duty together with his unit, assigned the task of protecting a certain settlement. He was given his army-issued “seder kit” – matzah, grape juice, charoset, etc. As soon as he sat down to begin his abbreviated seder, he was instructed to commence his patrol immediately. As he passed each house listening to the residents sing the traditional Pesach songs, he had no pangs of jealousy, only pride. Because of his protection, his fellow citizens could enjoy their seder peacefully.

On another occasion, it was the third night of Chanukah, and Wattenstein’s unit was tasked with a dangerous mission in the city of Nablus. The operation was completed successfully, and as he was driving the transport vehicle with his 20 soldiers out of the city, he suddenly heard an explosion, and then a fire. A Molotov cocktail was hurled at his vehicle and the driver’s side was now on fire.

Wattenstein had to make a split-second decision. He was carrying grenades with him which, if ignited would almost certainly kill the 20 soldiers in the back of the van. So he opened the door to the moving vehicle and jumped out. He saved the lives of his soldiers, but in the process, broke his spine in three places.

When he arrived at the hospital, he was told that he would never walk again. The doctors broke the news to his wife, who was not shaken. “We will overcome this,” she said stoically.

Miraculously, overcome he did. He had a number of painful surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation, but he can now walk just as he did before his injury.

Wattenstein was so grateful for his recovery that he decided to dedicate his life to rehabilitating other injured IDF solders. On behalf of his organization Hope for Heroism, he travels the world speaking to Jewish communities telling his story and that of his organization.

I had the pleasure of taking him out for lunch prior to the COR pre-Pesach lecture. I asked him where he wanted to eat and he asked me to give him a few options, so I drove him along “holy” Bathurst Street. He was impressed by the selection of kosher offerings that we have in Toronto and after he made his selection and we sat down to eat, he shared an interesting observation.

As an outside observer of Diaspora Jewry, Wattenstein has noticed an interesting phenomenon. The more kosher food a city has, the more connected they are to Israel. Conversely, the less kosher food a community has, the less connected they are to Israel and the more assimilated they are. Recently, on a speaking tour on the West Coast of the United States, he was flabbergasted to find the Jewish community centre in a particular city serving cheeseburgers in its cafeteria with absolutely no kosher options. Not surprisingly, this city seemed to be disinterested in his message specifically and to Israel in general.

The way Wattenstein saw it, we at COR, whose mission it is to supervise kosher food and ensure that it is widely available, are serving the Jewish People as he is. He, of course, keeps the Jewish People together physically. We at COR keep the Jewish People together in a different way – through kosher food.

The Haggadah famously instructs us to envision ourselves in each generation as though we are leaving Egypt. I’ve always found this directive difficult. The Exodus from Egypt was an awesome event that shook the world at the time. Those who left Egypt endured inhumane suffering and then left Egypt triumphantly as heroes. How could we possibly relive such an event? How do we find such heroes today? On April 1, at the COR pre-Pesach lecture, I met a Jewish hero.

Thank you, Arale Wattenstein.

 

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