TORONTO — Disabled Israeli veterans were given a warm welcome at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on June 7. They came for the Celebration of Life concert tour held by Beit Halochem Canada – Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel.
“Tonight, we are really celebrating the lives of our brave guests,” said Toby Feldberg, the president of Beit Halochem Canada, explaining the name chosen for the concert.
The annual tour visits Calgary, Montreal and Toronto to raise money for the Beit Halochem centres in Israel, which provide therapy and programming for Israel’s 51,000 disabled Israel Defence Forces veterans and victims of terror and their families.
“Those who have given their bodies, their souls, their limbs for Israel – without them, there wouldn’t be an Israel,” said Lisa Levy, the executive director of Beit Halochem Canada.
Beit Halochem brings 10 disabled veterans to Canada each year for a two-week tour that overlaps with the concerts, allowing them to meet the Canadian Jewish community and to share their personal stories.
“The thing that they’re most in awe about is that, ‘Hey, there are people in Canada who actually care about me,’” said Levy, adding that for many, it is the first time they have travelled abroad alone since being injured.
This year, among those who shared their stories were Yiftach Yaacov, who was injured in the Yom Kippur War and is the nephew of a former prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yarden Hershko, who lost the use of her legs while serving in the Karakal batallion.
Yaacov swims 70 laps in a Beit Halochem pool each morning, and Hershko is the only female player on Beit Halochem’s wheelchair basketball team.
Beit Halochem members can play several sports adapted to suit their needs, including skiing, hand biking, wheelchair dancing and archery. Many even participate in the yearly Beit Halochem bike ride each October called Courage in Motion. The veterans can also take art classes, learn chess and sing in the choir, among many other activities.
The centres, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva and Nahariya, Levy explained, aim to keep the veterans physically active and to help them deal with the emotional pain of their injuries, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. They also provide activities for the veterans’ families to socialize and support each other.
“We offer a place where they can go every single day,” said Levy, adding that Beit Halochem representatives visit injured soldiers during their initial hospitalization to inform them of the options available to them at the centres.
The veterans at the Toronto concert told the audience how much the centres helped them to move on from their injuries. “It taught me how much happiness can come from things that seem so insignificant, like driving or shooting a basket [in basketball],” Hershko said.
The veterans were joined on stage by three Israeli musicians, Liron Lev, Gilan Shahaf and Shem Hamami, who entertained the crowd along with the wheelchair-dancing duo of veteran Yohai Touitou and Beit Halochem choreographer Yelena Feitliher.
At the Montreal concert, Beit Halochem honoured philanthropist David Azrieli in celebration of his 90th birthday. The Azrieli Foundation will be matching the funds raised throughout the concert tour in addition to its own contribution.
The money raised this year will be going toward the construction of a sixth Beit Halochem centre in Ashdod, where it will serve the 7,200 disabled veterans in the area.
Levy said Beit Halochem may exist for a sad reason, but the work that it does helps injured Israeli veterans to lead happy and fulfilling lives, even when many of them thought that it wouldn’t be possible. “Every year we see people coming like broken doves and then soaring away.”