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Gala hears stories from injured Israeli vets

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Howie Mandel performs at JNF Toronto's Negev dinner in Toronto on Nov. 26.

Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Toronto’s Negev dinner raised about $1.7 million for Brothers for Life, an Israeli non-profit that helps injured combat veterans reclaim their lives.

On Nov. 26, about 1,300 people gathered at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and were treated to a stand-up comedy performance by Toronto-born Howie Mandel, who regaled the audience with anecdotes detailing the extent of his germaphobia, hypochondria and countless successful pranks played on his unsuspecting victims.

But before Mandel took to the stage, the sold-out crowd learned about Brothers For Life, an organization that offers financial aid, medical care, music and arts programs, hospital visitations, retreats and workshops to about 800 Israeli war veterans who have suffered life-threatening injuries in service to their country.

From left, Brother’s for Life co-founder Rabbi Chaim Levine, Howie Mandel and Brothers for Life co-founder Gil Ganonyan.

Negev dinner co-chair Jason Kimelman explained why he wanted to get involved with raising funds and awareness for Brothers for Life.

In 1990, Kimelman’s sister, Marnie, who was 17 at the time, was in Israel on an organized tour, enjoying a day at the beach with her friends, when a man-made pipe bomb, which had been buried beneath the sand by a terrorist, exploded and killed her.

“I read a lot about Israeli families who have lost loved ones to terrorism. Some become withdrawn, both from the military and Israeli politics,” said Kimelman.

READ: EVENT HONOURING WOUNDED IDF VETS FEATURES DANCING, MUSIC, EVEN A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL

But rather than become withdrawn, he said he became obsessed with the idea of doing good in the world.

“I wanted to be in the IDF. I wanted to help protect my family, my people and my country,” he said.

As part of a JNF program called the Extreme Mission, Kimelman was one of 17 Toronto men who flew to Israel in 2016, to get a taste of what Israeli combat soldiers face during their service.

“The first few days were filled with visits to army bases that very few ever get to visit. We walked through tunnels built by Hamas that surfaced 50 metres from Jewish communities and we shared meals with some of the most inspirational injured veterans that you could ever hope to meet,” he said.

He said their leader, Ravid, an injured veteran, brought them to the Syrian border, where they could hear explosions.

“We were nervous and began to crack jokes,” Kimelman recalled.

‘These soldiers are us – they are our fathers, our brothers, our friends and sons.’

He said Ravid then kicked one of the participants, “dropping him like a bag of rocks.

“There was a deafening silence. Ravid slowly bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt and pine needles, clenched his fist and said, ‘You think we’re going to let you come here, wear our uniform and crack jokes in our presence?’ ”

He explained that all members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have lost friends in combat.

Howie Mandel performs at JNF Toronto’s Negev dinner in Toronto on Nov. 26.

“We realized on this trip that these soldiers are us – they are our fathers, our brothers, our friends and sons. They are the reason we get to walk this world as Jews with our heads held high. They are the only reason Israel exists. We owe them more than a prayer on Shabbat, or a handshake when we’re in their presence, and that’s why tonight is so incredibly special and important to all of us,” Kimelman said.

Gil Ganonyan, co- founder of Brothers for Life, shared his story about his own near-death experience as an IDF officer in the elite unit.

While on a mission to capture a terrorist responsible for a Jerusalem bus bombing in 2004 that killed 11 and wounded 50, he was shot in the neck, with the bullet exiting at the top of his spine.

‘I gained something so powerful.’

Lying in a hospital bed, paralyzed and unsure of what his future held, he said the hardest part was having to lie to his father, to reassure him that he was going to be OK.

Ganonyan, who eventually regained his ability to walk, said he soon realized that although his life would never be the same, he had gained a powerful new perspective.

“I gained something so powerful – the ability to help my brothers who were going through the same thing. I didn’t know, but in the moment that I got my life back, Brothers for Life was born,” he said.

Arale Wattenstein, a Brothers for Life member since 2010, spoke about the impact the organization continues to have on his life.

During an anti-terror operation in the West Bank in 2005, the vehicle Wattenstein was riding in was hit with a Molotov cocktail and he caught fire. Realizing that it was the only way to save the rest of the soldiers in the truck, which was filled with ammunition and explosives, he jumped out of the speeding truck, fracturing his spine and suffering serious burns to the lower part of his body.

He said that when Ganonyan came to visit him following his injury, “he told me that if he survived and he is able to walk again, live and love, soon I would, too.

“I spent hours sitting and speaking with Gili and the others.… Together, we healed, grew and empowered one another.… I realized that if I could get out of my wheelchair and walk, run, dance, live and love, then surely I could help others do that, as well.

“You can give a man a prosthetic leg, but even the best doctors in the world cannot give you a prosthetic soul.”