JERUSALEM — When Ritasue Charlestein peered around the door of the orthopedic ward at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, she saw a mother, bent over her 20-year-old son’s bed. He was propped up on pillows, with both legs elevated in the air.
A week or so before the young man, Artur, an Israel Defence Forces soldier, had been the victim of a hit-and-run that shattered his legs and left a deep scar on his forehead.
Charlestein, in IDF uniform with guitar in hand, learned his story after introducing herself as a volunteer with the IDF Medical Corps. “I have bars in both my legs,” said Artur.
“That is terrible,” responded Charlestein, and reached out to hug and kiss the boy. “I have come from Canada to thank you for your service and tell you I am so proud of you,” she said, adding, “You still have your life. You are a beautiful, smart, strong young man. You will get past this, and you will be OK again.”
Next she offered to sing him a song. Charlestein pulled out her guitar and played a few bars of the Israeli folk classic Adon Olam. Artur hummed along to the music. His mom smiled and his dad sang along. When the three requested an encore, Charlestein, in her powerful voice, belted out a heartfelt rendition of Lu Yehi.
Before she put her guitar away, she handed Artur a piece of paper with her phone number on it. “If there is ever anything I can do, or if you ever want to talk, you can call me anytime,” she said.
Artur looked at her with tears in his eyes. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “You really warmed my heart.”
Artur was one of 18 injured in-service soldiers Charlestein visited and sang to on her daily hospital rounds that day, and one of tens of thousands of soldiers she has visited at 12 hospitals, from Be’er Sheva to Tsfat, over the past 28 years.
“This is what I do. I go to them when they are at their worst, and I try to make them feel better,” says Charlestein, a 55-year-old mother of four from Toronto. “I get a great sense of personal gratification from making the soldiers feel that they are cared for, that they are not alone, that I am with them, that the whole Jewish people are with them.”
The Medical Corps offices at Israeli hospitals have become her second home. Before she does her rounds, she is greeted with hugs and kisses at each office. Young soldiers who care for in-service soldiers in hospital call out “Ritale,” an affectionate nickname for Charlestein. “Every morning when I get dressed and put on this uniform I have tears in my eyes,” she says.
There is something transcendent about the folk songs Charlestein sings. Her own love affair with the genre started at Hebrew day school in New York, she says. “There is no music that touches like this music. It makes me feel completely connected to Israel, to the land, to the people.
“Sometimes I think the soldiers I sing for won’t want to hear this old stuff, but every time a young soldier starts to cry, I realize this music is very special to them, too.”
Charlestein’s volunteer career started in 1982, during the First Lebanon War. Living in Philadelphia at the time, she came to Israel to express her solidarity with IDF soldiers. On her arrival, a representative of the non-profit Association for the Well-being of Israel’s Soldiers (Aguda Lemaan Hachayal) picked her up and took her on a tour of northern-front army bases and hospitals, where she sang for injured soldiers.
“This experience changed my life dramatically,” says Charlestein.
Then she met Simcha Holtzberg, a Holocaust survivor and activist who made it his life’s work to help wounded in-service soldiers and victims of terror. The “Father of the Wounded Soldiers” became Charlestein’s mentor, and she worked with him on her frequent trips to Israel for more than a decade, before he died in 1994.
“I was amazed how he would know exactly what to say to these families. He knew how to make them feel better – when to hug and when to let them cry and when to tell a joke, and when to be silent,” says Charlestein, who carries Holtzberg’s obituary in her wallet.
“He is my inspiration. He is on my shoulder with every soldier I visit, and he helps me to embrace the family with hope and love, and let them know that I am there for them and I am with them.”
With Holtzberg, Charlestein also began visiting victims of terror, through the organizations One Family Fund and Atzum, as well as elderly righteous gentiles living in Israel.
When she left her 15-year home in Toronto for Jerusalem in 2005, it was obvious to Charlestein that she would pursue her volunteer work on a full-time basis. “I realized that what I had started 23 years earlier was waiting for me,” says Charlestein, who left behind a career singing for various Jewish organizations in Toronto and teaching Israeli folk singing to adult and day school students.
When she moved to Israel, she left behind a chapter of personal tragedy: the loss of her eldest son a few years ago, a difficult divorce and an encounter with ovarian cancer. “After my son’s death, singing for the soldiers was the only thing that kept me going,” says Charlestein. “If I didn’t have it, I would have flat-lined a long time ago.”
Charlestein makes a special point of visiting soldiers in the oncology ward. “This is very important to me. I am there at that moment when they think that no one understands the pain and the fear,” she says . “I say to them, ‘You don’t have to say I look young and pretty. But do I look healthy and strong?’ I beat the disease and I want them to believe that they will, too. My story gives them hope.”
The soldiers she visits are equally inspiring to her. Charlestein tells the story of a soldier she visited in the intensive care unit at Soroka University Hospital in Be’er Sheva. An officer in the prestigious Golani infantry brigade, Tal, 26, had been shot in the head and was in a coma. After sitting for a while with the family, Charlestein went into the soldier’s room and sang to him.
The following week, she came and sang for him again. Miraculously, while she was singing, he moved his right arm. Then his left arm. And then one of his legs. Afterward, when Charlestein arrived at her home in Jerusalem, she got a call from the hospital informing her that Tal was awake. “That was my most powerful moment,” says Charlestein.
A year has passed since then, and Tal is now functioning at 90 per cent of his original capacity. “He is a miracle. No one gave him a chance of walking or talking again, and now he jokes with me in both English and Hebrew,” she says. “I live with miracles every day.”
Tal is one of the many soldiers with whom Charlestein has forged deep, long-term relationships. She takes each soldier’s phone number and calls his or her family every Friday. “My closest friends are the people who I sang to 10, 20 years ago,” she says. “They have become my family.”
Charlestein is also connected to a group of Soviet refuseniks she visited in Russia in the 1970s and ’80s. She brought them books, gave them Hebrew lessons and introduced them to Hebrew songs before they made their way to Israel. These trips earned her the title of “Zionist spy.”
In October, Charlestein received an award from the IDF chief of staff, who singled her out as an example of what one individual can do. She was greeted at the ceremony by a commanding officer who had lost both his legs and whom she had visited in hospital over a 10-month period. “He ran to me, on two artificial legs, to hug me,” says Charlestein. “For me that was the best award I could have received.”
The chief of staff honoured her this summer by inviting her to sing Hatikvah at a memorial ceremony for an elite IDF mission to Poland.
“I, the Canadian, stood in my Israeli army uniform, with the ashes of our people behind me, saluting the flag of Israel and representing the IDF,” says Charlestein, choking with emotion. “Other than childbirth, it was the most extraordinary moment of my life.”
Does she ever get depressed, being confronted with pain and tragedy every day? Charlestein responds with a resounding “Never.”
“I find these soldiers’ courage and determination to be extraordinary,” she says. “My life is dedicated to dark places, but from those dark places comes enormous light.”