Pittsburgh provides two-week respite for wounded Israeli war veterans
Peoplehood412 Friends of Zahal

Pittsburgh provides two-week respite for wounded Israeli war veterans

"It’s important that they get to come and see that they have support, that we are behind them, that we care'"

A delegation of wounded Israeli war veterans visited Pittsburgh between May 12-26. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
A delegation of wounded Israeli war veterans visited Pittsburgh between May 12-26. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Some came to sit. Some came to speak. The reasons why seven wounded Israeli war veterans visited Pittsburgh varied. What united the group, they said, were their feelings about being here.

Housed by community members, feted by elected officials and respectfully greeted by Jewish day school students, the delegation said they were treated like royalty throughout their May 12-26 stay.

“This is a big, supportive, very welcoming and strong community,” Roy Levy, 42, said.

Speaking about their hosts, or about what it was like joining strangers in a solidarity march from Beth Shalom Congregation to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on May 19, was easy. Speaking about the situation in Israel since Oct. 7, or what it’s like leaving family — and a country at war — was harder.

“In Israel, I feel alone all the time. This is how the world makes us feel,” Otniel Danzinger, 37, said.

“Back home, you feel alone — that there’s loneliness everywhere,” Levy echoed.

Shlomi, 42, donned opaque glasses and asked that his last name be withheld due to continued military service.

The simplest tasks can lead to difficult feelings, he said: “If I go in the street, I need to look around 10 times a minute.”

“In Israel, everybody has PTSD, maybe not with the diagnosis but behaviorally everybody has it,” Danzinger said. “Every time a child hears a boom — even if it’s a door — the dog, my child, they wonder what happened.”

“I tell people we can’t even imagine this,” Point Breeze resident Sandy Zell said.

“Imagine every night having rockets coming over, having to sleep in a safe room, or McKnight Road being missiled, Carson Street getting attacked? Imagine if they wiped out the population of Cranberry, or if they kidnapped 4,500 people in Cranberry, what would we do?”

Zell and his wife, Barbara, co-chair 412 Friends of Zahal. Launched by the late Sylvia Robinson, the nearly 50-year-old group annually welcomes wounded Israeli veterans to Pittsburgh for two weeks of respite.

This year, the Zells hosted two of the seven delegates, accompanied the entire party on several local outings and even spent time with the group in Niagara Falls.

“It’s important that they get to come and see that they have support, that we are behind them, that we care,” Barbara Zell said. “They can go back with a better feeling.”

Allegheny County Councilmen Samuel DeMarco III, left, and Bob Macey, right, present a proclamation regarding the delegation’s visit. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Zell)

Moy Margalit, 53, wasn’t interested in talking about returning to Israel yet.

Instead, Margalit was fixated on why she traveled 6,000 miles from home.

“I came to speak about Israel, to try to find a solution for us, and to tell everyone how it feels after the attack,” she said.

“With social media and the news, the truth is harder to accept,” she continued.

“People look at us like we are monsters. They forget that our hostages are still there. They forget that people raped them.”

“All the world has to know these acts that the terrorist organization did in our community,” Bassam Sabik, 49, said. “Hamas murdered children in front of their parents, murdered parents in front of their children. They burnt people alive. They raped women. They beheaded men. They tortured Holocaust survivors. They kidnapped babies. They committed the most horrific crime against people who thought they were peaceful neighbors.”

Sabik is a lawyer in the Israel Land Authority, a governmental body.

When asked more about the Israel-Hamas war, Sabik cited a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Sabik is a member of the Druze religious community.

He insisted on sharing “what that means” in the Jewish state.

“According to our faith,” Sabik said, “we must be loyal to the country that we live in. In Israel, that means among other things the duty of serving in the army. We serve with pride in all units.”

They are our brothers,” Levy said.

“We are an inseparable part of the Israeli community and take pride in our bond with the Israelis and with Israel,” Sabik said. “We are not tourists. We live in Israel, and when you live in a country you have to be loyal to the country that you live in.”

Community members joined the Israeli vets at a Washington Wild Things baseball game. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Zell)

Duty prompts various practices. For the Zells, that sense of obligation means opening their home, providing a near-endless supply of bottled water and beer and creating a place of refuge. “They’re here for two weeks, but they become our brothers and sisters for life,” Sandy Zell said.

“We do it because it’s our heart. It’s our life. It’s our souls. We know that they’re there for us and we want to be there for them,” Barbara Zell said.

For more than an hour, the delegates sat around a shaded table in a Point Breeze backyard.

Cigarettes were smoked. Beverages were consumed. As the afternoon progressed, the delegates articulated their thoughts about returning to their family and friends in Israel, about what it means to go back to a country at war.

“I’m a commander, I have soldiers in Israel, and all the time I have to be serious,” Shlomi said.

“All day I’m in my uniform. I just take it off before I get to shower and go to sleep.”

“It’s scary sometimes,” Elad Azouly, 37, said. “Imagine you have two kids who see their father killed in front of them — or a dad who sees the slaughtering of his kids in front of his eyes — and can do nothing … I just want to live my life. I want to raise my kids, my family, without having to look behind my shoulder all the time.”

The Israeli’s comments were interrupted by a chirping bird.

Azouly deemed it a welcome distraction.

“My body’s here but my head is still in Israel. That gap went smaller and smaller while I was here,” he said. “Thank you guys a lot. I appreciate it.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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