Wounded Israeli veterans visit Pittsburgh, explore Israel-Diaspora relations
Peoplehood412 Friends of Zahal

Wounded Israeli veterans visit Pittsburgh, explore Israel-Diaspora relations

'All we did was live our life, but here we saw how important we are'

A delegation of Israeli veterans visits Millie's Homemade. Photo courtesy of Barbara Zell
A delegation of Israeli veterans visits Millie's Homemade. Photo courtesy of Barbara Zell

Mildly warm sunny days are unusual in Pittsburgh. So are chances to sit around a Point Breeze patio table with eight Israeli veterans, but for two weeks in May, community members enjoyed a similar experience, learned about the delegation and gave thought to the future of Israel-Diaspora relations.

Since May 7, two of the eight Israeli visitors have stayed with Sandy and Barbara Zell. The Point Breeze couple co-chair 412 Friends of Zahal, formerly known as American Friends of Israel War Disabled.

As part of their organizational commitment, the Zells annually visit the Jewish state, meet with veterans and invite groups to Pittsburgh. Their efforts continue a communal endeavor initiated more than 40 years ago by the late Sylvia Robinson.

As Robinson explained in a 1996 recording with the National Council of Jewish Women, after observing how Geneva, Switzerland — a city with 5,000 Jews — provided respite to 30 wounded Israeli veterans, she told her husband there was no reason Pittsburgh — a city, which boasted almost eight times as many Jews — couldn’t do the same.

Almost five decades after Robinson committed herself to welcoming wounded Israelis, community members have upheld the charge and worked with Beit Halochem, the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, to greet, host and honor former soldiers.

Doing so is deeply personal, Sandy Zell said: “It’s your duty as a Jew.” After everything these soldiers have endured, “there’s a need to get involved.”

“Hearing those words is really amazing,” Dror Yemini, 49, said. “You can really see the love and the care.”

On the afternoon that the Chronicle spoke with the group, Yemini and the others encircled a large outdoor table for more than an hour. Bottled water and beers circulated. Cigarettes were smoked. A bowl of chips was passed around. The veterans, who didn’t know each other before joining the Pittsburgh delegation, kibitzed. Word quickly spread that after the interview the group was headed to a nearby home for a steak dinner.

Yemini remembered meeting Zell months earlier in Israel.

“He talked to us and started to cry,” Yemini said. “That was the moment I understood this delegation and how people cared about us as soldiers, as Israelis and as Jews. We didn’t believe that far away there are people who care about us a lot.”

Recent trends have shaped Yemini and the other veterans’ beliefs.

In May 2021, Pew Research Center released a poll identifying generational strains toward the Jewish state. Although 67% of U.S. Jews aged 65-plus are very/somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, only 48% among U.S. Jews aged 18-29 answered likewise.

Zell, 65, said that his bond with the vets, and Israel, is largely due to his father, a Holocaust survivor.

“Yeah, but you have scars — the next generation is healed,” Yemini replied.

It’s the same in Canada and the United Kingdom, Yigal Gittayi, 52, said: “This is the situation all over the world.”

Despite Pew’s findings, Zell said he couldn’t accept that younger generations have a waning affinity toward Israel.

“Your heritage is not just your past generation,” he said. “Your heritage is 5,000 years old.”

Barbara Zell, 66, acknowledged that younger people are often busy with work or family, but said she’s optimistic about the future.

“I think when their kids grow up, they will step up,” she said.

But maintaining a bond between the Diaspora and Israel requires effort now, Sandy Zell said: “The work you put into it prevents your personal extinction.”

Several of the vets said they tried to convey a sentiment of continuity and kinship during visits throughout Pittsburgh.

While speaking with retired members of the U.S. military, the Israeli veterans recalled their service and their injuries.

“What we tried to explain was that this didn’t happen in Afghanistan — I was injured 15 minutes from my home,” Gittayi said.

During conversations with students at Community Day School and Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, the visitors described “what it means to be an Israeli soldier, not just for Israel but for the whole Jewish world,” Yemini said. “The students were very quiet in the beginning, but then their eyes opened. In the end, we felt like we did something.”

Former Israeli soldiers join retired members of the U.S. military. Photo courtesy of Barbara Zell

Part of the purpose of the delegation is correcting misconceptions, Jawad Harbawy said.

Harbawy, 50, is Druze. He and his father were both in the Israeli army, and his children are now serving.

This isn’t unique, Harbawy said. For many Druze, “the connection has been there for years.”

Druze joined Jewish forces during the 1948 War of Independence, Harbawy noted, and recalled a statement from Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s former president.

“The covenant between us and the Druze community is a covenant of life. We must ensure that we are always worthy of it, and not just during times of crises and war,” Rivlin said.

Sandy Zell said two weeks with the visitors offers countless inspiring moments, but the veterans are also here to relax and have a good time. Their itinerary includes bowling, laser tag, a pizza party, ax throwing, a trip to Niagara Falls and time to simply sit and chat with Pittsburghers.

“We want people to know that we love them, and we are very appreciative of the attention,” Dudi Levy, 47, said.

“Before joining this delegation I didn’t understand why people would want to host us,” Yemini said. “All we did was live our life, but here we saw how important we are.” PJC

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

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