Welcoming and honoring heroes from their home country, Jews in New York welcomed the latest annual batch of Israeli heroes to their city on behalf of Belev Echad- led by Rabbi Uriel and Shevy Vigler, who run Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side.
Starting in 2010, the two founders, along with the Jewish diaspora in New York organized a tour for wounded soldiers. It was supposed to be a one-time deal, but the reaction of the soldiers and the local community—and the subsequent casualties as a result of the 2014 summer war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip—led to an extension and expansion of the operation. The trip is funded mainly with private donations from American Jews and U.S.-based Israelis.
“Everyone has a cousin or a brother who died [in the Israeli military]. It’s not that Israelis don’t care about the wounded; it’s just that there’s nothing unique about it,” Vigler said. “They come to New York and feel showered with love. They get called heroes.”
A dozen wounded warriors were brought to New York this May, feted by the local Jewish community, and given the hero’s welcome and treatment they say doesn’t exist back home, due to cultural stigmatism and a war-weary populace. The soldiers say the experience is life-changing.
This year’s trip was decked with a host of activities, including a Broadway performance by the Blue Man Group; a meeting with Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan at U.N. headquarters; a shopping excursion to Fifth Avenue; a stop at the Ground Zero Memorial in Lower Manhattan; a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; a visit to the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; and a motorcycle ride across the city. The veterans’ group included a broad spectrum of professionals, including a software developer, construction foreman, real estate broker, and illustrator.
As part of the New York tour, the IDF veterans also took a helicopter flight over the Statue of Liberty.