THE WEEKLY email from the shul rarely gets more than a glance but this one caught my eye. In among the details of services was an appeal to families to host a wounded Israeli soldier for a visit to London. I sent it to Simon, my husband. He replied, within seconds: “Definitely!” From then on, it became his project.
The delegation was due to arrive in November, immediately after our son’s barmitzvah in Israel. As the days ticked by, I began to question my sanity.
The day after we landed at Ben Gurion for the barmitzvah, our allotted soldier, Wisam, drove twoand-a-half hours to meet us for a drink in Tel Aviv. All we knew was that he was around our age, married with three children and that he was not Jewish but Druze.
I was blown away by his resemblance to Simon’s family — they could have been related. We could not have foreseen the emotional impact of his visit.
A few weeks later, a shy and quiet Wisam arrived at our house laden with home-made Druze delicacies: olives, olive oil and a mountain of freshly baked bread.
With family spread worldwide, our three boys are no strangers to house guests. But this was different.
The programme organisers designed a packed schedule for our visitors, who they described as “walking wounded”. Guests ranged from 21 to 60, with varying degrees of injury. While some had been wounded as far back as the Yom Kippur War, others were felled in battle as recently as 2014.
These eight men and two women had suffered a range of traumas and this was our attempt to welcome them into our hearts and homes as a sign of our appreciation, a recognition of their sacrifices to preserve our right to a Jewish homeland. Wasim, the Kolirins’ guest They are not just defined by their experiences in the military. They are individuals with jobs and families who have experienced trauma, something many of them have fought long and hard to overcome. They are all members of Beit Halochem, an organisation that supports veterans and their families with exceptional rehabilitative services and life-long care.
We were warned not to question them — they would open up if they chose to. For Wisam, this came after a late-night drinking session with Simon following a party for the group and host families.
Earlier in the evening the veterans had staged a military graduation ceremony for the host children. They presented them with the berets of their own units — an experience which sends shivers down my spine even now, just thinking of it.
The evening was overwhelmingly emotional, with lots of hugs, selfies and tears. On a long alcoholfuelled walk home later, Wisam opened up to Simon about his physical and emotional injuries and how much the stay with our family had meant to him.
The bond we formed not just with Wisam, but with some of the others — both here and from Israel — was remarkable. These friendships were forged over simple things: a singalong, fish and chips, bowling, shopping at Primark, a night at the dog track and more.
Beit Halochem is supported by two charities here in England. Beit Halochem UK (BHUK) raises funds for the physical, psychological and occupational needs of the veterans at the organisation’s five centres in Israel. It regularly stages fundraising events, while also bringing wounded spokespeople for the group to speak at various community events. Later this month, it will stage a special Yom Hazikaron service featuring Hanoch Budin, who was injured in the 1982 Lebanon War but went on to Paralympic glory.
The British Friends of Israel War Disabled supports the charity in a completely different way. Their role is to connect host families with groups of visiting veterans like ours.
Chairman Frank Weinberg explained: “We talk about rehabilitation and it’s certainly that, plus they are away from the drudge and the routine. They come here and don’t have to worry about anything.”
The respite is not just for them but their families too, according to Weinberg.
“A young couple gets married then the guy gets wounded. His wife effectively becomes a carer.
“There’s a major problem with the spouse who is tied to the home or their partner by virtue of their partner’s injury. Therefore, to a large extent, not only is it respite and rehabilitation for the veterans but quite often it’s for the spouse or parents left in Israel.”
As for the hosts, he says: “It’s not just about giving someone a bed, but a commitment to spend time with them.
“You give up your time and you see the change in the person you are hosting from day one to day 10. You don’t need to be wealthy — what you do need is a time commitment.”
Thanks to generous legacies, the charity foots the bill for air-fares, with shul committees fundraising for hospitality during the visits. “While the groups are here they don’t have to put their hands in their pockets for a single penny,” says Frank Weinberg.
“It’s such an eye-opener to see the level of love for the state of Israel through the host families and the organisers and their different groups.
“They will talk about this wonderful community and how they do so much for Israel. It’s knowing that there are people outside Israel who care about them.”
Weinberg himself became involved after his parents acted as hosts. He has since welcomed several veterans into his home, who have gone on to become close family friends.
“We hosted a guy in a wheelchair who was injured in the Yom Kippur war. He came with his wife and, at the farewell party, all the guys in wheelchairs were dancing around. Standing in the corner was the wife, crying. She said: ‘Tonight for the first time in my life, I danced with my husband.’
“When it was their daughter’s wedding, I went to Israel. He was on the dance floor, dancing with his daughter. That might never have happened had he not come on one of our trips.”
At the end of the week hosting Wisam, we had an emotional farewell. He left with a suitcase of presents for his children and a place in each our hearts. www.bfiwd.org www.bhuk.org
The Kolirins say goodbye to Wasim