On a flight from Israel back home: who 'adopted' whom?
By Carine Chitayat
ABOARD EL AL AIRLINES–I am flying to LAX from Ben Gurion Airport as I write this. I was in Israel for a very short visit on behalf of the Adopt A Family program at Congregation Beth Am. It’s been a fast week, leaving on a Thursday and returning exactly one week later.
I had decided this past Rosh Hashana that I was due for a visit.
We began reaching out to Israeli victims of terror and war violence exactly seven years ago, and now with six families “on board,” I thought it was time to connect again with them on their own turf. So, I packed my bag, organized my own family and left my husband in charge.
I decided I would schedule myself from the northern part of Israel to the south. First I’d visit Rachel Koren in Haifa, then go to Jerusalem to visit the Pinto family, and continue on to Sha’ar Hanegev to meet with the Galkowicz family and the Kdoshim family.
Just before departing, I heard that Rachel Koren had lost her father, that Natan Galkowicz had an accident and almost lost his hand in the main gate of his kibbutz, and that Suzy Pinto was sick with H1N1. But still, I decided to make my way to Israel.
And I am so glad I went!
We hear the news; we know that Israelis don’t have it easy—especially not those families who have suffered great losses and deep trauma. Our organization does what it can—providing some financial and emotional support, but we know that our efforts are very limited in their impact. We are not therapists; we are just offering a healing hand — “friendship”. With the support of our San Diego Jewish community and donors, we are showing them that we care.
Now, returning on this plane, it is I who feels that she was adopted.
It started when Rachel Koren’s son-in-law picked me up at Ben Gurion Airport and drove me up to Haifa, stopping by his home, so that I could see his children. It was followed by Rachel’s friends inviting us for Shabbat Dinner. I was also overwhelmed by the way Rachel made me feel in her home. I felt I was visiting one of my best friends, even though it was a period of sorrow, as she just had lost her father.
Rachel had lost her husband and two sons seven years ago. It took her a lot of time and strength to decide to remodel her small apartment, so that she could bear to live inside these walls. Finally, she decided to remodel in such a way that she could entertain, a little bit more comfortably, her three grandchildren: Shira, an adorable 6 year-old granddaughter, and the 2-year-old twins: Iftah and Itay.
On Sunday, I joined for awhile in the shiva for Rachel’ father then bade the Korens good-bye so that I could continue my mission. I was able to have a lunch meeting with Eyal Dagan, our past shaliach in San Diego, who has returned with his family to the Haifa area. He had helped us to connect with these families. Although he is back in Israel, he was very interested in following the progress of our program. I enjoyed seeing him in his own setting and really appreciated that he took the time to meet.
I made my way to Jerusalem to visit Suzy and Avi Pinto, after a prayer at Ha Kotel. Avi had suffered from terrible head trauma and a coma. Initially, the doctors didn’t leave the family with much hope for his recovery. The first time I met Avi was when he and his brother spent approximately a week in San Diego, at our invitation, as Avi had reached an impasse with recovery and therapy. At the time, Avi could barely walk, couldn’t run, and would only speak Hebrew.
I had visited Avi twice in Jerusalem in the past, but was stunned by his metamorphosis. Avi stood tall in the doorway, long hair on his shoulders, welcoming me with a huge smile, and even greeting me with a few words of my native French! His mother was originally from Morocco, and Avi had learned French by listening to her. Over an amazing Moroccan dinner, I was able to have a full conversation in English with Avi, and in French with his mother. It really amazed me how the power of will can work.
Notwithstanding the very positive visible physical improvement, Avi is still having a very hard time, He still suffers from unbearable headaches and it is difficult for him to be surrounded by people. These past years, Avi has spent a lot of time in his room, removed from others. He has lost all his friends. None comes to visit any more or to try to take him for an outing. Only Avi’s family tries to entertain him.
Last year, he was able to participate in a design program in Tel Aviv, where he would go once a week for classes. He discovered a new passion: designing clothes. Now that the class is over, I believe that it is even more difficult for him not to have this opportunity anymore.
A neighbor gave Avi an old sewing machine, and Avi has been sewing. He deserves to be discovered. His “line” is truly impressive and original. Avi’s dream is to find a job in Tel Aviv in a boutique. Move out and move on. I would love to make this dream a reality.
From Jerusalem, I was able to rendezvous with a touring group from San Diego United Jewish Federation’s Women’s Division to go to Sha’ar Hanegev, the partnership region in Israel for San Diego. It was an experience to join the group of American women, some of whom were wondering why people would choose to live in such a dangerous area, bordered by the Gaza Strip.
They made their lives there, and wouldn’t abandon either their living relatives or their deceased ones. This is their home and a lot of them are committed to stay.
Natan Galkowicz was waiting for me at the first stop in Sha’ar Hanegev, the Ibim Village. He introduced me to his daughter Sharon, who just got married. We drove to their kibbutz, Bror Hail. I know that it has been difficult for Natan’s family to comprehend his need to belong to our program. Since the death by a rocket of his oldest daughter, Dana, other members of his family refused to share their tragedy with anyone. But Natan, a computer engineer, needs to express his sorrow and his hope of peace. That is why we had him come to San Diego this past May to share his views with our community, friends, children and students.
He wanted me to “break” the ice by meeting his family. Sharon had made coffee in her small house in the kibbutz. She was very nice and actually very friendly. Her English and accent are far better than mine. Natan and I also went to see the restaurant that he created in memory of his daughter and as a gathering place for the people of the Kibbutz and the region.
Tucked on the side of the restaurant are a couple of benches, some flowers and an iron figure of a couple sitting peacefully, in love. An unbearable moment to share with Natan: this is Dana’s corner. It is a memory that Natan and his family keep of their daughter in love with her fiancé, Amir.
Natan, originally from Brazil, and his wife Perla, who immigrated from Argentina, chose Sha’ar Hanegev and their kibbutz ,in particular, to provide their children with what they hoped would be a safe life, far from the stress of Tel Aviv, in a more open and beautiful environment. The region is beautiful. But Dana and many more are missing.
Perla was waiting for us at Sapir College, where she works as a graphic designer. Natan was nervous, Perla was tense. But she took me around to show me her college . She shared with me their new media center, their library, the cafeteria and her office. They both pointed out areas where students had been killed by rockets, simply while getting a coffee or parking their car. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was like that on any campus, students walking, joking. No stress, no tension.
I was more surprised by the number of Bedouin students on the campus. I did not know.
Perla showed me the new bomb shelters on campus. We left each other with a much better feeling and Natan was very happy that the ice had been broken.
He took me then to visit Ana Kdoshim, our latest adopted family member whose home is Kibbutz Kfar Aza. The kibbutz is located four kilometers from the Gaza Strip, surrounded by beautiful fields. Nothing seems abnormal. I did not see any specific security, no tanks, no helicopters. Gaza seems like a big developed city, just four kilometers away. Is this really the area so often in the world news?
Ana was waiting for us. Her house is nice. Natan noted that her kibbutz is wealthier than his Bror Hail.. It shows. A large 400 year old olive tree has been transplanted to where Ana’s husband, Jimmy, was killed by a rocket. With a sad smile, Ana explained that she chose that tree, as it seems that nothing will be able to destroy it. At least not the tree.
She had prepared a nice table, a soup and baked chicken. I couldn’t believe her hospitality. This was our first meeting. Annette Friend, a teacher from the Jewish Learning Center at Congregation Beth Am, has been the main contact with Ana. I have been “behind” the scenes.
Besides for me, this visit was very special for Natan and Ana, who have this deep need to express and share the tragedies of their lives. And who else could understand better than each other?
I invited Ana to come for a visit in San Diego, as we always try to provide a trip for our families. She would like to come, but not alone. Perhaps with another family, she replied.
Natan drove me back to Tel Aviv, with “one hand” as the other one was in a heavy bandage. We had one more stop on the way to Tel Aviv: a meeting with his son Orian on his military base. I was never on a military base before. As the security was rather tight, we met with Orian just for a few minutes at the entrance of the base. Natan had warned me that Orian could be rather quiet, since his sister’s passing. But, once again, I was amazed by his welcome and we had a very nice little chat.
Back in Tel Aviv, I had one-half hour to change and pack my bag: Rachel decided to drive down from Haifa to meet me and have dinner before my flight for LA. Not many friends would drive an hour and a half for a quick dinner!
I don’t know how to thank all of our families for their time, hospitality, and generosity. I feel truly part of their families. I would like to thank my husband and children for their support, for letting me accomplish this trip, but also to all those San Diegans supporting our program, believing in my co-chair Iris Pearlman and I, and helping us to make a true difference in the lives of our families.
Carine Chitayat is co-chair of the Adopt a Family program at Congregation Beth Am, reaching out to Israeli victims of war and terror.
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