By Josh Hasten/JNS.org
The wave of Palestinian terrorism plaguing Israel has caused mass fear, injuries, and deaths. The news is almost impossible to keep up with, as violent attacks against Israeli Jewish civilians occur on an almost hourly basis.
Despite the chaos, one organization whose goal, almost ironically, is to care for the orphans and widows of Israeli security personnel in uniform—soldiers and police officers whose lives were cut short in a war, terror attack, or even a traffic accident—recently decided to go ahead with its annual communal bar/bat mitzvah event in order to be present alongside the bereaved children during their special milestone.
The organization, known as the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), is the sole non-profit recognized by the State of Israel that represents and supports the families of those killed while serving their country. The group provides social, emotional, and financial support for widows and orphans who have suffered the loss of a spouse or parent. The organization steps in immediately from the moment the family receives the knock on the door informing it of the tragic loss.
While the festive bar/bat mitzvah event for 45 children from all over the country was originally scheduled to take place at the Western Wall, as it is annually, the organization this week moved the event to the Herzl Museum on Mount Herzl as a result of the security situation in Israel.
Yuval Lipkin, IDFWO’s CEO, says that “despite the ongoing wave of terror, we did everything in our power to ensure that the event was held in Jerusalem, while taking the highest precautions to ensure the safety of those celebrating.”
Nava Shoham-Solan, whose husband was killed in 1982 in Israel’s First Lebanon War, is the organization’s chairperson. She had started working with IDFWO as a volunteer in 2007.
As the children gathered for a group photo in a plaza within the Herzl Museum confines at this week’s event, sporting their event souvenir white t-shirts decorated with their bar/bat mitzvah ages—13 (for boys) and 12 (for girls)—Shoham-Solan spent some time talking about the organization’s mission.
“When the man of the house is no longer present, the family can fall apart. It’s like a broken vase shattered into hundreds of pieces. IDFWO is tasked with helping to put those pieces back together and to help return the family to some sense of normalcy,” she says.
Shoham-Solan explained that in addition to the annual bar/bat mitzvah celebration, the organization hosts special camps several times a year during the Jewish holidays and during summer vacation, to allow the nearly 3,000 children the organization reaches to come together. She stressed the therapeutic importance of those camps for children who have gone through similar tragic experiences, allowing them to be together in order to express mutual empathy, support, and understanding.
“These camps provide a forum where the kids can open up to each other, showing support, and assisting in the coping process. It is therapeutic for them,” she says.
Shoham-Solan added that one of the most important goals of the organization is to be with the orphans during their most important lifecycle events, which instead of bringing joy can possibly elicit feelings of loss because a parent is missing.
“We are there when the children enter first grade to provide school supplies, [we’re there] like today to give them a bar/bat mitzvah, when they enter the army, to provide scholarships when they go to college, and we even help them with small checks to pay for their weddings,” she says.
She says that the organization’s widow population of approximately 5,000 female participants (with some widowers as well) also have programming designed for them. This includes trips and retreats, therapies, and courses—for instance, training on how to manage finances, which for widows traditionally might have been the responsibility of their late husbands.
Whether it is working with orphans or widows, Shoham-Solan says that another reason she was able to personally connect with her organization’s mission and become involved was because she saw firsthand the need for increased benefits for the relatives of victims. She says that when her husband was killed, she received the basics from the government, but realized that she—along with the widows and orphans she is now working with—needed much more to get by.
Following the Herzl Museum visit, the group prepared to head to an event hall across the street for the actual bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. Shlomi Nahumson—the organization’s director of youth programs, who runs the various camps—says that while the entire day’s activities were originally scheduled to be held at the Western Wall, it was certainly fitting that the kids toured the Herzl Museum as part of their bar/bat mitzvahs.
“These kids’ families gave their lives for our country and our heritage. Some of them even have family members buried here [next door at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery], and it was important for them to learn about the legacy of Herzl and the story of Zionism through this tour and presentation,” Nahumson says.
In attendance at the ceremony, which began with festive music from an IDF band, was IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz. After giving words of encouragement and praise to the youths, Peretz, together with Shoham-Solan, gave each bar mitzvah boy his first set of tefillin. Each tefillin bag was embroidered with the IDF logo and the child’s name. The girls received ornate Shabbat candlesticks and a set of Jewish books.
Following the event, a festive party was held for the new bar/bat mitzvah children at the Jerusalem theatre, attended by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. Despite the ongoing wave of terrorism across the country, the dignitaries all came, spoke, and celebrated together with the b’nei mitzvah as one extended family.
For more information about IDFWO, visit https://www.idfwo.org/homePage.htm.