The woman whose poignant pleas to the Israeli government to do whatever it would take to repatriate captured soldier Gilad Schalit – even releasing her own son’s killer – served as presenter of the Shalva “Spirit of Hope” award to the former hostage at the organization’s 24th Anniversary dinner in New York.
Esther Wachsman, whose son Nachshon was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994 and killed during a failed rescue attempt by an elite force, told successive prime ministers that she would support releasing her son’s killer in order to repatriate Schalit. Once liberated, Schalit joined Wachsman as a volunteer at Shalva, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel, the nation’s pre-eminent facility for special needs children.
“When Nachshon was held by Hamas, they demanded the release of 200 terrorists and their spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said at the time that under no circumstances would he ever negotiate with terrorists or yield to blackmail,” Wachsman told The Media Line. “And he put together a military action to save [Nachshon] and it failed and I never saw my son again.”
Wachsman said that she and her husband often visited the protest tent the Schalit family set up outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and “saw the suffering of those parents.” She said it was there that she vowed “purely as a mother and with no political thought that I couldn’t get my son back but this mother had a chance of having her son come home and I was going to do everything in my power to make that happen.”
Philanthropist Stewart Rahr, a Shalva benefactor, underscored the impact of Wachsman’s words. He told The Media Line that, “My ex-mother-in-law lost her son who was in his 20s and never got over it. She still speaks about him frequently and the pain is, even now, palpable. Through her own sacrifice, Esther heroically reminds us that burying a child defies nature and if someone can help prevent such a tragedy, it’s important to do so.”
Nevertheless, Wachsman said she encountered opposition from her own family. “My children were adamantly against it, asking, ‘What if 1,000 prisoners are released and one kills me?’”
As for Schalit, meeting and bonding with Esther Wachsman took him to Shalva, where he was a fixture in prayers for five years. “I wanted to give back to the Israeli people in return for all they did for me,” Schalit told The Media Line. “Esther introduced me to Shalva and I’ve been volunteering there with her ever since.”
In fact, during his captivity, two Shalva youngsters with an interest in journalism traveled to the United States where they interviewed many notables and elected officials, always asking what they are doing to secure Schalit’s release. When he was freed, the first and only interview Gilad granted was to the “Shalva correspondents.”
Rabbi Kalman Samuels, Shalva’s executive director, told The Media Line that Wachsman’s son, Rafael, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, has received care from the organization for most of his life. In fact, “Rafael stayed with us at Shalva during the time his brother was being held by Hamas until after the “shiva” mourning period.
“Just as Gilad Schalit’s life took an unexpected turn he wasn’t expecting, all the lives associated with Shalva also took unexpected turns,” said Samuels. The honor bestowed on Schalit, he explained, was “for the hope that Gilad gives to everyone who knows him that nothing is impossible; and we could think of no one more appropriate than Esther Wachsman to make the presentation. She fought for him and didn’t want Gilad to have the same fate that her son had.”
Shalva itself resulted from the bond between parents and child when Samuels and his wife, Malki, fulfilled a personal pledge to give back after their son, Yossi, who lost sight and hearing upon receiving a defective DPT vaccination at 11-months of age, showed dramatic progress in his rehabilitation at the age of 8. The Samuels’ in 1990 set out to provide “peace of mind” (translation of the Hebrew, “Shalva”) to families with special-needs children.
The Shalva National Center expects to open its new 11-story facility in Jerusalem in 2015. It will offer 200,000 square foot of space on a 7-acre plot in the heart of the city.