Nadav Ben-Yehuda, 24, the mountain climber from Rehovot who in May performed a daring rescue operation near the peak of Mount Everest, on Tuesday received the president’s special citation for humanity. With little concern for his own safety, Ben-Yehuda carried Turkish climber Aydin Irmak, 46, to a lower elevation after finding him in a state of collapse.

The heroic deed cost Ben-Yehuda his dream of being the youngest Israeli to conquer the world’s highest mountain, but in his view it was dwarfed by the urgency of saving a life – of someone who happened to be his friend, notwithstanding Turkey’s hostility to Israel.

Ben-Yehuda carried Irmak strapped to his back for eight hours before they came across a group of climbers who helped them to reach safety. The Israeli was only 300 meters from the top when he discovered Irmak, who had lost consciousness.

Ben-Yehuda unhesitatingly bent down to wake him up, knowing instinctively that otherwise Irmak would die.

Both men suffered severe frostbite, and doctors are still trying to save two of Ben- Yehuda’s fingers. He came to the ceremony wearing a glove on his right hand, which he stretched out to shake that of President Shimon Peres. Sensitive to the pain he might cause him, Peres took his left hand instead. He told the climber: “You missed out on the geographic peak, but you reached the peak of humanity – where you stand tall, strong and courageous.”

The presentation at the President’s Residence was made during the awards ceremony of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism, held in conjunction with the National Council for Volunteering, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

NCV founding chairwoman Esther Herlitz, 90, was present, as was current chairman Yoram Sagi Zacks. Also present was Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson, who chaired the selection panel and told the honorees they were examples others should follow.

Volunteerism did not start with the creation of the State, said Peres, but long before, with the departure of the Turks.

The population of the state-in-the-making had no experience, no money. The only person who understood anything about finance, Peres continued, was Yitzhak Ben- Zvi, who eventually became Israel’s second president – “but he dealt in ancient coins.”

Listing all the natural resources that Israel did not have, Peres said that there was only one, most important resource, the human resource, adding that the country is “a nation of volunteers.”

The 12 award recipients included:

• Egyptian-born Dr. Ada Aharoni, for promoting peace initiatives between Jews and Arabs. She has initiated many projects, among them the Peace Train for Children and a storytelling festival about peace.

• Save a Child’s Heart, the Israel-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries with heart disease, and to create centers of competence there. SACH has sent 60 medical teams abroad, and in Israel has operated on 3,000 children from 42 countries.

• Lt.-Col. Yuval Wagner, a former combat pilot who became a paraplegic after his helicopter crashed. He fought to remain in the air force, where he began working towards the absorption of the disabled into mainstream society. In 1999, with the encouragement of thenpresident Ezer Weizman, he founded Access Israel; Reuma Weizman, 87, attended the ceremony.

• Shatal 121 Air Force Technical Intelligence Services, whose crew, including top ranking officers, have been volunteering at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tiva for the past 11 years.

• Noaf Zemiro, born in Kalanswa in 1972, who has struggled with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis all his life. After a difficult childhood and years of frustration, living in a wheelchair, he decided to initiate activities on behalf of the disabled including fun days and workshops.

• Marcel Lavi Shacham, a native of Dimona, for her manifold activities in improving the quality of life in the Negev, particularly in the areas of education and soldier welfare.

• Yeladim – Fair Chance for Children, which ensures the well-being of over 10,000 children under the age of 18, who live in 90 residential group homes around the country.

• Sheikh Ali Sallah Nasreldin, who worked for 47 years for Mekorot, the national water carrier, and ceaselessly promoted coexistence between the company’s Jewish, Druse, Muslim and Christian employees. He also lectured Western Galilee students on the country’s water problems, uniting pupils of different ethnic backgrounds in finding solutions.

• Rachel Nafshi, for her work with battered wives and children. A teacher who volunteered in various Haifa organizations, in 2002 she founded an organization with the mission of reducing family violence, and works to integrate mothers of these families into the workforce.

• Olim Beyahad, an organization of some 1,500 volunteers who help around 500 Ethiopian academics gain the qualifications to integrate into all areas of the workforce and improve the quality of their lives.

• Tapuach, a nonprofit organization established in 2000 to reduce the social gap and create equal opportunities for all, through promotion of scientific and technological studies for populations in peripheral areas.

• Ben Havardi, 16 from Kiryat Bialik, who has been a volunteer since age 9, helping other children and needy senior citizens.

His motto: “The love you receive is equivalent to the love you give.”

There was much entertainment at the event, but what most impacted the hundreds of attendees was a group of wheelchair dancers who perform under the title Hagal b’Maagal – The Wave in the Circle. Because they cannot use their legs, they wave their arms and torsos. The audience clapped enthusiastically to the music and gave them a roaring cheer of approval before they left the stage.

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