Bereaved US, Israeli families share a loss that bridges cultures

IDF Widows and Orphans Organization: We want them to know that they are not alone in this loss, that there are thousands who understand.

April 21, 2015 02:35
Mount Herzl

Mount Herzl military cemetery. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Loss is a shared experience, whether for Israelis or Americans, because to lose a husband or a father is a break for all of life, Nava Shoham, chairwoman of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, recently told The Jerusalem Post.

Speaking ahead of Remembrance Day, Shoham and her counterparts at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) in the United States spoke about loss and finding new hope, as well as the cross-cultural and cross-boundary bonds that are forged when one loses a loved one in service to the country.

“After the knock on the door and the fall into the abyss, there is a way to get out and find a lot of happiness in life – this is the message I try to provide to new widows and orphans,” said Shoham.

The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), a nonprofit founded in 1991, is the sole organization recognized by Israel representing the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers. The organization works to protect the rights of, and to provide support and welfare activities for, IDF widows and orphans.

“We accompany the children and their mothers at all their important milestones, from birth to marriage,” she said.

“We want her [the mother] to know that she is not alone in this loss, that there are thousands of other women who have lost that which is dearest to them.”

Through numerous programs providing support for widows and orphans, the organization aims to “bring back the smiles” to both the mothers and the children who have experienced loss.

One of the highlights of the organization’s activities is the OTZMA camp program. Since 2011, every year for Hanukka, Passover, and Succot, hundreds of children from all over the country who have lost a parent in the IDF get together to participate in fun-filled activities and to celebrate the holidays together.

“We let the children disconnect from all the responsibilities that fell upon them when they lost their father,” said Shoham. “They meet with peers and this allows them to talk about their fathers, to cry, and some even use dark humor to cope,” she said.

In addition, OTZMA runs a summer camp program in the US, which, in cooperation with TAPS, brings Israeli orphans for a tour of the US and introduces them to American counterparts.

“Two years ago we brought bar and bat mitzva children to Washington, DC, and there they met with orphans from the US,” explained Shoham.

“They spent a few days together, and even though there was a language gap, the children were able to develop a shared dialogue through special activities,” she said.

According to the IDFWO head, forging bonds with American children who have experienced similar loss is an important and worthy cause.

“It shows the children that not only does Israel fight for its independence, and not only in Israel are there orphans, but that there are other children who have to deal with the loss, too,” she said.

The collaboration between the IDFWO and TAPS was a natural connection as both organizations share similar values, common goals and a mutual sense of loss.

“Quite a number of years ago we had the opportunity to meet the leadership of IDFWO, and it was a natural connection, as we both care for the children who lost a parent in the military,” Bonnie Carroll, founder and president of TAPS, told the Post.

TAPS is a US-based nonprofit organization offering care and assistance to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in the US Armed Forces.

“The international community understanding of loss and grief, and especially with Israel being such an ally to the US, is a priority for us,” said Linda Davis, executive vice president of TAPS.

“I think it is very important for us not only to support one another on the battlefield, but it is always important for us to know that we will be supporting each other if there is a loss or a death, and that we will never leave the family behind,” she said.

For the past few years the connection between Israeli and US children has been forged through these summer camp exchanges. Last year, ahead of Remembrance Day, a delegation of US families arrived in Israel as part of an eight-day program coordinated by the two organizations.

Stephanie Swisher, senior manager of the TAPS youth program and a surviving widow with three children, arrived in Israel as part of the US delegation along with her teenage daughter.

As part of their trip to Israel, the families toured Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Yad Vashem, and an IDF military base in Palmahim, south of Tel Aviv. The American families were also able to witness how Israelis commemorate Remembrance Day.

“One of the things we commented on was that the poignancy of it was the serenity – the fact that the whole country was coming together at the same time to remember – there was a focus and an expression of gratitude of the contributions of the fallen,” said Davis. “Unfortunately, here [in the US] not everyone serves in the military, and in Israel every single family is touched, and so there is a collective engagement in this ceremony that sometimes in the US has devolved now to just a holiday where people don’t quite always understand what its meaning is.”

According to Swisher, Memorial Day in the US is “more of a BBQ kind of holiday where people who haven’t had military losses don’t often recognize the holiday.”

As such, each year on Memorial Day, TAPS organizes a national seminar bringing hundreds of widows and orphans together to honor and commemorate the holiday.

“We essentially try to create the atmosphere that we found in Israel,” said Davis.

For Shoham, these cultural differences in how the two countries commemorate their fallen comes as no surprise.

According to the IDFWO head, every Israeli family is touched by the IDF, and this makes Remembrance Day a day “not only for the families of the fallen soldiers, but for everyone else to remember what they fell for.”

“Here we are fighting for our survival, we are fighting on our land for our existence – this is the only land we have, and we have to save it, and without this small country I don’t know where we would go,” she said.

Shoham said despite these cultural differences, for the American and Israeli families, widows and orphans the similarities and shared experiences come not from how the countries commemorate their fallen but from the painful experience of losing a loved one.

As part of the US delegation trip to Israel last year, the American families spent three nights with Israeli hosts – widows and orphans of the IDF.

“Meeting the host families was the highlight of the trip,” recalled Swisher. “It was an instant friend that you just know what their life is like – we shared stories and talked about the children’s fathers like we were friends for life.”

“We immediately realized the similarities with the host families, the day to day of how we grieve – despite cultural differences and barriers we really do grieve in a similar way. The teenagers connected without having to tell the specifics of their story. It was really amazing to see that bond created with the host families, and we still keep in touch today,” she added.

Davis, who also accompanied the delegation in Israel, concurred.

“The highlight was the chance to be with the IDFWO families and realize that within minutes of meeting one another, there was a strong identification – a lifetime bond of shared experience,” she said.

The two organizations aim to expand their collaborations in the hope of making these international exchanges an annual tradition and spreading their messages of cross-cultural understanding, shared experiences and new hope.

“We would very much like to make this an ongoing relationship, despite the logistical and financial challenges,” said Carroll. “It is important to know that we [Israeli and US widows and orphans] are not alone, that we grieve together and that we stand together,” she said.

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