(photo credit: YAAKOV GUTTMAN)
In addition to the candles, family parties and fried foods, Hanukka is a time to reflect on the heroism and strength that comes from within our own community. The story of Hanukka itself revolves around one particular family – the Maccabees – who rose up to a challenge and are remembered as heroes to this day.
As any immigrant knows, moving to a new country – and then thriving in it – takes a great deal of strength and courage, and among this group of tenacious olim (immigrants), there are countless stories of true heroes.
Just last month, new immigrant firefighter Yaakov Guttman, faced one of the worst blazes in Israel’s history.
“Seeing five- or seven-meter high flames and knowing that if this gets past you it is going to hit citizens and civilians – I felt a huge sense of honor,” said Guttman after fighting fires for 72 hours in Zichron Ya’acov and Sha’ar Hagai, west of Jerusalem.
Guttman, a New Jersey native, made aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2006 after serving in the IDF as a sniper. Between his time in the Israeli army and his return as an official citizen, Guttman served as a firefighter in the Tri-State Area, as well as becoming an EMT.
Upon his return to Israel, Guttman chose to follow-through on his long-held dream of serving the country to which he had committed his life. Here, he finds, he is able to continue giving back to his nation by doing whatever he can both professionally and personally.
These modern-day heroes are not just battling flames. Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, has spent the past 13 years fighting poverty by feeding the needy.
“As a part of our broader food rescue mission, we aim to combat the country’s hunger problems, so that the great citizens of the Israeli nation do not have to live below the poverty line,” he said.
Leket Israel, Israel’s national food bank as well as the country’s leading food rescue network, was started just three years after Gitler made aliya. Gitler’s desire to combat hunger began with a published study that showed one third of Israeli children live below the poverty line.
Leket has grown immensely since those first few years. In the past year alone, the organization collected and delivered more than 13.5 million kilograms (over 30 million pounds) of fresh food for the needy.
Since the establishment of the organization, Gitler’s contribution to this country has been widely recognized, and he has been the recipient of several awards including the Bonei Zion Prize in 2014. He now lives in Ra’anana with his wife and their five children.
The US-born Miriam Ballin, who made aliya from Australia with her family three years ago and now lives in Jerusalem, is not only a family therapist, a wife, and mother to her own five children, but also volunteers for United Hatzalah of Israel.
Within the organization, Ballin used her experience as a therapist to create an emergency psychotrauma unit to provide psychological first aid.
The unit comprises volunteer EMTs, paramedics and doctors who want to provide the psychological as well as physical care needed at a trauma scene.
The initiative reflects Ballin’s desire to stabilize and care for her community.
“I love having the knowledge under my belt as a mother, as a community member, in case I ever need it or am called upon to be able to help my own children or other people’s children or other community members,” she said.
Earlier this year, Ballin was called to deliver her neighbor’s baby in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. She was at the woman’s side, ready to catch the baby, before the ambulance could disconnect the call. After the birth, Ballin walked home and hosted Shabbat dinner.
“To be there for the birth of the baby and to make sure it went smoothly and that the woman was calm was really an unbelievable experience,” she said. “I went back home on a high and found my guests waiting with my own kids at home. We began a very joyful Shabbat meal! There was new meaning to the word ‘L’haim!’ [To life!].”
These heroes are just a few of the many individuals living in Israel who are continuously using use their strengths for the benefit of the people around them, their wider communities, and for the State of Israel as a whole. Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh works in cooperation with the Israeli government, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA, and is dedicated to revitalizing aliya from North America and the UK. The Jerusalem Post and Nefesh B’Nefesh are proud to cooperate on the “Meet the Oleh” project.