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(photo credit: AP)
I first met Col. Bentzion (Bentzi) Grueber when he picked me up in Jerusalem on the way to Masada. The night before I received a call from the IDF Spokesman's Office proposing that I accompany Grueber on a goodwill mission. I was more than happy to write an article about the army that had nothing to do with conflict and instead focused on acts of kindness.
Grueber - who holds a civilian pilot's license - was going to take mentally handicapped children on recreational flights over Masada.
Grueber, a colonel in the reserves who leads an armored brigade in the IDF Southern Command, lives in Efrat. He made headlines when he threatened to kick soldiers out of his reserve unit who refused to take part in Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.
Grueber has been active in charity for psychiatric hospitals and institutions for the mentally disabled for the last 26 years. "When I was growing up I lived next to the psychiatric hospital in Kfar Shaul... for 20 years. At the time, most of the residents were Holocaust survivors," said Grueber. "Witnessing their suffering left a deep impression on me," he told me.
"Ever since I received my first command, I have been combining military service with charitable acts," he added.
Every time one of his units is called up for reserve service, whether for training or for active duty, Grueber invites his friends from the hospitals.
"I invite 25 to 30 people... They observe a tank or infantry exercise, with lots of gunfire and explosions and then have dinner with me and my troops," he said. "What this does for the handicapped people is obvious, but it also has a strong effect on the soldiers. Uniting the reservists with the weakest members of our society gives people a real understanding of what they're doing here," he said.
Residents of the Moriah Center in Gedera - a home for children and young adults with severe mental disabilities and physical handicaps - were going to see Masada from the air.
The fifteen children and youths from Moriah ranged from the age 12 to 29 and suffered from a variety of different mental and developmental illnesses. Some also suffered from physical handicaps.
But not only the children were due to see Masada from the air. The day was also a reward for the outstanding soldiers in Grueber's brigade.
In a brief ceremony, the colonel made a short speech and gave each soldier a plaque. The distinguished troops were then doused with water. The children loved it, and given the 35-degree heat, the soldiers didn't appear to mind.
Since the light Cessna aircraft could only carry three passengers, Grueber spent the entire afternoon taking small groups for 10-minute flights over Masada and the surrounding desert.
The children were strapped in safely and given headsets through which Grueber could explain what they were seeing.
All the passengers seemed very exited, and even those who couldn't express themselves verbally made it clear that this was something out of the ordinary.
"Going out of the center and taking part in activities like these means the world for these children," said Moriah administrator Na'ama Sodikevitch.
"Most of these children have never been on an airplane before and definitely not on anything like this."
Moriah staff took pictures of all the children on the plane to be posted later on the center's Web site. Sudikevitch said that the center supported an interactive Web program that allowed parents to feel connected to their children's day-to-day lives.
Looking at their smiles, observing the soldiers and their reactions to the children, you could tell that both sides benefited.
"These activities expose the soldiers to parts of the society that they've never encountered before. The first few times, it's hard; people aren't used to it... but it becomes easier, and the next time, you see them dancing together with the kids," said Grueber.
At two thousand feet we are all speechless. When soaring over the desert landscape and the inspiring sight of Masada - even for those who are terrified of heights - it's reassuring to know that a man like Bentzi Grueber is at the controls.
Ron Friedman is an intern at The Jerusalem Post.