Following a day filled with revelry, including a meeting with President Shimon Peres, 46 Israeli boys and girls from the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization – all of whom lost a parent in combat – celebrated their bar and bat mitzvas as one at the Western Wall Monday afternoon.
The IDFWO, a non-profit established in 1991, provides social, emotional and financial support to the widows and children of fallen soldiers, including those from Druse and Bedouin families.
Daniel Tuksar, the organization’s director of resource development, said he becomes emotional when discussing the importance of the program and its profound impact on the children and families who participate.
“The kids need this so much,” said Tuksar. “No one understands them because they have to act older than their age, but here they can act their age and they understand each other.
“We provide this celebration to show them that we are with them now and forever,” he added.
A few hours before the event at the Kotel, Peres invited the children to join him in observing the 40th-anniversary commemoration ceremony at Mount Herzl for fallen soldiers in the Yom Kippur War.
“The legacy of your fathers will always be a shining example in the history of our people,” Peres said. “The State of Israel embraces those families who have paid the highest price.”
The president, who told the children they “represent hope for the future” and must “look ahead to better times,” also met with them individually to congratulate and bless them.
The group recently returned from more than three weeks of traveling to different cities in the US and Canada, sponsored by IDFWO, where they also attended camp and spent time with doting host families, many of whom flew to Israel to celebrate the children’s collective milestone.
Peter Ekstein of Toronto, who hosted eight girls for three days at his home, said he contributes to the organization because of his ardent support for the IDF.
“I’m a true believer that I can’t live my life as a proud Jew in Canada without the State of Israel,” Ekstein stated. “And without the IDF there is no State of Israel.”
He decided to fly to Israel because he became very attached to the children, he explained.
“I feel these families have made the ultimate sacrifice, and I think it’s our responsibility and our obligation to support this organization and to show the kids that we love them and that they are part of a greater family – the Jewish family,” he said.
Brian Hochman, also of Toronto, described the experience of hosting three children at his home as a “privilege.”
“It was a special experience to spend time with them,” he said. “I consider it a privilege to work with this organization and look forward to doing bigger and better things in North America to support it.”
Tuksar said the children, who forge close relationships, also gather for mini-camps during Hanukka, Passover and Sukkot.
“The whole process of being together and going to the States and Canada and having peoples’ hearts and homes open to them – they feel so much love,” he said.
Shane Tordjman, a 21-year-old soldier and IDFWO volunteer who participated in the program as a child after his father was killed in 1996, said the organization was instrumental in helping him express his pain within an empathic and safe environment.
“It was helpful to open up all my feelings because I was living without other children who lost a parent, and they didn’t understand what I was going through,” said Tordjman. “The loss matures you a lot at a very young age, and I think I kind of stopped being a kid after he died.”
Itay Novick, whose paratrooper father, Asher, was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, said he felt a strong bond with the other youngsters in the program.
“I feel very connected to the other kids because they have the same feelings as me,” he said. “I’m happy to celebrate with them.”
Sara Trudi, whose Druse police officer father was killed during a burglary in March, said she was delighted to celebrate her 13th birthday Monday with the other Jewish children, if not a bat mitzva.
“I feel very happy because it’s a special day,” she said. Asked if she knew how proud her father must be of her, Trudi smiled.
“I am sure of it,” she said.Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.