Florida hosts a healing break for IDF soldiers with PTSD

Jewish communities from South Florida collaborated with Belev Echad, an NGO dedicated to supporting wounded-in-action (WIA) soldiers and veterans from the Israel Defense Forces.

 The Plotkin family welcomes Belev Echad soldiers. (photo credit: BELEV ECHAD)
The Plotkin family welcomes Belev Echad soldiers.
(photo credit: BELEV ECHAD)

South Florida Jewish communities recently embraced IDF soldiers and veterans who were wounded in recent rounds of battle and terror attacks for an action-packed 10 days of vacation and rehabilitation.

In Israel, political tensions are high and the country is deeply divided over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms. They have triggered a backlash that has brought the Left out protesting in droves. While the Right welcomes these changes and regards them as the long-awaited expression of true democracy, the Left warns of civil war and tyranny. Few can remain indifferent to the unfolding drama, and emotions are at a hilt. 

Not immune are Israel’s soldiers and veterans who all feel strongly toward their country but span the spectrum of political views. In the midst of it all, a group of Jews from South Florida reached out to their Israeli brothers, bridging political gaps and hostility through messages of peace, love, compassion and harmony. 

Jewish communities from South Florida collaborated with Belev Echad, an NGO dedicated to supporting wounded-in-action (WIA) soldiers and veterans from the Israel Defense Forces. The flew nine soldiers who were severely wounded in recent bouts of violence and terror and suffer PTSD to sunny Florida for 10 days of rehabilitation and vacation, as well as physical and emotional healing.

Welcoming Israel's young heroes

Yaara and Gabe Plotkin of Miami were among those welcoming Israel’s young heroes. 

 Gabe Plotkin talks to wounded soldier Shuri Moyal, the Belev Echad chef. (credit: BELEV ECHAD) Gabe Plotkin talks to wounded soldier Shuri Moyal, the Belev Echad chef. (credit: BELEV ECHAD)

“We wanted to find a way to directly support wounded soldiers and those with PTSD, meet them and show them our support,” says Yaara. “And in this way, we formed a family. The soldiers formed a family with each other, and the organization as a whole formed a family with us and other supporters.”

Most of Plotkin’s family lives in Israel, and her sister made aliyah and volunteered in the IDF. 

“I’m proud of all of them, but I always felt I didn’t do my duty as a Zionist. So I knew I had to support the soldiers and help Israel in this way,” she explains.

“I’m proud of all of them, but I always felt I didn’t do my duty as a Zionist. So I knew I had to support the soldiers and help Israel in this way.”

Yaara Plotkin

Dorel Ben Haim, 30, who joined the group traveling to Florida shares his story: “I was inducted at the age of 18 into the Rotem (435) unit of the Givati Brigade, underwent intensive training as a combat soldier and was then assigned to a frontal command liaison role in the Judea and Samaria Operations Department. As a liaison officer, I was on high alert and in constant communication with headquarters, ready to report any data in real-time.

“One Saturday, we received an urgent summons to a site where Palestinian terrorists were throwing Molotov cocktails, explosives, rocks and bottles of burning-hot oil at Israeli cars on the main highway junction. We got there and made use of non-lethal weapons – smoke grenades and rubber bullets – to get them to disperse. Even as our forces got them to retreat, the terrorists continued hurling rocks and boiling bottles of oil at us, and we ended up chasing the band of terrorists into the Beit Ummar refugee camp.

“It’s hard to describe the scene of one of these refugee camps, with its tiny, one-meter wide alleys, and houses and buildings so tightly packed they’re practically on top of each other. During the pursuit, I dashed back to my jeep to change the batteries in my signaling device. It was already late afternoon, and we’d been breaking up clashes all day long. I changed the batteries quickly and hurried back down the narrow alley to catch up with my unit.

“As I was sprinting down the alley with my weapon pointing straight ahead, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a washing machine positioned to drop off the roof of a building right onto me. I tried to stop, but I slipped instead and found myself flat on the ground, frozen in terror. And then I saw the washing machine hurtling down four stories from the roof, directly toward me.”

Ben Haim recalls that “during those awful seconds, I saw my whole life pass before my eyes. I felt the end coming; I envisioned my family attending my funeral. But then...the washing machine landed less than two centimeters from my head. I felt the air whooshing against my face; I felt the force of the impact, but miraculously it didn’t touch me.”

He says he was in a state of shock and not sure what happened next.

“The driver of our jeep must have followed me into the alley and seen what happened. He pulled me out of the danger zone, got me into the jeep and poured water on my face to snap me out of my daze, and we went on as if nothing had changed,” he recalls. “But something inside had changed; I wasn’t the same after that. Today, in retrospect, I know that I was suffering from a condition that I’d barely heard about until then: PTSD.”

Ben Haim says that throughout the ensuing months and years, “I was a shell of the vibrant young man I’d been. I had no energy for life and no desire at all to even get up in the morning. I existed in a black cloud, depressed, and found myself struggling in every realm of life. I was discharged from the army but wandered about aimlessly with neither direction nor purpose. I couldn’t get a decent job or support myself because no employer wanted me; and even those who were compassionate enough to hire a traumatized veteran eventually despaired and let me go after two or three month.”

Plotkin adds: “PTSD is one of the most difficult, least recognized forms of pain, and soldiers have to bear this pain for the rest of their lives. The soldiers we’ve met are all suffering from PTSD at varying levels, and we want to help them in every way we can – through trips, programs, therapy and scholarships that help them rebuild.”

Jerusalemite Dvir Taman, 29, always knew that one day he’d serve in the IDF. Growing up in the wake of the Second Intifada, with the daily headlines screaming of stabbings and bus bombings, he was spurred by idealism and a fervent desire to protect family and friends. At 19, he enlisted in the IDF and joined a special undercover Border Police unit working within Jerusalem.

Operation Protective Edge broke out in 2014 following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, which resulted in the retaliatory lynching of an Arab teen from Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhood of Shuafat. When Israeli intelligence discovered that a band of terrorists was planning a massive terror attack on the Jerusalem light rail that passes through Shuafat, Taman’s unit and a SWAT team were sent late at night into Shuafat to take down the terrorists.

Ultimately, the terrorists learned that they were coming; when the Israeli forces entered the neighborhood, they found it in chaos. “It was literally a war zone, with fire and stones fired everywhere. As we were chasing the terrorists through the village, an Arab dropped a cinder block from a height of four floors onto my head. Luckily, it missed my skull and hit only my back and shoulders; otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it out of there alive,” Taman recounts.

He spent the next eight months in the hospital, followed by a period of grueling rehab as he struggled to regain control over his body. “Worse than my paralyzed body was my shattered soul. I felt so alone; there were days that I prayed to God to take me away and that my loved ones wouldn’t miss me.”

Life could have followed this hopeless pattern and abandoned both men, along with dozens of their fellow recovering veterans, to self-destructive behaviors. But then Belev Echad entered their lives. It is dedicated to helping support physically and emotionally scarred soldiers and help them reintegrate into civilian life.

Taman relates that one day he received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Raz Budany, who invited him to join a 10-day mission to New York along with fellow soldiers and veterans who’d been wounded in action and terror attacks.

“Initially, I refused. I’d lost faith in humanity and people, but they refused to give up. They called and pleaded, cajoled and pushed until I said, ‘What the heck? What have I got to lose?’ I went on the trip, where I met incredible people who understood me, guys and girls who felt was I was feeling, with whom I could really share what I was going through with. I felt understood, and for the first time in ages I felt like I belonged.”

Since that original mission, Belev Echad has led dozens of missions for WIA soldiers, veterans and terror victims. Some missions are all about rest and rehabilitation, while others are about visiting college campuses across the US that have seen an uptick in virulent antisemitism over the past years, and sharing what it means to be young warriors fighting to defend innocent men, women and children in their own homeland.

Now with political tensions in Israel at a high and an upsurge of security threats, terrorist violence, and frequent shootings and car rammings that have left 15 dead since the start of 2023, Belev Echad and Jewish communities in South Florida collaborated to bring to the Sunshine State nine soldiers and veterans who were wounded in recent battles.

“Here, we wanted to give them an opportunity to escape the fear and trauma of an anxiety-ridden present and focus exclusively on the process of rehabilitating,” says Plotkin.

Over the course of the 10 days, the group sailed on yachts in the spectacular bay, enjoyed an exhilarating helicopter ride, and observed the crocodiles in the Everglades.

“Belev Echad invited me to join them again, this time to South Florida,” says Taman. “It’s been ages since I’ve felt so good, so comfortable and safe. It’s more than just fun; it’s oxygen for me. We felt so appreciated to be thanked for our service and for defending our people. This kind of outpouring of love is not something that we soldiers or veterans take for granted, and it’s very instrumental to our healing. I hope that more of my Belev Echad brothers will have this opportunity to heal and have a good time with these amazing folks from Miami, to feel their love and appreciation, to feel that they belong and that they’re not alone.”

Rabbi Uriel Vigler, founder and director of Belev Echad, says, “We spent 10 awesome days here in Florida, where we toured many sites and spent a beautiful, uplifting Shabbat. Some of the soldiers are new to Belev Echad, while others have been with us for years. We genuinely love these people. The 10-day trip is just one small part of the overall rehabilitation process that Belev Echad offers WIA soldiers and veterans.”

“It was our honor and privilege to host the soldiers in our community over Shabbat. Our community loves Israel and loves our soldiers,” adds Rabbi Dovid Vigler, who runs Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens together with his wife, Chana.

 As an international initiative dedicated to easing the transition of WIA soldiers and terror victims back into mainstream society and the workforce, Belev Echad has created a well-designed support system that builds on the skills and hobbies of each soldier and veteran to navigate his or her return to life. For many soldiers, the organization assumes the roles of mentor, advocate and friend, guiding them through critical medical, educational and professional decisions and celebrating life’s milestones together, big and small.

“We take the soldiers, some of whom we’ve known for years since their injuries, and we literally give them everything they need – food, a place to be, money, therapies, emotional and educational support, and tons more. These 10 days with them in Florida were incredible. It was wonderful to see them smiling, laughing and unwinding, so when they go back to Israel we can continue giving them the therapies they need and helping them rehabilitate physically and emotionally,” says Shevy Vigler, Uriel’s wife and co-founder of Belev Echad.

Amir Shmuel, 27, also took part in the 10-day trip to Miami. As a former soldier in the prestigious Givati Brigade, he was seriously wounded after a year of service when a stray terrorist’s bullet sent him careening down a cliff into a ravine. His survival was a miracle, but it was followed by 10 harrowing months in the hospital, which caused him to sink into a depression. “I felt that I’d I lost everything in my life, except life itself. From a 100% fit combat soldier, I was completely disabled,” he relates.

“During that excruciating time in my life, Belev Echad entered and showed me light and happiness again. Today, with Belev Echad’s encouragement and financial support, I’m an undergrad student in college, and I have my own business. I feel so blessed, and I want to say thank you to the wonderful folks in South Florida for hosting us and opening your hearts to us.”

“This group that we brought to Florida was not just on vacation,” says Major Raz Budany, director of the Belev Echad Center in Kiryat Ono, Israel. “Especially now with tensions brewing in Israel, with terrorism on the rise and the security situation shakier than it’s been in a while, it’s a vital stage in their rehabilitation. Here, they felt respected, appreciated, they were called heroes, and this was the best thing people can do for them.”

Budany of Israel’s Moshav Achiezer served in the Golani Brigade for 12 years. He tells his story. 

“In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, we set out to conquer Sajaiyah, a dangerous neighborhood in Gaza. After three days of intensive combat, we were attacked. Three bombs exploded over us, leaving four dead and 25 wounded – myself among them. I spent three months in the hospital until I was able to stand on one leg, and then I immediately rejoined my unit to lift their morale.  “In a crazy twist, three weeks later I was severely wounded in a car-ramming incident that sent me back to intensive care for two and a half years. But I was still determined to return to the Golani Brigade – and return I did! That is, until my body was so weakened that I couldn’t bear the constant pain. My body was decimated, and my spirits were even lower. I suffered severe PTSD, and I didn’t believe that I could ever go on.”

One day, Budany met Uriel Vigler of Belev Echad. Vigler convinced him to join a mission of wounded soldiers to New York, and since then, “I’m a new man. I was able to rebuild and find hope, and I’ve become an advocate and the associate director of this awesome organization in Israel,” he says.

He explains that “back in Israel, there’s so much tension now with the political situation, security threats and terrorism. Here in Florida, the soldiers had fresh air and open space to think about what they can’t afford to think about at home. With the trip now behind us, we’re going to ask them what their dreams are for the next stage in their lives. Our hope is that this trip was an empowering experience for them, and that it will make them want to do something more in their lives.”

“I was really inspired by Raz Mizrahi, a female soldier who spoke at a recent Belev Echad event in New York,” says Plotkin. “Not long ago, Raz was hanging between life and death, her body riddled with bullets in the wake of a terror attack. She said when she lay in the hospital in Israel, she had no one there to hug her. Our goal is to give each soldier with PTSD – and also those without! – a hug, to embrace them with a feeling of never-ending support so that they should never feel alone again.”  ■