Emissary for bereaved families to light Independence Day torch

The organization now has 65 branches around the country in major cities and towns to deal with bereaved families in those locations, and has some 1,000 volunteers to help carry out its activities.

A TORCH burns on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, 2017 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A TORCH burns on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, 2017
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
It was the catastrophic events of February 1997 which changed Eli Ben Shem’s life forever.
Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, and after more than two decades working with the Yad Labanim organization which he now chairs to help bereaved families whose sons and daughters died serving in the IDF, Ben Shem has been given the honor of lighting a torch at the Independence Day ceremony.
On February 4, 1997, on a foggy and rainy day, two IDF transport helicopters collided mid-air above the She'ar Yashuv moshav on their way to the security zone inside Lebanon.
All 73 soldiers on board both helicopters were killed in the accident, and it the incident is Israel’s biggest military disaster.
Among those on board was Ben Shem’s son Kobi, an officer in military intelligence who was on his way to the security zone.
Ben Shem was traumatized by the death of his son, and wasn’t able to function properly. He would turn up to work and wouldn’t be able to enter the office, and returned home.
Although his eldest daughter, who was older than Kobi, was already independent, he had a younger daughter who was still in school, and with help he was able to gather himself and return to functionality.
But after experiencing the many difficulties, and what he describes as the “humiliations,” involved in dealing with the Defense Ministry in the aftermath of Kobi’s death, Ben Shem decided to work towards improving the attitude and treatment of bereaved families.
Ben Shem joined the Yad Labanim organization which assists bereaved families and helps memorialize them, and says he embarked on a campaign to reform how the defense ministry deals with them.
One change which his organization helped secured was to the compensation received by bereaved families.
In addition, he notes that the organization helped change who can get state-paid psychological counseling, noting that in the past it was limited only to parents but has now been expanded to include siblings as well.
Ben Shem points out that mental-health assistance is now provided to bereaved families for the rest of their lives, whereas it used to be limited to several years after their son or daughter was killed.
“After many years, I can say that today there is no country in the world which provides assistance to bereaved families as well as Israel does,” Ben Shem told The Jerusalem Post. 
“They learnt how to treat these families and rehabilitate them, and it is a great source of pride for me and for Yad Labanim that we have managed to change how these families are treated.”
One critical step Ben Shem said Yad Labanim demanded early on after he joined was that the department for dealing with injured soldiers and bereaved families in the defense ministry be split into two, so that there would be one dedicated department for bereaved families and the commemoration of the soldiers who were lost.
This helped provide a direct focus on the task of helping bereaved families and Ben Shem says it was a critical change in improving treatment of those who had lost loved ones.
The organization now has 65 branches around the country in major cities and towns to deal with bereaved families in those locations, and has some 1,000 volunteers to help carry out its activities.
It has 23 clubs which put on various activities such as art therapy, support groups, horse-riding, yacht sailing, hikes, and outings.
He noted that bereaved families often face hard times during celebrations such as bar mitzvas, weddings, and Jewish holidays because they are thinking about “the empty seat” where their child should be.
And he said that many bereaved parents have trouble socializing at all, and when they do they prefer to do so with other bereaved parents, and said that for this reason Yad Labanim puts on different trips and outings for them.
Schools and youth groups also visit the Yad Labanim branches where they are told about those who fell while serving their country in the armed forces.
“Our goal is that the youth never forget in whose merit they live in this country, and that enlisting in the IDF is something moral and values-based which they are obligated to do,” said Ben Shem.
“People in this country send their children to the army for three years, and if they return in a coffin it is our duty to take care of their families until the end of their days, because anyone who needs to enlist afterwards needs to know that the State of Israel will treat their parents properly. This is a critical message.”
Another torch lighter this year will be the renowned singer and musician Idan Raichel, who was also a childhood friend of Kobi, who Ben Shem said grew up together in their strollers.
Ben Shem said that during the recording of the ceremony last Thursday he and Raichel had shared memories of Kobi and their childhood days.
The upcoming Memorial Day has been particularly difficult for many bereaved families since the government has prohibited them from visiting the graves of their children on the day itself out of fear of exacerbating the coronavirus epidemic.
Most of the families understood the decision and accepted the need to visit the graves over a period of days in the run up to Memorial Day, although he noted that a few families had greater difficulty dealing with the decision.
Nevertheless, Ben Shem said he backed the decision saying that if just the parents and two siblings of fallen soldiers visit just 4,000 slain soldiers at Mount Herzl military cemetery, it could amount to as many as 20,000 people coming together.
“We need to live too and our children want that we will live and the danger here is too great. Our children will forgive us. I have requested forgiveness from my son for not being at the cemetery this year. And I hope that they will understand this up above,” he said.
When Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev informed Ben Shem he would be lighting a torch at the Independence Day ceremony, a night before Passover, he said it had been his happiest holiday since Kobi died.
“I told her ‘Miri, for the last 23 years I have not been able to say ‘happy holidays’ over Passover, and for the first time you have made this holiday happy for me,’ and she cried when I told her that,” said Ben Shem.
He said that he had received “thousands of letters and emails” from bereaved families when it was announced he would be lighting a torch, and said that they had been lifted up and moved by the honor.
“This is not my honor, it is an honor for my son, for those who have died in Israel’s wars, and it is an honor for the bereaved families. I am their emissary.”