Free to ski

“Being disabled causes people to lose their self-confidence,” he explained. “The Erez Foundation gives it back to you.”

On the slopes: Wheelchair-bound skiers are strapped into special chairs and taught to ski at staggering speeds (photo credit: EREZ FOUNDATION)
On the slopes: Wheelchair-bound skiers are strapped into special chairs and taught to ski at staggering speeds
(photo credit: EREZ FOUNDATION)
Mindfulness is an ultra-cool concept these days: it's the honing of all attention to what's happening right now. Clean those cupboards with deep concentration; utterly EXPERIENCE each obliterated cheeky crumb – feel the joy of small things.
Buddhists believe that mindfulness brings enlightenment and freedom from suffering, and what better time than Passover to ruminate on freedom in all its forms? For weeks, synagogues and the media featured sermons on the shaking off of shackles of all shapes; a lovely rabbi I admire once spoke of the need to free ourselves from shopping malls. This concept encompasses freedom from phones, Facebook, cigarettes, beer, obsessions with our bodies or the need to buy bigger cars. But sometimes liberation is more than a cute catchall. When Achiya Klein lost his sight in a tunnel in Gaza during his military service when he was 22, the multiple physical wounds were small fry compared to his mental pain. “I lost my freedom,” he said, “and it was a very scary feeling.”
Klein is today a student in the prestigious Argov Program at IDC Herzliya. He recalled that soon after being blinded, he was walking down the road contemplating a future that seemed awfully bleak when his cellphone rang.
“A voice I didn’t know, belonging to a man I’d never met, said ‘Hello’ to me,” Klein explained. “Then he said, ‘And I’m going to teach you how to ski.’” The stranger on the other end of the phone was Eyal Yarimi, a veteran officer of the IDF Special Forces Alpine Unit. After a stint as a volunteer following a tsunami in Sri Lanka, Yarimi, 44, an angel in disguise as a sportswear manager, became hooked on helping. Back home he accompanied Canadian philanthropist Tzvika Zilberman to Mount Hermon, where they visited the soldiers in the snow, and the Erez Foundation glided into fruition.
The charitable foundation reaches out to disabled soldiers – young men and women who have been blinded or become wheelchair-bound – and teaches them how to ski.
Klein, for example, who had never been on a slope, was incredulous at the thought of whizzing down a mountain in the dark. But he agreed to an initial meeting with a trainer, learned the basics at a ski simulator, followed by some preliminary practicing at the Hermon, and then spent a week in Bulgaria whizzing down mountains, with a trainer right behind him giving him instructions on how to navigate.
“It was the most incredible thing,” he recalled. “I got my life back.”
Noam Gershony was 23 and a pilot in the Israel Air Force at the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. The situation in the country was tense and heating up. Troops were mobilized, and Apache helicopters scrambled to fly in formation near the Lebanese border. Two helicopters collided at 1,800 meters above ground, and Gershony, lying mangled in the wreckage, was pronounced dead by paramedics. But Dr. Yoav Paz didn’t give up. Gershony had broken his jaw, pelvis, elbow, back, both arms, both legs and his shoulder.
Today, Gershony, who began playing wheelchair tennis less than a year after his injury and ended up winning the gold medal in the Paralympics in London, is a motivational speaker. Rehabilitation means accepting that life is different now, and not as easy, but we have to make the best of what we have, he said. In his case, the challenges include living with pain and walking with difficulty. Skiing, however, sets you free.
“Being disabled causes people to lose their self-confidence,” he explained. “The Erez Foundation gives it back to you.”
Wheelchair-bound skiers are strapped into special chairs and taught to ski down slopes at staggering speeds. And even for ace swimmer Inbal Pezaro, who is used to rocketing across the pool, the rush from skiing is something else entirely.
Pezaro, 30, who has been disabled since a few months after birth, was brought up to feel completely “normal” by her Australian immigrant parents on Kibbutz Yizre’el. “But there’s a price to this,” explained the vivacious, beautiful Olympic champion. “For my seventh birthday I asked for skates.”
Pezaro could not skate, but she could swim. And swim she does, once or twice a day, every day. She has brought home a bounty of medals: nine from four successive Olympics. She is aiming to be in Tokyo in 2020, too. Meanwhile, she is studying business and psychology at IDC Herzliya.
Klein, Gershony and Pezaro are three of the 2,500 disabled army veterans and others who today ski regularly, thanks to the Erez Foundation. Many trainees later become trainers, and the foundation is growing each year. A new program now takes children from oncology units around Israel for a yom kef (day of fun) to the Hermon; and this year, for the first time, disabled skiers, who were themselves trained by the Erez Foundation, will teach disabled youngsters to ski. It costs € 1,200 to train a disabled skier; this includes the simulator, time on Mount Hermon, and a flight to Bulgaria with a weeklong course. Mono-skis, the specially designed chairs, cost €7,000 each. All the trainers are volunteers. Spouses or partners or children or friends initially ski with a learner. After the training, many disabled skiers ski completely independently. Passover hit this year with threats of hamsins (heat waves) alternating with chilly days, as snowy mountain peaks inevitably melted. But it won’t be too long before winter comes back and people will once more ski to their hearts’ content, and Erez Foundation veteran volunteers will be zooming right alongside.
For more information: The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and IDC Herzliya.