Rebuilding lives, one bereaved girlfriend at a time

How a local nonprofit takes care of the fiancées and girlfriends of fallen IDF soldiers.

The organization's Remembrance Day ceremony. (photo credit: COURTESY NONPROFIT FOR EMOTIONAL SUPPORT OF GIRLFRIENDS)
The organization's Remembrance Day ceremony.
In Jewish tradition, it is a sacred obligation to comfort a mourner, whether it is a relative or a stranger, a close friend or an acquaintance.
Some scholars consider paying condolences and showing compassion a biblically ordained commandment.
In the past month, 64 IDF soldiers have given their lives to the Jewish state during Operation Protective Edge. Families, friends and communities across Israel are mourning the passing of their sons. In addition, these soldiers’ girlfriends and fiancées have been left in complete shock and grief, as hopes for a future together with their loved ones – often first loves – have been shattered.
Just in the first weekend of this month, three fiancées buried their husbands- to-be.
Edna Sarosi was engaged to 23-yearold Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin of Kfar Saba, who was killed in action with terrorists in Rafah.
“I don’t know how to part from you,” she said at his August 3 funeral. “I thought we would be a couple forever, I didn’t think you’d leave me so soon.
I wanted so much to be your bride, Hadar, I feel like you’ve introduced me to the greatness of life. I depended on you that we would be a couple for eternity. I feel now that I’m all alone with a great mission and that I have no idea where to start.”
The same day, Liat Zimmerman, the girlfriend of Capt. Omri Tal – who was killed by a mortar shell on the Israeli side of the border on July 31 – said, “Remember that I love you forever,” as he was laid to rest in Yehud, to what was supposed to be their wedding song.
Maj. Benaya Sarel, 26, of Kiryat Arba was laid to rest on August 2 in Hebron.
He had told reporters that his future wife, Gali, was taking care of the wedding plans and was in charge of getting his suit.
Unfortunately, for years the Defense Ministry has had no official bereavement standing for the unmarried partners of fallen IDF soldiers, as it does for the immediate families. By law, army bereavement services are available to war widows and common-law partners of fallen soldiers, as well as parents, orphans and siblings. They include social services, psychotherapy counseling, and medical and financial assistance, among other benefits. But serious girlfriends and fiancées are not entitled to counseling or support groups.
In addition, the girlfriends usually hear the news of their boyfriends’ deaths via unofficial channels and not through the IDF officers who notify the families.
Given the situation, and following their own personal loss, Phyllis Heimowitz and Tamar Heimowitz-Richter established a support group 17 years ago for the girlfriends and fiancées of fallen IDF soldiers. The mother-daughter team considers it a moral obligation to provide psychological support to these women.
Of the 64 IDF soldiers killed in this operation, approximately half had girlfriends and fiancées, according to Heimowitz.
“We have, at the moment, 27 new bereaved girlfriends and fiancées from this war for whom we will open support groups,” she tells The Jerusalem Post.
She and her daughter, along with Rina Kahan – who lost her own boyfriend in the Yom Kippur War 41 years ago – run the Non-Profit Organization for Emotional Support of Girlfriends (Fiancées) of Fallen Soldiers of the IDF as volunteers.
The three travel across the country and meet with the newly bereaved women, offering their support.
On August 1, Heimowitz held a meeting in her Kiryat Ono home, where three newly bereaved girlfriends joined the veteran group and met with women who had also gone through the tragic loss of losing a boyfriend during army service.
“It was a very moving meeting,” she recounts. “When the girlfriends go through this experience, they feel very alone. They are often told that they are young, that they will move on quickly and get over it, but this is not the case.”
She adds that “to be able to meet others who have gone through the same experience gives so much strength to a grieving girlfriend during the first stages of her loss. The tragedy is a shock to her, and everyone else around.”
At the meeting, the veteran girls embraced the new girls with open arms.
“We placed veteran girlfriends next to new girlfriends,” explains Heimowitz- Richter. “The newly bereaved girlfriends who just joined the group felt very comfortable and opened up. They brought up issues that were bothering them and asked questions they felt uncomfortable asking anyone else. For example, one girl asked what would happen to her boyfriend’s body buried underground. Another one told us that she was visiting her boyfriend’s grave every night.”
She notes that “everything that’s expressed by bereaved girls is considered completely normal at these meetings, and the girls support each other. They learn not to feel guilty about themselves, and form friendships that last a lifetime.”
In addition to the group support meetings, sessions with clinical psychologists and bereavement experts, and other group activities, the organization puts together a special Remembrance Day ceremony for the girlfriends of fallen soldiers, which takes place annually on the Friday before the country’s official commemoration.
Usually, the organization opens one group per year; this year, says Heimowitz, it will open two groups, with a support group in the North and another in the Center. The women who are part of these groups come from secular and religious backgrounds, and their ages range from 16 to 30.
The support group also includes boyfriends of women soldiers who have been killed during their army service.
“The young bereaved boyfriends integrate really well into the group – you can see how the power of mutual experience brings everyone together despite the different backgrounds,” says Heimowitz.
She and her daughter understand the pain of these women (and men) from personal experience. Heimowitz’s youngest daughter, Michal, lost her fiancé, Lt. Avi Book, to Hezbollah terrorists who attacked his IDF military post with mortar shells in Lebanon in 1997.
“Michal and Avi knew each other from the first grade. They were supposed to have been married four months from the day that Avi died. He was only 22 and six days old – and an Israeli who deeply loved his country and the Jewish people,” says Heimowitz, who made aliya with her husband in 1968 from New York.
Heimowitz-Richter and her older brother, Dani, saw the change that their youngest sister underwent following Book’s death.
“She was only 22, and the tragedy had a terrible impact. She changed into another person – she wouldn’t talk or communicate with anyone. Her life had collapsed,” recalls her sister. “We wanted to find a way to help her through her terrible grief.”
The family was unable to access emotional help services from the Defense Ministry’s Families and Commemoration Department.
“What we wanted was psychological help, like the services provided to widows...
We wanted the bureaucracy to take note of bereaved girlfriends,” says Heimowitz. “But we saw there was very little help available and decided to take matters into our own hands.”
Consequently, two months after Book was killed, his fiancé’s family privately established the nonprofit. Today, the organization – the only one of its kind in the country – provides its services to over 300 girlfriends of fallen soldiers. In addition to some annual financial support from the Defense Ministry, the nonprofit relies heavily on organizations and donors from the US and England.
Heimowitz, her daughter and Kahan see a life mission in their organization’s work.
“Our task is to continue life, to make sure that these bereaved girls build new homes, that they don’t remain stuck in their grief forever,” says Heimowitz.
“There is a quote in the Talmud that says, ‘He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.’ Life is not just the physical being of a person; it is his soul as well. We help these girls rebuild their souls and make room in their scarred hearts for a new person, so that they can lead full lives and raise families.”
Michal married in 2002 – five years after Book’s death – and today she and her husband have five children. She is proud of the organization and joins the gatherings from time to time.
“Our soldiers won’t be able to rest in peace if no one takes care of the women they left behind,” says her mother.
“Every time I get a wedding invitation from a girlfriend in our support group who is about to get married, I know that the heart of the Jewish nation continues to beat.”