A Sporting chance

Tikvot rehabilitates Israel’s victims of terror, casualties of war through sports.

Terror victims, war casulaties push envelope  (photo credit: Courtesy Tikvot)
Terror victims, war casulaties push envelope
(photo credit: Courtesy Tikvot)
‘We have proven that sports provides our heroes with hope,” giving them the power to restore self-confidence and dignity and ultimately bring back those long-lost smiles,” says Rocky Muravitz, the co-founder and chief fund-raiser of Tikvot.
“For every person killed in a terror attack, there are on average eight to 10 injured,” says Muravitz. “These were the statistics in the second intifada. What most people do not know is what happens to these injured and the long process of rehabilitation. Tikvot believes that the best way to rehabilitate is by making them feel like winners again, through sports. We want to help bring the smiles back on the faces of every terror victim and injured soldier.”
Since Tikvot was established during the second intifada, it has helped over 3,000 casualties restore their lives “by getting them out of their homes and getting them onto the track, field, gymnasium, swimming pool, mountain, sky or sea,” says Muravitz.
One terror victim the organization has helped is 15-year-old Asael Shabo.
On June 20, 2002, Shabo was watching TV with his five-year-old brother, Avishai, in the settlement of Itamar when a terrorist gunman burst into their family living room, spraying bullets in every direction.
His mother, Rachel, and his three brothers were brutally gunned down.
“I was badly hurt, but played dead behind the couch and waited for our soldiers to rescue me. I knew when my brother Avishai died, because he stopped crying.” For Asael Shabo, however, the crying did not stop.
“When we met him,” says Muravitz, “he was hiding in the corner of his house.” Some years later, “when we wanted to get him a new leg so he could run properly, we contacted a firm in the US who said it would cost about $20,000, so we flew out to New Jersey.” The news they received there was disheartening.
Because Shabo had been walking on crutches for so long, the doctor said “his body was totally out of alignment” and he required various procedures and equipment totaling $84,000. “I only had $20,000. I begged and cried for a reduction and they reduced it by $10,000. We were still over $50,000 short. However, when I saw the look of despair on Asael’s face I said, ‘Give me the contract’ and I signed it, not having a clue how I was going to make up the shortfall.”
It was with these heavy financial woes that Muravitz and Shabo traipsed off to a synagogue in Deal, New Jersey, one Shabbat. Welcomed by the rabbi, Muravitz off-loaded his concerns for Shabo. Shortly thereafter, the rabbi began his sermon by saying, “I am discarding what I was going to say and will speak to you today about our friends from Israel.” The service concluded with an announcement: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that our lovely ladies have prepared a delicious kiddush. The bad news is that no one is going near it until we raise the money for ‘our’ Asael’s leg.”
“It did not take more than four minutes before we had the money and everyone was eating,” says Muravitz.
“Asael has not stopped smiling. He is a member of Israel’s swimming team that will compete in the Paralympics in London this year.
MURAVITZ IMMIGRATED to Israel from Durban, South Africa with his family in 1977, in the year in which he led a march with the city’s chief rabbi down Durban’s West Street against the 1976 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. An inspiring leader, Muravitz takes on those who besmirch the name of Israel as well as helping his fellow Israelis who have physically suffered “the slings and arrows” of its enemies.
His name, Rocky, aptly conveys the grit and determination he shares with the cinematic icon who battled against formidable odds.
The concept behind Tikvot (Hebrew for “hopes”) came from Geoff Essakow, founder of the Challenged Athletes Federation in San Diego. Essakow serves as Tikvot’s international vice president.
Muravitz’s daughter, Simone Farbstein, is the organization’s tireless director, who visits the wounded while in hospital and, when they are ready to move on, helps them choose the most suitable sport and the best place to do it.
One of Tikvot’s many projects is “Back to Life,” which gives wounded IDF soldiers the opportunity to feel active and healthy and focus on the positive through sports.
For more than 600 soldiers, the 2006 Second Lebanon War has not yet ended. These are the soldiers who were wounded during the difficult battles of Bint Jbail, Randuria and other villages in Lebanon.
One such soldier is 23-year-old Victor Kianitza, who was with his parachute brigade when “we were hit by a Katyusha that fell out of nowhere.” Kianitza was one of the lucky ones who survived. He was hospitalized for months and underwent numerous operations.
He still faces a long regimen of treatments and medications for severe burns and shattered bones. Kianitza enrolled in Tikvot’s “Back to Life” project and, with the other combat soldiers he has met in rehab, is now sailing, hiking and fishing with specially adapted equipment and instruction provided by Tikvot.
“When I’m sailing,” says Kianitza, “I forget my injuries. I feel normal again; and it’s great to do it with others who have been through similar experiences.”
“The amazing thing,” says Muravitz, “are the journeys from despair to inspiration.”
He cites the example of Oran Almog, who, as a nine-year-old in 2003, was with his family at the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa when a terrorist blew herself up, killing Oran’s father, Moshe, his younger brother, Tomer, his cousin Assaf and both of his grandparents.
Almog survived the tragedy but lost his sight. However, this did not impair his vision of where wanted to go in life.
“Today,” says Muravitz, “he’s well-positioned to take medals at future World Blind Sailing Championships.”
Almog, whose ambition is to become a gold medal winner for Israel, looks up to role models such as Dror Cohen, a former F-16 pilot who in 2004 was severely wounded in the line of duty and confined to a wheelchair. A former extreme sports enthusiast, Cohen was determined to again excel in sports and joined Tikvot’s wounded soldiers sailing program.
In 2004 he took the gold for Israel in sailing in the Paralympics in Athens, followed by winning the world championships in 2009 and 2011.
For the upcoming 2012 Paralympics, all hopes are on Cohen and his team, which will include Arnon Efrati, an officer who lost his right hand during the Yom Kippur War, and Benny Wexler, who lost his right hand during Operation Peace for Galilee. Tikvot will be sponsoring the Israeli Paralympics sailing team on their journey to London.
“With Tikvot meaning ‘hopes,’ I have no doubt this team will be closely watched and it will not only be Israelis hoping but also, I’m sure, British Jewry,” says director Farbstein.
WHILE LEARNING to cope with serious disabilities caused by a terror attack is hardly plain sailing, Tikvot has found that learning to maneuver a boat has proved an ideal activity in the rehabilitation process. “Our participants discover that the sea – like life – throws out challenges which they need to overcome to go forward,” Farbstein explains. “No matter the severity of the injuries, whether physical and/or psychological, it’s all about confronting the reality of the sea and relishing the challenge.
Sailing, with all its variables and teamwork, requires our participants to sharpen their skills and work on their mindset.
This then helps them in their lives outside the water.”
Sheri Mervis, who was wounded in the Mike’s Place Tel Aviv terror attack in 2003, is part of a group of terror victims who meet every Friday at the Tel Aviv Marina and sail together. “It has changed my life,” she says. “I cannot control nature – not the wind, nor the waves or swells, but I can control my yacht. That is entirely up to me. It’s the same in life. I cannot change my injuries but I can change how I deal with them.”
Tikvot is continuously devising new specialized programs. Another example involving sailing is called the Floating Boat Program for PTSD IDF Veterans.
New in Israel, it is designed for people with post-traumatic stress disorder and includes many former prisoners of war.
“Participants go through a process of forming a group. They work on their physical and mental skills, nurturing individual empowerment while developing self-control and self-confidence,” explains Farbstein.
This past winter, Tikvot organized a joint project with an elite Alpine Unit that patrols the Lebanese border in the area of Mount Hermon. The aim of this project, called “Ski is Not the Limit,” is to teach severely wounded war veterans how to ski.
“The ideal location would ordinarily have been Mount Hermon,” says Farbstein. “However, because it’s too crowded with ski-crazy Israelis at this time of the year, we opted for sponsoring trips for our heroes to the Italian Alps.”
So far this season, Tikvot has sent three groups of veterans who are partially paralyzed, have lost limbs or are blind.
Participants have included Matan Berman from the special Oketz K9 Unit, who lost a leg while defusing a bomb in 2002; Itay Erenliv, an officer from an elite paratrooper unit who lost both legs to a massive roadside bomb; Gadi Yarkoni, a paratrooper who in 1995 was totally blinded while protecting his soldiers in an encounter with terrorists; and Noam Gershoni, who was critically wounded when his helicopter crashed during the Second Lebanon War.
Berman, who suffered a severe stroke after the explosion and lay unconscious for 11 days, has allowed nothing to dampen his resolve and is determined to push his body to the limits. “I will be satisfied with nothing less than being a star skier,” he says. Few doubt he will succeed.
WHEN AN elite Israeli unit endeavored to intercept the Mavi Marmara – the flagship of a flotilla bound for Gaza – most the world focused on the plight of the murderous terrorists. However, during this heroic action, six Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded. While little media attention was paid to these brave soldiers, Tikvot introduced them to a new program that resonated with their love of the sea and – apart from their determination – required only wind.
The sport is known as kite surfing.
This course, says Farbstein, became popular overnight among other wounded soldiers who were looking for new challenges, and soon grew to 12 participants.
“We expect in the coming summer the course will grow significantly in numbers,” she says. Feeling active “they will be able to work through some of the psychological issues that they face as a result of their traumatic experiences and channel their energy into positive accomplishments.”
One of the participants invited fellow comrades-in-arms who have been paralyzed, had limbs amputated or suffered from other severe injuries, to join the program. “I have truly benefited from this rejuvenating activity,” he says.
The determination and character of Tikvot’s participants is well demonstrated by Eitan Hermon. Born in 1974 and raised at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the northern Galilee, Hermon began running at the age of 10.
After completing his military service in the Golani Brigade, he returned to competitive racing, notably in marathons. Then disaster struck.
Hermon was wounded in 2006 when his tank was hit by a roadside bomb during the Second Lebanon War. When evacuated, lying on a stretcher, Hermon said over and over again, “You’ll see, I will still run a marathon!” While doctors tried valiantly to save it, his right leg had to be amputated below the knee and “my world was thrown upside down.” But not for long.
He was fitted with a special prosthetic leg for running, and a year later began training for national and international competitions.
After only four months, Hermon completed his first 10-kilometer run. His coaches were amazed, and he continued training at a high level.
“The following year, he completed a 42-km marathon in Tiberias with a time of 3:46,” says Farbstein. “Since then, he has participated in many marathons.
His record stands at 3:02:12, where he took second place in his category, as an amputee.”
“My goal is to break the world record,” Hermon says.
“Our vision,” says Muravitz, “is to enable our wounded warriors and challenged athletes to participate in competitive sports utilizing the most advanced technologies of prosthetic care.” By so doing “they are already winning” and they “will inspire others similarly challenged to live their lives without limitations.”