JERUSALEM — When former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walked into a private reception hosted by Jewish Federation of Monmouth County at the King David Hotel on Nov. 13, federation president Sheryl Grutman said she felt an exhilarating rush of emotion.
Shalit, now 27, became an international icon when he was captured by Hamas militants in 2006 and held hostage for more than five years. He was released on Oct. 18, 2011, as part of a prisoner exchange deal.
“I am in awe to see him standing here, smiling that beautiful smile that lights up the room. For a young man who has endured so much suffering, the aura around him is amazing,” Grutman told NJJN at the reception, which included about 50 leadership members visiting Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
“Here is a young man who was defending our homeland, who suffered in captivity for so many years, who kept his wits and his desire to live, and who came back home to show that the enemy did not prevail,” Grutman said. “He is my hero.”
After an introduction by Monmouth federation executive director Keith Krivitzky, Shalit addressed the audience softly and somewhat shyly, in halting English. The event included a musical performance by youth of SHALVA, an Israeli association that provides care to special-needs children and that is supported in part by federation funding. Shalit is now a spokesperson and volunteer with the organization.
“During my years in captivity I had a lot of time to think about all the good and bad things I have gone through in my life. I knew there were a lot of people who believed in me, and that gave me more hope than you can imagine,” he said. “I tried to find a way to give back to the thousands of people who prayed for me. I found meaning through SHALVA. Volunteering there is a way for me to give back and to give hope to SHALVA’s children and families.”
The reception offered a rare opportunity for members of the federation’s Israel mission to spend time with “a victim of unfortunate notoriety who became a symbol of our determination to bring our soldiers home regardless of the circumstances,” said Joe Hollander, federation board chair and campaign vice president. Six people attended the Nov. 10-14 Israel mission, which immediately followed the federation’s mission to Budapest (see sidebar).
Shalit’s speech left Eleanor Rubin of Tinton Falls, who participated in both missions, weeping with pride. “I can’t believe what he went through and how beautifully he is carrying on with his life,” she said. “He gained his life back and is finding meaning by helping children at SHALVA become whole despite their disabilities.”
The Shalit reception concluded the mission to Israel, which included site visits to many of the projects the federation supports through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. They include Crossroads Jerusalem Center for At-Risk Youth, Amutat Noar, for at-risk youth, and Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which provides services to the gay and lesbian community and works to secure rights for homosexuals.
Mission members met up with JDC leaders Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director, and Davida Kutscher, international relations associate, at Susan’s House, an entrepreneurial art therapy workshop. The JDC helped provide initial resources, funding, social work professionals, and business counseling to the program, Ben-Shimon said.
After a tour of the facility, where teens showed off the crafts they design, create, and market, David, an 18-year-old who works at the center, spoke about the struggles that led him there. When his mother became ill and lost her job, David and his sister were responsible for supporting the family. Susan’s House became a sanctuary for him, not just teaching him a trade, but also providing spiritual support, he said.
Susan’s House is yet another example of the many “beautiful things that are happening in Israel,” Rubin told NJJN. “You can’t just read about it. You have to visit here to see it and understand it.”