Speaking in Roseland, Israeli soldiers sang the praises of a program that helps veterans like them afford higher education.
Miri Friedman and Moshe Maimon, both combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, shared their stories with a group of 15 attorneys over breakfast in the law offices of Lowenstein Sandler on June 10.
In addition to their stories of grit, courage, and survival, both shared the ways in which the course of their lives were changed by the Impact! program run by Friends of the IDF. The initiative provides four-year scholarships to former IDF combat soldiers who cannot afford university tuition. In return, recipients are expected to complete 130 hours of community service.
The meeting was organized by Howard Gases, FIDF’s New Jersey director; attorney Marc Kramer, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler; and Kramer’s daughter Arielle, development assistant at FIDF.
Friedman, 28, enlisted in the army as a paramedic, against her parents’ wishes.
“They disapproved because they are Orthodox,” she said, but they eventually came around. She served as a paramedic in Jenin, and then became an airborne paramedic, evacuating wounded soldiers from the battlefield. That was her role when the 2006 Second Lebanon War broke out, and she suffered the loss of two close friends also serving as paramedics, whose helicopter was blown up by a missile as it was leaving a battlefield.
“I bore the pain to eulogize them at their funerals,” she said.
Despite the kinds of things she saw during her service, she became emotional only as she described what happened after her army service, as she considered pursuing her dream to become a doctor —and realized she had no money for tuition. Neither of her parents had degrees, and only her father was working. “Then someone told me about Impact!,” she said. “It changed my life.”
Overcome, she had to stop and hold back her tears and compose herself. “They told me I could study and not worry about my finances, that they would be taken care of.” After three and a half years, she got a call from the university telling her she had a spot in medical school.
“I cried and laughed at the same time,” Friedman said. “I couldn’t believe I was in medical school. I called back to check to make sure it was true.”
Maimon, 27, recalled the first time he ever heard of FIDF: after his unit of paratroopers, deployed to south Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, ran out of clean underwear. “We were supposed to go for one week and we stayed for two months. One day we received a package of plastic bags filled with socks, underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap — it was like pure gold for us. Clean underwear! Sorry, but we hadn’t changed in weeks. You know, I loved FIDF from the first time I saw that seal.”
Maimon’s family came to Israel from Morocco. “They had 14 children. They spoke Arabic, and they had beards. They looked strange. But when you serve in the IDF, in Israel that’s the main way to be accepted.”
His uncles served during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — Chaim in the air force, Moshe as a paratrooper, and Michael as a tank driver. Michael died first, burned when his tank exploded. Three days later, Moshe died, shot in the head while saving his team during a battle.
Maimon, named for his Uncle Moshe, grew up knowing he too would be a paratrooper. In fact, he said, all the boys among his 50 or so cousins went into combat units. “It was obvious to us that’s what we would do,” he said. “You may ask how could a mother who lost her brothers send her children to fight? That’s Israel.”
When he finished his service, Maimon said, he couldn’t afford university. That’s when he had his second encounter with FIDF.
“It seemed awesome,” he said. “All I had to do was volunteer 130 hours.”
He volunteers with a nonprofit called Acharai (Follow me), helping teenagers on the street get ready for army service and, where possible, vouches for them even when they haven’t graduated from high school.
“Nobody cares what they did in high school. In Israel, we care what you did in the army,” Maimon said. “I have two students who finished their army service, applied for Impact! to go to school, and they will go and volunteer and help the kids they used to be.”