Funded by individual donations from the community, Tzahal Shalom enables the select group of officers to meet with local school children, residents, young adults, families, college students, veterans’ groups, and synagogue congregants through formal presentations, school visits, religious services, parlor meetings, and informal community events. The soldiers, during this reprieve from their combat duty, are also treated to a few days of sightseeing around New York including visits to the 9/11 Memorial, a Broadway show, West Point Military Academy, and a boat ride around Manhattan.
The soldiers stay with area families who are selected from numerous volunteers. Priority is given to families from a range of Northern Westchester communities who have children currently in high school. Each soldier and host family also has a “buddy” family to share some of the many travel and logistical obligations that are required during the busy 10-day stay.
Through their contact with over 2,000 residents, the soldiers bond with Americans and have the rare opportunity to bypass the noise and miscommunication inherent in the media narratives of a complex situation and to speak of their experiences as one person to another.
Tzahal Shalom is administered by founders Anita Greenwald and Michele Kraushaar along with Randi Kreisler and Alisa Emanuel and dozens of volunteers. The 45 soldiers who have participated in the program have had contact with many thousands of residents in Northern Westchester. Their interactions often lead to long-term friendships with soldiers remaining in contact with host families and visits in Israel.
Anita Greenwald spoke to All About Armonk after this year’s successful program.
AAA: Who are the soldiers who participate and how are they picked?
AG: All of the soldiers who come over are officers. This means that they have stayed in the IDF longer than their initial requirement. All Israeli citizens are required to serve immediately after high school so these soldiers are a little older, since they have advanced training. This year, the youngest was 21 and the oldest was 26.
Our sponsoring organization, FIDF, is responsible for selecting the individuals. Each one is picked for a different reason. We want representatives from all branches of the IDF - Navy, Air Force, ground forces, Education, Intelligence. They could be picked because they’ve done something extraordinary and this is a reward. We’ve had National Heroes. Others, because they have a particularly compelling story or because they speak well. They are required to talk a lot – to many groups of all ages and sizes. All of them speak English but not all have used English much so far.
We always include two women and since they’re officers, they command many people and have a lot of responsibility, and that’s important for our kids to see.
AAA: What do they do when they’re here?
AG: Their mission is to connect with people here and to touch as many people as possible. They are goodwill ambassadors and resources for authoritative information about the IDF and Israel. We have them scheduled day and night to maximize their time here. They visited classrooms at Byram Hills, Greeley, Fox Lane, John Jay, and Somers, plus all the area synagogues. [Host families also come from Mt. Kisco, Pleasantville, Briarcliff and synagogues visited included those in South Salem and Brewster]. Some schools have them for certain classes for a period or two, some for the entire school for most of the day. They don’t all go to each place – we might send four of them to a school assembly or two for a small class. Rarely do we send all seven together. They attend Shabbat services individually both Friday night and Saturday morning so we can provide an Israeli soldier in every area synagogue. They go to parlor meetings in local residents’ homes. There are social events in restaurants with volunteers and other community members. We do an open meeting for the community called Café Joe – this year 250 people attended. We do an event for high school kids – 70 kids attended a bowling party this year. B’nai Yisrael in Armonk hosted a game night with middle-school kids.
The soldiers also meet with a group of local 20-somethings in the city. The event is chaired by the young adults. They visited with members of the American Legion and talked to vets from World War II and Vietnam. And, they visited with students at West Point.
AAA: What kinds of thing do they talk about at the presentations?
AG: They talk a lot about the situation in Israel and what life is like there – what it’s like to go into the armed forces at 18 instead of college. Depending on the age of the audience, they get more specific about what they do and what life is like in the army, and the morality of what they do. This was a very intense year because of the war in Gaza. All seven of them served in [Operation] “Protective Edge” this year and they were all very affected by it. They are not prepped at all for these visits. These are not PR people. They tell firsthand stories and it’s amazing to hear.
One guy flew a bomber and he talked about how they try everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. He said that they drop leaflets warning people to evacuate buildings, they call cell phone numbers of people in the building, and they shake the buildings to further warn people. One soldier, a medic, talked about how they saved the life of a terrorist who had just stabbed an Israeli officer to death. Once the person was no longer a threat, the medic was obligated to treat him, without malice. Those are stories you don’t hear in the news.
AAA: Are they aware of the negative media accounts from this country and around the world?
AG: I don’t think that the American and international media are really on their radar. They have enough to worry about. What’s so wonderful is that they come here and feel the support. We don’t really understand how different things are in Israel – there everyone’s kid is in the army and at risk. They’re all doing their job - they’re not so special. They come here and they get such incredible feedback that they go back feeling energized and renewed with a positive sense about what they’re doing.
After they get picked up at the airport and get cleaned up, they come to a welcome brunch always hosted by one family in Chappaqua. Waiting for them is a community of about 120 people involved in the program – all the volunteers and hosts, people who set up the school visits, the meals. And everyone stands up and claps for them like the heroes they are. But they’ve never been treated that way and they don’t expect it. In Israel they are just like everyone else; here they feel a little bit like rock stars.
AAA: This must all cost a fair amount of money. How do you raise the funds?
AG: It’s funded 100% by private donations. We have to pay for their airfare and they get a stipend from the Israeli army which we pick up the tab for because they are on duty with us. There are extras - We take them to a Broadway show among other things. We run one event that’s a fundraiser. This year it was held at Brynwood Country Club and we had 200 people attending. People are very generous, especially after having personal contact with the soldiers. They are so moved.
AAA: What plans do you have for the future of the program?
AG: We want the program to continue for as long as possible. We’re taking steps to make the structure more concrete – forming a board of directors and soliciting new people particularly those with kids living at home to become the leaders. Of the four of us who administer the program, three will be empty nesters next year. It’s good to have people involved who have teenagers at home.
It has been such an amazing experience for everyone involved. The host families fall in love with “their” soldier. They often stay in contact for years through emails and visits to Israel. It’s like gaining a new family member. And the host families and buddy families develop close friendships and that strengthens our community.
And the response from the soldiers has been so powerful. I want to quote from an email that was sent to one of the host families by the mother of the soldier. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that I think we are really changing lives on both sides.
“…I am so moved to hear how thoughtful caring and loving relative strangers have been reaching out to our sons and daughters. How quickly you all became so close and like extended family. These ten days have meant so much to B… and I already feel that the healing process following the Gaza war has started…I feel that we have gained a family even if we have yet to meet in person. Needless to say, after such an experience, he has to come down and I think that the next few days may be bumpy. What will keep him going is the knowledge that there is a dedicated and committed community that stands behind him and his fellow soldiers, supporting him in practical ways and keeping the morale high. Israel is fortunate and we so appreciate these gestures…”
To learn more information about the program, see more photos, and find out ways to become involved, visit the website at tzahalshalom.org.
By Nomi Schwartz- staff writer