New York Post / Photos: Bentzi Sasson
This time last year, I was planning a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation and, of course, plenty of ice cream. Instead, I found myself fighting for my life.
When Hamas terrorists kidnapped three young Israeli boys on June 12, 2014, the nation held its breath.
Tragically, their bodies were found weeks later, brutally murdered. While Israel searched for the missing boys, Hamas terrorists sent a near-constant barrage of deadly rockets into heavily populated civilian areas.
Determined to protect its people, Israel declared Operation Protective Edge.
As a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, I had just finished training a group of new soldiers and was not on active duty, but I asked for (and was granted) permission to rejoin my unit.
We were sent to Gaza to find and destroy the deadly tunnels Hamas had built underground, to infiltrate and terrorize Israel.
During one deployment, we got a call that our location was compromised. We were a small group of eight men in a bombed-out building, and one by one we tried to escape. I was the seventh.
I started to make my way across the road when I saw something blue and metallic out of the corner of my eye. By the time I saw it, it was too late. The explosion sent me flying into the air. I was sure I was going to die. My eyes were bleeding profusely and my legs were mangled.
I was airlifted to Soroka Medical Center in Beer Sheva, where I somehow managed to pull through. I was confined to my hospital bed for many months as I underwent surgery after surgery — 15 in all.
I am now completely blind in my left eye and I walk with a cane, sometimes two. But if I had to, I’d do it all over again.
This month, on a whirlwind trip to New York with a group of fellow injured soldiers, I’ve come to understand that we are not alone.
From the moment we arrived, brought here by the incredible Belev Echad organization, a project of Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side, we have been warmly welcomed by everyone we encounter.
During the war, we knew the world was against us. We were accused of committing all kinds of atrocities; slandered on the news virtually everywhere. But here in New York, we’ve been embraced lovingly, with open arms.
We’ve been treated like heroes.
We rode Harley Davidson bikes through Bear Mountain State Park for a day — in Israel, we often find and stop motorcycles strapped with explosives meant to detonate and kill us.
We were treated to a helicopter ride over Manhattan — for most of us, the last time we rode in a helicopter was when we were being evacuated from the battlefield, severely injured and unsure we would live through the hour.
One night, 600 Jewish young adults joined us for a party open to the public by Chabad. One individual sent us to Washington on his private jet, and on another day we were given the opportunity to open NASDAQ.
We played frisbee in Central Park, went shopping at Jersey Gardens, checked out Manhattan’s ice bar and did the Times Square circuit, including Madame Tussauds wax museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a Broadway show.
We feel like this is New York making a point to us and to the world.
But most importantly, we have been greeted with love and appreciation everywhere we go. And when we visited the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan, it all made sense.
You, New Yorkers, have witnessed terrorism firsthand. You know what it means, and you know it must be confronted.
You will never allow the terrorists to win, and that’s something we have in common.
You understand that when Israel fights terror, it is the same war on a different front.
Rabbi Uriel Vigler, who heads the Belev Echad organization together with his wife Shevy, told me that the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, treated the Israeli soldiers with the highest regard, insisting they be called special soldiers, rather than handicapped soldiers.
And indeed, we have been made to feel special and appreciated over and over during our time here.
Thank you, New York, for treating us as you do and for not looking away in pity. Thank you for looking us in the eye and saying, “We’re in this together.”