By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD — West Hartford natives, siblings Stefanie and Matthew Gelles, were among 20 young adults who took part in the annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) annual young leadership mission to Israel last month.
The Gelleses joined fellow 20- and 30-somethings from across the U.S. on a nine-day tour that included visits to several IDF military bases, where the group got a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and experiences of officers and soldiers stationed throughout the country. Established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, the FIDF provides and supports educational, social, cultural, and recreational programs and facilities for IDF soldiers and their families. FIDF maintains 15 regional offices throughout the U.S. and Panama.
Matthew, 27, and Stefanie, 31, are both Manhattan residents and alumni of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford and of Birthright Israel trips. Matthew, who serves on FIDF’s Young Leadership-New York board, was one of three co-chairs leading the mission, which was staffed by National Young Leadership director Dan Haskell and FIDF Development Associate Carly Billig.
“When I moved to New York in 2010, I started getting emails from a lot of different [Jewish non-profit] groups, and started going to their events,” Matthew recalls. “FIDF stood out as a genuine organization where the people were on the ground level and really cared about their mission – to help IDF soldiers. No partisanship, no politics, just pure assistance and support for the soldiers.”
After co-chairing several events, Matthew was invited to join the board last December. The July mission was the first time he went to Israel with the organization.
“I went on Birthright and other trips when I visited friends and other people I knew, and saw the sights – but it was always a more informal social setting,” he says. “On Birthright, you may go to a base or two but it’s limited-access and only for a brief period of time. The FIDF trip is focused around the idea of bases and is all about the day-to-day operations and life of the IDF soldier. We went all across the country, visited six or seven IDF bases, and met one-on-one with dozens of soldiers. We got to share our feelings of support and encouragement for them; they shared with us what life is like in the IDF and we could bond over simple things.”
Matthew’s sister, Stefanie, has been involved in Fuel for Truth, an Israel-advocacy training program for young professionals that meets weekly for a 10-week “boot camp.” She has attended several FIDF fundraising events and decided to join the mission when she learned that Matthew was co-chairing it.
As part of the mission, the group decided on a fundraising project for Brothers for Life (Achim LaChaim), a non-profit organization supported by FIDF, which helps recently injured IDF soldiers rebuild their lives.
“We got to meet with two ex-IDF soldiers who were injured in battle and who work for this organization,” Matthew says. “They talked about their situation, how they got injured, the awful details of losing friends, and the circumstances of their injuries. But also about the recovery period, which is where Brothers for Life comes in, and the struggles of PTSD and trying to get back into normal life, both physically and mentally. I think everyone on the trip was touched by that two-hour meet-and-greet and conversation.”
This aspect of FIDF’s mission is what especially impressed Stefanie, who was moved to take on a leadership role in upcoming FIDF events.
“While we toured Israel and heard about the soldiers’ daily lives, we had the opportunity to learn about the different programs that FIDF runs with donation dollars that really positively affect the lives of soldiers and veterans,” she says. “That work resonated with me as someone who grew up Jewish and always felt proud of Israel. Now I have a better understanding of why that’s true for me and I feel that I’d like to give back in any way I can.”
CAP: (l to r) Arielle Cole, Taylor Powell, Jeremy Burke, Alyssa Bernstein, Carly Billig, Stefanie Gelles, and Matthew Gelles. Photo credit: Oren Cohen