By Cindy Mindell
STAMFORD – Among the longest-running cultural-exchange programs in Jewish Connecticut is the JCC Tzahal Shalom program, organized by the Stamford Jewish Community Center with the support of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). (Tzahal is the Hebrew acronym for Tzva Haganah L’Yisrael, the Israel Defense Forces.) The program operates in only two U.S. communities, bringing seven high-ranking active-duty IDF officers for a week to Stamford every spring and, more recently, to northern Westchester, N.Y. every fall.
According to Stamford Jewish history, the seeds of the JCC Tzahal Shalom program were planted in 1976. Israeli athletes returning home after the Summer Paralympics in Toronto were invited to a fundraising reception at the Stamford home of Nusia and Aron Chilewich. There, the Chilewiches learned of a program sponsored by the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which brought disabled IDF veterans to the U.S. for two weeks. They contacted Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz z”l of Congregation Agudath Sholom, who discussed the program with Saul Cohen, then the executive director of the Stamford Jewish Community Center (JCC). The Stamford JCC first began hosting wounded IDF veterans for an annual 10-day visit in 1978.
Larry and Linda Rezak were among the first host families. “The host families and committee had the pleasure of taking the vets to Yonkers Raceway and to West Point, where [Israel’s first general] Mickey Marcus is buried, and to the Lower East Side,” Larry recalls. “That first year, the veterans even attended a wedding at the home of Tamar and Ted Baumgold. Their visit culminated at a party [hosted by] Renee and Bob Beningson.”
Over the years, the JCC Tzahal Shalom program started bringing active-duty IDF officers to the community, rather than veterans. Hosted by local families, the officers spend a week interacting with the public, at synagogues, high schools and colleges, parlor meetings, social events, and community celebrations.
Now in its 38th year, the JCC Tzahal Shalom program has expanded its scope to educate audiences not only in the Jewish community but the non-Jewish community as well.
“The officers meet with more and more high schools, universities, and adult groups than ever before, in Stamford, Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, and – as of this year – Westport,” says Nancy Schiffman, associate executive director of the Stamford JCC. “They reach well over 1,000 high-school students and teachers, hundreds of university students and faculty, and a variety of adult audiences. We’ve also expanded their synagogue participation: the officers join their host families for Shabbat services and this year, we are happy to have officers attend Temple Sholom in Greenwich and Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, in addition to our Stamford synagogues.”
This year, the group of officers comprises two females and five males, with one Druze-Israeli. “Each one comes from a diverse background and represents a different IDF unit,” Schiffman says. “They speak to issues such as the meaningful responsibility of being an officer, which includes both commanding and taking care of their soldiers. They talk about their experiences in the IDF, what made them decide to become officers, and why they chose their respective units. They talk about the current conflict, the complexities, issues of morality and Israeli life and society in general.”
In schools, the officers are frequently met with audiences who don’t know much about Israel, providing an opportunity to describe the diversity of Israeli society – a quality that also infuses the IDF, where each soldier is encouraged to achieve his or her full potential.
“There’s a real value to a face-to-face interaction because when you get to see and know and like someone, the concept of another country is not so foreign and warmer feelings can develop,” Schiffman says.
The program is fully supported by the Stamford Jewish community, which provides generous monetary donations and home hospitality. Each year, families jostle for the privilege of hosting the officers. The program is so well-established, Schiffman says, that there are now adults in host families who were kids when the wounded IDF veterans visited the community in the late ‘70s.
Risa Bauman was 12 when her parents hosted an IDF veteran in 1980. “My sister and I attended Bi-Cultural Day School, but other than that, we had no way of knowing about Israel, no family there, no connection,” she recalls. “My parents, Lorraine and Mort Bauman, thought the idea of meeting people from Israel and actually having someone from Israel living in our house, was a special opportunity. And that maybe someday, when we did make the trip to our homeland, we could visit them and they would be like our family.”
Itamar spoke no English, but the Baumans managed to communicate, through middle-school Hebrew, charades, and a bissel Yiddish, and bonded with their visitor and his comrades. That summer, when the Baumans traveled to Israel for Risa’s bat mitzvah, they visited Itamar and his family in Afula, and kept in contact for several years.
Risa married fellow Stamford native Jeff Goldblum. The couple settled in their hometown and carried on their families’ legacy of involvement in the Jewish community.
“Over the years, I saw the officers every spring at the JCC, and have marveled at the fact that they are still coming, year after year,” Risa says. “I couldn’t wait until my kids were old enough for us to host, and that time came in 2010.”
When they met their officer, Maoz, at the opening host-family brunch, the connection was instantaneous. “Over the course of 10 days, we stayed up way too late every night talking about Maoz’s life,” Risa says. “We taught him how to play baseball, made his favorite American snack, Rice Krispie Treats, and soon shared the same private jokes. He became like an older brother to [my kids] Jordan, Elyse and Aaron, and being called ‘Ima’ was the highest praise I could imagine.”
The Goldblums have stayed in touch with Maoz, who contacts his Stamford “mishpocha” (family) whenever there is a crisis in Israel. Elyse and Risa have each visited with him while in Israel.
“Our experience with the JCC Tzahal Shalom program affected our family in so many positive ways,” says Risa, who co-chaired the program for four years. “Our kids learned about the responsibilities and realities that Maoz and other young Israelis like him face every day. The camaraderie we shared with our fellow host parents was exhilarating and meaningful. The bond between the JCC Tzahal Shalom families and officers is indescribable. The love my family shared with Maoz, and all of the soldiers, will stay with us forever.”
Not only does the program benefit the Greater Stamford community, but the officers get something as well. “They walk away with a deep sense that they are loved, respected, and appreciated, and they get to see that American Jews are tremendously supportive and loving of Israel and the IDF,” Schiffman says. “They bring that back to their bases, to the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers who are affected by the program. They leave the Fairfield County community with the sense that they have a second home and that we’re with them every step of the way.”
The fact that the JCC Tzahal Shalom program returns to Stamford every year is a testament to its significance in the Jewish community, according to Schiffman. “The community expresses time and again that this is a valuable, impactful, meaningful, and vital program,” she says.
The Stamford JCC runs an annual Tzahal Shalom fundraiser to support the program. This year’s event – “Martinis and Magic” — will be held on Saturday evening, April 2.
For a full schedule of the JCC Tzahal Shalom events visit stamfordjcc.org. For information on programming and hosting, contact Nancy Schiffman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (203) 487-0941.
CAP: The Tazahal Shalom officers who visited Stamford in 2015.