Caring for Israel's Disabled Veterans

The essence of Bet Halochem

The Mediterranean shoreline near Tel Aviv taken from a helicopter. Photo by Carrie Hart
The Mediterranean shoreline near Tel Aviv taken from a helicopter. Photo by Carrie Hart
12 JUN 2016
by

Last month Israel celebrated 68 years of independence since the founding of the state in May 1948. One of the ways Israelis come together during the holiday is in honoring the more than 100,000 soldiers wounded in Israel’s military and security services going back to the 1940’s.

Today, about 56,000 disabled veterans live in Israel. Most of them are members of Bet Halochem. The organization has several branches throughout Israel, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beersheva. A new facility is planned for Ashdod.

As Chairman of the Tel Aviv District office, Edan Kleiman is responsible for helping to meet the needs of 20,000 soldiers. His job is to represent wounded veterans when services are required at the government level, or when families need practical services like banking. He calls Bet Halochem, “The House of the Fighter”. It functions as a rehabilitation center and recreational facility for families of those Israelis who have fought on the battlefield. According to Kleiman, Bet Halochem hosts people that cannot integrate into other social clubs, or get quality services because of their disabilities.

Bet Halochem facilities provide soccer fields for blind people. There are tennis and basketball courts, Olympic size swimming pools, physical therapy rooms, state-of-the art gyms, and billiard rooms for soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Professionals guide the soldiers and their families and supervise their healing through physical fitness.

“It is proven that basketball, gym, swimming – these kinds of actions -- are the #1 cause towards greater rehabilitation,” Kleiman explains. “People that are physically hurt become very weak. Their confidence goes down. Physical fitness is a very important ingredient of how a person goes back into society; to build them up again; to bring them back into shape.”

This is one reason why Israeli disabled athletes have been successful in the Para-Olympics. They have understood the benefit of healing through sports.

At least 14,000 families are registered at Bet Halochem facilities throughout the country. Getting the families involved is essential to a soldier’s rehabilitation.

Kleiman says that Independence Day for the wounded soldier is a victory day. “It is the day you feel like you did something for the country. This day is the reason why I paid the heavy price in protecting Israel. Independence Day is the trophy.”

The day before Israelis celebrate their independence, the country mourns collectively for Israel’s fallen soldiers. The Day of Remembrance (Memorial Day) is one of the most difficult times all year round for Israeli families. Kleiman admits there are a lot of problems for veterans on that day. They have memories of their friends who were killed. Many Israelis go to cemeteries or visit the families of friends who died in battle.

Kleiman understands this emotional suffering. “I lost six friends in the army, including my grandfather in 1948.” Kleiman, himself, is paralyzed and in a wheelchair after being wounded in a fight with three terrorists on the streets of Gaza. At that time he was a 19 year old combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He is now 42, married, and has a young daughter.

On Independence Day and other holidays, including Shabbat, Bet Halochem has special programs for children. It becomes a safe environment for wheelchair bound parents who want their children to enjoy the freedom other families have. The facilities are fully accessible to those with disabilities. “People around you are people you know. It feels like home,” according to Kleiman. He stresses that the emphasis on building a family is very important. “When my daughter was born 2 l/2 years ago, my mother told me ‘You won; you are bringing another generation in’. We fight for the survival of the country and for the next generation. Bringing kids into the world is our victory.”

Every soldier that has been wounded in Israel gets some pension funds from the government through the Ministry of Defense. More than 70% of the disabled go back to work and earn a salary. Israeli society encourages them to continue to contribute to the workforce despite their disability.

“The population that serves in the Israeli army and fights for this country is the most qualified in Israel,” Kleiman declares. “So, from the beginning those people have the skills and the ability to go back to work and provide for themselves. You only need to put them on the right path.”

While most of Israel’s wounded soldiers do find jobs, it is nice to have the disability pension which takes care of extra needs. Kleiman explains that he pays more for his home utilities than other Israelis because of his disabilities, requiring more out-of-pocket expenses.

This writer asked how the children cope in families who have a disabled veteran among them. “Children are very smart. They get it in the first or second year after their birth. They adapt themselves. My baby at 18 months old walked to the wheelchair, climbed on with her strength, and started wheeling my wheel chair around!”

Yet, as the children get older and more mature, frustration sets in. Their disabled parent cannot take them to places like the beach. There are disappointments at school. In Israel there is a traditional school trip every year. Kleiman shares how this becomes difficult. “Most of the parents walk with the children on the school trip. If you have a disability you can’t. The person in the wheelchair cannot do it. You try to compensate; you try to face the truth; you can’t do anything about it. Disability has its limitations. There’s a price to pay. My wife is paying a heavy price.”

However, he says his spouse knew what kind of life they would have, just like other couples. They have weathered the storms. “It’s the Israeli spirit; coping with the truth through good energies and through being strong.”

Disabled couples are focused on understanding what their children want, and they face the situation with perseverance. They are determined that their children will have a normal life.

“You need to fight to wake up in the morning; you have to fight to go to work. You go to the supermarket; you go to the beach; you drive your car; you fight through persistence and courage. You are the one that decides how your life is going to be.” It is all about gaining a good perspective.

When Kleiman sits with someone who has recently been wounded, he encourages them about the long road ahead. They have to decide if they are going to lead their life around the disability and allow it to be the strongest motivator in their lives.

“Or, as I say, I am going to live my life well, and cope with my disability, but never let it guide me; or make decisions for me. I recognize my disability, but I am never going to let it take control of my life.”

One thing that has helped Kleiman and other disabled veterans cope is the fact that Israeli society has enormous respect for wounded army veterans. Israelis encourage disabled people to fit in and adjust to normal community life. Wounded soldiers seem to have many friends who stay in close touch -- from kindergarten into grade school; through high school into university and beyond.

Israelis meet Kleiman and want to know his story. “After a few minutes they ask me, and I tell them. From that second on, they look at me in a much more positive way.”

Meanwhile, Bet Halochem representatives look for the most modern ways to help Israeli soldiers heal from their injuries. The idea is that each person that has to go through physical therapy has a positive experience. There are 100 different cultural classes offered at the facilities, such as drawing, painting, sculpturing, flower arrangement, computer seminars, and language and music classes. Theater, movies, and trips throughout Israel are offered, as well.

Kleiman is determined not to give up on any person who comes to Bet Halochem with a disability. “We will find him the support, something he can do, and we will build his confidence. We will give him the tools to go back into society, with the confidence that he is great at something. It allows him to confront and accept the challenge…. He will swim faster; he will lift weights; he will be great in basketball; and in the pool.”

There are many examples of Israelis that have been wounded and have come to Bet Halochem with very low self esteem. Kleiman is proud to say they eventually achieve excellence. After awhile, the soldiers get university degrees, marry, and build families. They go back into the world successfully. The directors at Bet Halochem take disabled veterans from their lowest point and build them back up again.

“We do it very quickly and never give up,” Kleiman explains. “We treat them in the beginning as normal people, give them the tools and show them the way. This is the essence of Bet Halochem. It’s an organization that fights the day after. When the cameras are gone, when the people stop visiting in the hospital, when the wounded are alone, we come in as angels. We take over and do the hard work. We are doing what the Ministry of Defense can’t do. We are helping people to become part of society again.”