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Authors Tell Stories of 15 Israelis’ Resilience

San Diego Jewish World

December 3, 2020

Isresilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World by Michael Dickson & Naomi L. Baum, Gefen Publishing House, {c) 2020; ISBN 9789657-023464; available via

SAN DIEGO — In this book, we meet 15 Israelis who overcame difficult challenges in their lives and went on to praiseworthy accomplishments. The sketches are of Israeli sabras and olim, men and women, young and old. Through the entire narrative, authors Dickson, who is executive director of StandWithUs in Israel, and Baum, a PhD known for her studies of resilience, examine how these Israelis were able to overcome the obstacles that life put in their way. They suggest that there are three important ingredients to resilience: empathy, flexibility, and meaning making, which might be better understood as a sense of purpose.

Here is a sketch of the men and women whose stories may be found in the book:

Avigdor Kahalani participated in a monumental tank battle in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, in which 170 Israeli tanks successfully faced off 1,200 Syrian tanks. The battle came six years after Kahalani suffered burns over 60 percent of his body when his tank was hit and caught fire during the Six Day War of 1967. Today a man in his 70s, Kahalani told interviewers: “In Hebrew, the word gever (man) is derived from the word l’hitgaber (overcome) and the word gevurah (bravery). If I had any kind of bravery, it was overcoming my injuries and returning to my tank, not because I stopped the Syrians in their tracks. i overcame my fears; that’s where my bravery was.” The authors added, “He overcame those fears via sheer force of will–mind over matter.”

Natan Sharansky was a “refusenik” and a “prisoner of conscience” in the old Soviet Union who spent years in the isolated prison system known as the gulag, only eventually to be ordered released by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was bowing to world opinion. In his memoir, Fear No Evil, Sharansky wrote: “I decided it was best to treat my captors like the weather. A storm can cause you problems, and sometimes those problems can be humiliating. But the storm itself doesn’t humiliate you.’ He repeated this himself as a mantra: “Nothing they do can humiliate me.” Sharansky went on to become an important political figure in Israel and later served as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Shula Mola and Mequnante Rahamim dreamed of someday reaching Jerusalem from their native Ethiopia. Their separate ways there meant walking and hiding for many miles, having their lives threatened, their possessions stolen, helping weaker refugees, and feeling constant hunger and pain en route to a transit camp in the Sudan. Mequnante credited the education he received from his mother for his ability to withstand the hardships. Shula said she had two sources of resilience. First was her strong legs, which not only carried her but her sick baby brother on her back. Second for her and Mequnante, was the “dream of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple,” wrote the authors. “Their vision drove them forward and kept them going ….”

Noam Gershony was Israel’s first para-Olympic gold medalist who excelled in playing tennis in his wheelchair six years after the helicopter he piloted crash landed on a return mission from the Gaza Strip. His copilot was killed in the crash, and he was left barely alive with two broken arms, two broken legs, a broken pelvis, vertebrae, left elbow, left shoulder, and jaw. While in the hospital, he went into a deep depression until the parents of his copilot, Ran Kochba, and the parents of another pilot, Tom Farkash, who had been killed in an unrelated crash, visited him in the hospital. Tom’s sister had composed and sang a song called “A Million Stars” in Tom’s memory. The visits prompted Naom to decide, “I will never get depressed about my new physical or mental status again, because I am alive.” His advice to others facing hardship, “on a daily basis … find the thing that will remind you how good your life is. Turn everything that happens to you into a positive.”

Margalit Zanati lives in the village of Peki’in, the descendant of a family that has resided there since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem on the Ninth of Av, in the year 70 of the Common Era. She gives tours of the village’s synagogue, which include stones from the Temple brought by her ancestors. “The people of Israel never left their homeland and I hope that they will never leave,” she tells visitors. “I am the keeper of the flame. I’m here, keeping the emblem of Jewish presence in Peki’in alive” Arab marauders attacked the village during the British Mandatory era, driving away all the Jews permanently, except the Zinati family who returned when the situation quieted. Alone, but still giving tours, Zinati was honored at national Independence Day ceremonies in 2018 when she was chosen to light one of the Independence Day torches.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau was orphaned by the Holocaust and brought to Mandatory Palestin in 1945 at the age of 8. Raised by an uncle at Kiryat Motzkin, near Haifa, Lau’s uncle told him, according to the authors, “that he had been saved in order to realize his destiny: to follow in the footsteps of his esteemed rabbinic family, succeeding his late father to become the thirty-eighth generation in an unbroken family chain of rabbis.” The authors concluded: “Having a sense of mission kept him alive during the Holocaust and guided all his steps during his formative years. This mission has been a beacon to him for his entire life — a strong and clear purpose that was an essential part of Rabbi Lau’s resilient climb from the ashes of the Holocaust to the Chief Rabbinate of the modern State of Israel.”

Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh is the first Druze woman to serve in the Israeli Knesset. Born and raised in Dalyat al-Karmel, her career path through television journalism to politics did not immediately meet with approval from the traditionally-minded Druze residents, who expected women to be homemakers dedicating their time to their families. However, according to the authors, “her family has always played a significant role in supporting her and helping her along her sometimes thorny path. In recent years, her community has as well come to her support…”

Tal Brody had the opportunity to play for the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA or to stay in Israel and build that country’s nascent basketball program. The 6’2 Brody chose the latter, giving up a career that might have led to his becoming a millionaire. But Brody says he was motivated to show the world that Israelis can compete successfully with the players of any nation. According to the authors, “The sense that the ‘shtetl Jew’ has shed his shadow and can now stand tall and win on the professional basketball court has been a source of great pride to Tal, and he feels the generations of Jews cheering on the sidelines.”

Amit Goffer became a quadraplegic as the result of an off-roading accident. An engineer with a degree from the Technion, he had served in the Israel Defense Forces in a unit commanded by Yair Shamir, son of the former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. At one point, Goffer became frustrated by the equipment issued to him for research, and instead of reprimanding Goffer for his angry words to a superior officer, the young Shamir made certain that Goffer got everything he needed. Because young Shamir “cared about the mission, above all,” he tolerated independent thinking — greatly influencing Goffer to likewise value outside-the-box approaches. Years later, after his accident, Goffer recalled, “I knew I couldn’t fall any deeper. The only way was up. I had to climb out of the hole toward the light.” Unwilling to be bound permanently to a wheelchair, an invention that was centuries old, he developed a robotic exoskeleton called ReWalk that enables him to once again stand.

Yoseph Haddad is an Arab Israeli who began to serve in the Israel Defense Forces after the destruction of the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa in 2003 by a suicide bomber, who killed 21 Arab and Jewish people and wounded 60 others. According to the authors, “The Maxim attack affirmed to Yoseph what he had already decided, that serving in defense of his people–Arab and Jewish — and his country was what he needed to do.” In a battle in Lebanon, an explosion severed Yoseph’s foot, which doctors successfully reattached. However doctors thought he would have a permanent limp. Yoseph told the doctor, “You watch! I will play soccer again!” and that’s exactly what he did. He also runs about six miles every week. He later moved to Canada where he became a self-appointed good will ambassador for Israel. What accounted for his resilience? According to the authors, “Surrounding oneself with a supportive, sympathetic, and encouraging environment is an important aspect in building personal resilience.”

Sherri Mandell became known to the world as the grieving mother of Koby Mandell, 13, who was murdered along with his friend, Yosef Ishran, by Palestinian terrorists who kidnaped and bound them, stabbed and stoned them to death. Their mutilated bodies were found by search parties. A friend, Shira, was a grief counselor who visited her daily and massaged Sherri weekly, explaining that at some point she would be ready to emerge from her cocoon of grief. When Koby’s 14th birthday approached about five weeks after the murder, Sherri’s friend encouraged her to do something meaningful to mark the occasion. According to the authors, “The family decided to give alms to fourteen beggars in Jerusalem, as giving charity was something that Koby loved to do.” Each year that followed, the family would add one more person to their list of recipients. In the process Sherri became more spiritual, eventually going on to study counseling and Torah and writing two books: The Blessing of a Broken Heart and The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration.

Gadi Yarkoni is a the double-amputee mayor of Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border. Years before his election, A rocket launched from Gaza blew up near him, killing two colleagues from the kibbutz and causing him to be put into a medically-induced coma for 15 days. He had long been involved in leadership of the kibbutz, serving for ten years as its director general. As he awakened from the coma, he felt a strong desire to learn what had been happening at the kibbutz. Then he heard that the position as mayor –who serves as head of the council — would soon be vacated. According to the authors, “Till this day he believes this (the opportunity to advance professionally) is the antidote to sinking into depression, despair, and anxiety..”

Nadav Ben Yehuda is Israel’s most accomplished mountain climber, having ascended to the summits of some of the highest mountains in the world. He had a moment of truth while climbing Mount Everest in 2012. While he had prepared for years to make his attempt for the summit, a Turkish climber, was not prepared at all. About 1,000 feet from the summit, Nadav found the climber unconscious and near dead. He abandoned his pursuit of the climb and carried the Turk down to safety. Attaching the amateur climber to a harness, Nadav froze his right hand, which ceased to function, and also sustained other injuries. Although doctors recommended amputation of four of his fingers, Nadav refused, somehow nursing them back to relative health. Three years afterwards in 2015, Nadav became part of the Israeli Embassy in Nepal, charged with coordinating search and rescue missions for Israelis and other hikers who became lost or stranded in the Himalayas. In 2018, he was injured while attempting to climb Mt. Kangchenjunga, almost dying before he could be extracted from the mountain. During his years of recovery, Ben Yehuda became a goodwill emissary for the government of Nepal. What made Nadav remarkable, according to the authors, was his mental flexibility, which “allows us to make clear-eyed decisions, as it did for Nadav on the day he set aside his goal to reach Everest’s summit and instead chose to save a life.”

Miri Eisin became known to people who follow the ups and downs of Middle East news as the colonel who served as a spokeswoman for the IDF during the time of the intifada, when terrorists attacked Israelis with suicide bombers, snipers, stabbings, and vehicle ramming. She was before the cameras, too, during the Second Lebanon War. “When I think about resilience, I think that what Israelis can teach the world is that life goes on, despite the terrible things that happen. That’s a wonderful message — it’s a survivor’s message, not a victim’s message. The day after a terror attack is a regular day when you send your kids back to school. we take a deep breath and carry on. That’s resilience.”

The paragraphs above are what might be considered the skeletons of the stories told in Isresilience. You’ll need to read the entire book to put the flesh on the bones in an exercise that will help reveal to you the remarkable character and values of the Israeli people.

Read the full article here.


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