Israel and IDF Toasted at Tribute Gala

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The musical dial tone of the Skype call rang and rang.

“Matan is not available,” the screen read.

A second time, the dial tone rang, to no avail.


Finally, a voice — but no face — came through from the other side, which was supposed to be an IDF base in Israel.

Matan Goldman’s family stood on stage before the crowd at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey Chapter’s annual tribute dinner on Sept. 5, waiting to connect to their son.

Instead, applause and “Aww!”s reverberated as Matan, a lone soldier from Philadelphia and active-duty corporal, came out from behind the curtain in his uniform, completely surprising his family.

“When I first thought to draft, it was because I wanted to move to Israel,” he told the crowd. “I felt that joining the IDF would be the best way to integrate. Since joining, however, I’ve come to realize my service is much more than an integration process or an intensive ulpan — it’s defending our country.

“I am proud and grateful to be standing before everyone here today as a soldier of the Israeli army.”

It was just one highlight of the night, which incorporated musical performances, including a rousing violin performance of “If I Were a Rich Man”; speeches from IDF soldiers, parents of lone soldiers and volunteers of the organization; recognition of Holocaust survivors in the audience; video testimonials about FIDF and its programs, including its scholarship program for combat soldiers; and tributes to the soldiers abroad protecting Israel’s borders.

The evening also was a celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday, which the FIDF chapter’s executive director Tzvia Wexler credited to IDF soldiers.

“We opened tonight’s program with the song ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’ For the last eight years, you have enriched the lives of the IDF soldiers by giving your love and support,” Wexler said, before instructing the crowd to raise their glasses in a toast.

“To our co-chairs,” she began, calling to Sue Ellen and Mark Alderman, Marcy Gringlas and Joel Greenberg and thanking them for their support and dedication to IDF soldiers. “L’chaim!”

“L’chaim!” the audience repeated.

“To all of you here tonight,” Wexler continued. “L’chaim!”

“L’chaim!”

“To our IDF soldiers, whom without we could not celebrate 70 years to the state of Israel,” Wexler toasted. “Mazel tov, yisrael, and l’chaim to the soldiers!”

“L’chaim!”

The night was a chance to encourage and highlight the unity of the some 800 guests, noted emcee and comedian Joel Chasnoff, a former IDF soldier who cracked jokes throughout the evening.

“Think how miraculous it is we could get this many types of Jews together in one room,” he quipped.

For the event co-chairs, the organization holds familial ties.

Mark Alderman noted his nephew and Gringlas and Greenberg’s daughter served in the IDF, and were honored at the organization’s gala several years ago.

“We support the heroes of the IDF without prejudice and without politics,” he said. “The FIDF embraces and honors the brave men and women of the Israeli military who have protected and preserved the Jewish homeland year in and year out for 70 years as politics change and politicians come and go. So it is in that spirit, and it is for them, that we come together tonight.”

Several videos highlighted the IDF’s work in defending Israel’s waters and helping those across their borders — even those who have unfriendly feelings toward Israel, like Syria.

Another video played highlights from an April FIDF mission trip to Poland and Israel with more than 150 FIDF supporters and 50 soldiers.

Leon Shear had a particularly valuable experience on this trip.

A Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz when he was 14 and lost his family save for a brother, Shear — who was born in Poland and now lives in Ohio with his wife, Helen, of 68 years — went on the trip with his son and grandson.

“When I arrived in Poland, I did not expect to see what I saw with hundreds of IDF soldiers. And they asked me a question, they said, ‘Leon, how do you feel?’ And I said, ‘Well, usually I feel with my hands, but what is the question?’” he quipped, showcasing his vibrant personality and sense of humor.

“These IDF soldiers are the most outstanding human beings,” he said, “and being with Jewish soldiers — it’s a plus, plus, plus, plus.”

When the trip group found out Shear, who spent time in Birkenau and lost his mother and sister in Auschwitz, never had a Bar Mitzvah, they took it to heart.

So, Shear, at 91 years old, became a Bar Mitzvah with the help of a rabbi and Torah aboard the plane from Poland to Israel.

“I never cried,” Shear said. “I’m not an emotional person, but this made me feel so soft, so touched, so caring, and I am around the Jewish soldiers who are protecting me. There is no words I can really describe it, and I saw in a picture that I was crying.”

He was called on during the gala where he saluted the soldiers on stage as he wiped his eyes and gave hugs — a common sight that night. 

mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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