It’s been 35 years since Tzvia Wexler last lived in Israel, but she insists, “Even though I left Israel physically, it never left me.”
Wexler, a Center City resident and Congregation Mikveh Israel member, is the national development director for Beth Halochem USA-Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans, a New York-based organization that facilitates the rehabilitation and care of disabled Israeli service members through several Beit Halochem rehabilitation centers across Israel.
Previously, Wexler was the executive director and founder of the Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, where she spent more than 11 years galvanizing the local Jewish community to support the state of Israel and the IDF.
Even before her leadership roles at the various nonprofit organizations, Wexler has spent nearly all of her decades in Philadelphia strengthening her — and others’ — ties to Israel.
“My bottom line is to bring people together, to build the bridge between people … between countries and between different kinds of generations,” she said.
Since Wexler’s time in the United States, she’s noticed, particularly among the younger generation, that Jewish identity has strayed farther from connection to Israel.
“A lot of people did not visit Israel and did not get the right information about Israel,” she said.
Instead of getting their information about Israel from the news, which Wexler believes often antagonizes the state, people should learn about Israeli culture firsthand from the people who have lived there and want to pass it on, she said.
Wexler’s experiences in her home country prepared her to be that educating and connecting force.
Born in Petah Tikva, Wexler enlisted in the IDF at 18, as was mandatory, but her path did not lead her to become a soldier. Wexler had been singing since age 6. From 11 to 18, she traveled across Europe with a group of young performers representing Israel. When the time came for Wexler to join the IDF, she was asked to become a “soul singer” in the Israeli Air Force, providing comforting music to those fighting.
“I had the experience to go and continue to be in this field to be able to bring a smile on the faces of the IDF soldiers and IDF wounded, anyone we can make happy in the good times and the bad times,” Wexler said. “That was actually one of the best experiences
of my life.”
The only woman in the Air Force band at one point, Wexler’s experience was even more unique. During one trip, she and her group traveled to Golan Heights, the Israel-occupied part of the Hermon region that sits between Israel and Syria. At the time, women were not allowed to cross the Syrian border, Wexler said.
At the checkpoint, the 16 members on the bus hatched a plan for Wexler to hide between the bus seats when a guard checked for women. The plan worked; once the rest of the musicians finished setting up their instruments outside, Wexler exited the bus and joined them for a performance.
After meeting her American husband and moving to Philadelphia, Wexler continued to use music as a tool to connect with others. She hosted small events, bringing in Israeli storytellers or traveling to synagogues in Miami, New York, Montreal and Toronto to present Israeli music to audiences.
“We got to the point that people who have never been to Israel decided to go to see what it was all about,” Wexler said.
The event sizes grew and, eventually, Gen. Yitzhak Gershon, national director and CEO of FIDF, approached Wexler and asked her to join the organization. She relented at first but later agreed, founding the Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey FIDF regional office in 2011.
“It wasn’t very easy for me to say ‘yes’ because I was freelance,” Wexler said. “I was doing whatever I wanted to do; it was very successful.”
After 11 years with FIDF, Wexler decided to start a new chapter of her life at FIDV. When the organization asked her to join, she was similarly cautious. But after she traveled to Israel to visit a Beth Halochem rehabilitation center, she easily made up her mind.
Wexler visited veterans with no arms, no legs, and some who were blind. At first, she was shocked to see so many young people with disabilities, but she was forced to quickly shift her mentality.
“Those that were sitting with me in a wheelchair looked at my face and said, ‘Hey, Tzvia, what happened? Smile,’” Wexler said.
Her initial visit with the wounded veterans gave her power and energy to move forward, to not complain or look back on the past, Wexler said. She took the job at FIDV in January.
“I was convinced that this is like the best place to be,” she said. “I was convinced that this was the biggest mitzvah to do.”