ON THE SCENE
Belev Echad raises $4.3 million at NYC gala for wounded IDF vets, honors one of its fallen
Founder of the organization, which brings injured Israeli veterans to the U.S. and helps ensure they get top-notch medical care, says he wants to be out of a job; ‘We pray for a time where there won't be wounded soldiers’
Some 1,500 supporters attended the Belev Echad nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala at the Cipriani event hall in Manhattan’s Financial District on Monday night, enjoying wine and dinner as they honored the organization and the wounded Israeli veterans that it supports.
Founded in 2009, Chabad Rabbi Uriel Vigler and his wife, Shevy, created Belev Echad as a way for the New York Jewish community to show its solidarity with Israel’s wounded soldiers by bringing them on tours through Manhattan to heal and meet American supporters. Over time, the organization evolved into a full-scale network of support, helping advocate for soldiers to get them their full medical and rehabilitation benefits, as well as helping them reintegrate into society with job placements and career training programs.
The organization raised $4.3 million toward these efforts at the gala on Monday, Vigler told eJewishPhilanthropy.
Belev Echad’s activities have grown considerably following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent war with the terror group in Gaza, in which hundreds of soldiers have so far been injured, though Vigler attests the organization’s fundamental purpose hasn’t changed.
“The vision is to shut the organization down,” Vigler told eJP. “We pray for a time where there won’t be wounded soldiers, but in the meantime, we are there for every soldier, whatever they need, and that mission hasn’t changed.”
Vigler added that there are “many newly wounded soldiers” whom the organization is helping. “I haven’t seen such wounds on our soldiers in 15 years of doing this, so it’s gotten much harder,” he said. “There’s so many prosthetic limbs that we’re going to need, and torn hands, torn legs and blind soldiers, but we are here, our community is here, there’s 1,500 people here tonight, and we’re just gonna do everything in our power for these soldiers.”
The organization honored several recently injured soldiers, all of whom had received or are currently receiving assistance from Belev Echad.
“[We’re at this event] mostly to spread awareness about the incident and [for people] to hear this not from a media that was there, not from a reporter that was there or through a screen, but through an actual soldier who experienced the battle, who’ve been there in the battlefield, who’ve seen everything,” Yonatan Pinto told eJP. Pinto, a 20-year-old tank crewman, was blinded by shrapnel after a missile hit his unit. At one point during his escape, Pinto had to run around ??3 kilometers, despite his lack of vision, to reach relative safety. “I didn’t see, but again, I can say I heard and I experienced it myself.”
Pinto has already undergone a number of surgeries to remove the shrapnel. The procedures have returned about half of the vision to his right eye, and both eyes are expected to continue to improve, but it’s unclear at the moment how much of his sight is expected to return. He’s in the United States seeking a second opinion.
Daniel Zaidman, 22, who was injured while protecting families around the community of Netiv Ha’asara, north of the Gaza Strip, and has been receiving assistance from Belev Echad, said he was moved by the love and support shown at Monday night’s event.
“[I] didn’t didn’t expect all this love,” he said. “Yes, I felt bad for the previous two weeks, but now I feel much better, and it’s amazing.”
Despite the evening’s overwhelming sense of unity and strength, it was a bittersweet affair. One of Belev Echad’s own, Raz Mizrahi, a 22-year-old former Border Police officer who was seriously injured in a ramming attack in East Jerusalem in 2021, received help from the organization during her recuperation and continued to work with the nonprofit, was murdered at the Nova music festival on Oct. 7. Monday night’s event was also a tribute to her and all she had given to Belev Echad.
Israeli actors Swell Ariel Or, Hila Saada and Ido Mosseri also attended the event, as well as sports reporter Emily Austin.
Or, who said she lost eight childhood friends in the violence and shared her own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder following a 2016 terrorist attack she witnessed as a teenager, gave an emotional address to the gathered crowd. “Israel offers freedom for us, freedom that our ancestors could never even dream of. And I know how lucky I am to be alive, I don’t take my existence for granted. We are all very much lucky to be alive and here today,” she said, stressing the importance of soldiers serving on the frontlines.
“I Just want to say thank you to Belev Echad, because those soldiers are gonna need so much help and they’re bringing them the tools that they need, and you’re helping them finance it, and it’s amazing, so thank you.”