January 28, 2022
They say it takes a village, but even a small group can make a difference
By Barbara Sofer
Call him Amir. He prefers that I don’t use his real name. You’ll see why.
He’s a handsome young man with dark hair and chocolate eyes. Thirty-eight. Single.
We’re having tea in a Jerusalem café, and he keeps turning around to check on the young woman typing on her laptop at a table behind him. He’s taken the first morning train from the North because he can’t tolerate crowds.
He wasn’t always like this, his friend David Cahn, a social worker, tells me.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. Just as there’s long COVID, there’s long PTSD reliving the traumas of the past.
MAYBE HIS background made him vulnerable. His father was literally struck by a bolt of lightning when Amir was three. He died. Amir’s mother struggled to bring up Amir and his two siblings. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died when he was serving in the IDF.
He was an outlier, the only one in his class to enlist. That’s because he’s from Tamra, a rare Bedouin boy growing up with a widowed mother in an Arab town. He wasn’t obligated to serve, of course, but he wanted to and volunteered. There were some 300 Bedouin in Israel who enlisted when he did. And like most of them, he was valued, not only for his knowledge of Arabic, but – as Defense Minister Benny Gantz said not long ago – “there is no substitute for the sharpness of the trackers, their familiarity with the terrain, experiences handed down through generations.”
In the IDF he picked up colloquial, military-style Hebrew. He has strong feelings about Israel’s right to exist, and his responsibility to do service, partly because of his distress at learning about the Holocaust.
In the IDF, Amir apprehended smugglers and terrorists and found underground attack tunnels. He served in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria. He did long stints of reserve duty. In between, he worked as a guard. Among the places he guarded was the popular supermarket Rami Levy Sha’ar Binyamin, seven kilometers northeast of Jerusalem.
That’s where he met Cahn, a longtime resident of Psagot, the hilltop town near Ramallah. Cahn, an affable father of seven, frequently fills a large cart with groceries at the supermarket. He’s known to do outreach to soldiers and arrange hospitality. But it was Amir, the equally affable guard, who first reached out to him on a Friday when Cahn was making a late run to pick up extra challot for his open, ever-expanding Shabbat table.
“I wish I was your neighbor,” the smiling guard said.
That opening quickly evolved into a friendship. Every Friday, Cahn received a Shabbat Shalom text message from Amir, often accompanied by patriotic GIFs and emojis.
Then, in January 2016, Cahn’s phone rang when he was in a meeting at his job at the Joint organization. It was followed immediately by a WhatsApp with a photo of Amir in a hospital bed.
Cahn excused himself from the meeting. “Where are you?” Cahn asked. “I don’t know,” Amir answered.
The head nurse stepped in to explain that Amir was post-surgery at Hadassah-University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, and they’d be happy if Cahn could visit him.
Cahn realized that just that week, Israeli soldiers had stopped an armed Palestinian Authority security official at the Beit El checkpoint. The terrorist opened fire on the soldiers before he was killed.
A social media post revealed the PA official’s nefarious plans to attack civilians.
In that firefight, Amir took three bullets as he returned fire. Gravely wounded, he remembers the ambulance being hit by stones before he lost consciousness.
Cahn was among Amir’s first visitors. Both the mayor of Jerusalem and the IDF chief of staff would come later to praise Amir’s heroism.
The surgeons who repaired Amir’s abdomen cautioned him about the possibility future complications, like adhesions and hernias, that he should follow up on at home.
Home was a room without parents in a village where his heroism was not obvious. Nor was the long process of physical and emotional healing straightforward.
As in too many cases, the road to recovery is full of pitfalls, amid daunting bureaucracy that requires private health evaluations, committees to determine percentage of disability, and endless phone calls. It’s a system with long forms to fill out in a non-native language. Services are lean, offices understaffed, and proof of need is on the applicant’s shoulders. I’ve known families where one parent of a wounded soldier quits work to manage this system.
WHEN HE checked on Amir, Cahn was appalled and disappointed to learn that he was living on a pittance and unable to move forward.
As a Sabra social worker, Cahn is competent dealing with officialdom. He wanted to help. Although it wasn’t on the agenda, he presented Amir’s case at a staff meeting to see if anyone had ideas. His boss Zvi Feine volunteered to contribute to the costs of engaging professional advocacy. He also recommended contacting a friend, retired physician Ted Miller, who would not only add his medical expertise but was willing to contribute to help Amir get his deserved help.
Little did these three experienced Israeli men know what they were up against. With their combined expertise and personal connections, they inched ahead. Each small victory for Amir required legal and medical experts to write long reports. Amir’s wounds left him with the anticipated chronic problems, but even more disturbing was his fear that sooner or later the family of the dead official would send a henchman to wreak revenge. The rising tide of murders in the Arab sector made him more anxious than ever.
Still, his personal help squad stands behind him. A recent tribunal hiked up his disability to 52%. He is entitled to a car, but for that he had to turn in his license, which took hiring a lawyer to get back.
“We’ve got to help him. His life was ruined helping all of us,” says Miller, who drives north to accompany Amir to psych evaluations and medical procedures.
“Once we sort these issues out, we have to get Amir settled in a home and a job,” says Cahn.
“We simply need to save this nefesh ahat b’medinat Yisrael, this precious soul in the State of Israel,” says Feine.
Amir is sorry he has to lean so hard on these friends for help. He prefers to give.
They say it takes a village, but maybe a squad of three is a good start.