IDF widows and orphans reflect on their grief and how the IDFWO helped them overcome life’s most arduous challenges
As Israel is poised to turn 70, the Jewish people will reflect on how far we’ve come. Today, the Jewish state is a world-renowned hub for innovation – from hi-tech, to medical breakthroughs, to the Iron Dome air defense system – Israel has cemented itself as a startup nation in a variety of fields. Today, Israel has a powerful, proud and professional army that has never been more capable of defending its citizens and the Jewish diaspora. Today, Israel’s tourism is booming, with adventurers travelling from all over the world to visit Israel’s holiest sites, to taste its flavorsome food and to experience its colorful culture. However, the Israeli people sacrificed much to get to where they are today.
As such, since the dream of a Jewish state became a reality; there is both celebration and sadness. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the citizens of Israel will flock to the streets in celebration. But as firecrackers explode in colorful delight and bands march through the streets, there will be thousands of families who are still reeling from Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, which takes place the day before. The transition from a day of mourning to a day of celebration can be difficult for those that have paid the heaviest price for the country’s existence; the families of Israel’s fallen heroes.
Almost 24,000 men and women were killed defending the land of Israel, according to recent reports by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This includes the individuals who lost their lives in the 1948 War of Independence until 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, and any soldiers killed by guerrilla and terrorist attacks before, during and after these wars.
“Every soldier is a whole family that suffers forever,” said Vida Keren, 76, who lost her husband, Maj. Shlomo Keren during the first days of the 1967 Six-Day War.
The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), established in 1991, strives to represent the needs of over 8,000 widows and orphans from the IDF to the Israel Police to Prison Service and/or Secret Service. The IDFWO embraces this vulnerable population throughout their lives, providing emotional support, financial aid and social welfare programs.
For its orphans, the IDFWO is there at every life milestone, from when they begin school, to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations at the Western Wall and stands by them through their journey into adulthood by providing leadership seminars in Europe, university scholarships and financial grants for weddings, to name just a few initiatives.
For its widows, the IDFWO ensures no widow is ever forgotten, at birthdays, during holidays or throughout the year. Programs for widows include an annual retreat where they can commiserate with other widows and help each other heal; to the provision of medical grants for widows dealing with any number of health issues ranging from dental repairs to cancer treatments.
The IDFWO is committed to bereaved families and gives them a voice to tell their stories of those left behind. The following, is a window into the lives of four families who lost their loved ones defending the State of Israel, The vignettes below are reflections of love and loss journeying from the War of Independence, Yom Kippur, Six Day and Second Lebanon Wars.
Death notice by carrier pigeon
Tamar Dahan is 71 years young, and for 69 of those years, she has lived with the pain of losing her father and watching her mother suffer to raise her and her two older brothers.
Dahan’s father, Private Berthold Levy, fell during Israel’s War of Independence. He was killed during an ambush near the village of Bashit, near the town of Gedera.
“I remember the army delivered the news to my mother with a carrier pigeon,” Dahan recalled.
Her mother received the note, she cried, and then a few days later, her mother was back to work on the kibbutz.
“In those days there was no sympathy, no shiva, no real support. Years later, my mother shared with me how hard her life was,” said Dahan.
Dahan was a small girl, so within a short time she had no personal memories of her father. She tried to learn about him from her father’s parents, German immigrants who lived with her on their kibbutz. Her mother and brothers rarely shared stories, even though she knew they missed him terribly. Years later, her middle brother, then eight, became a historian and tour guide, taking visitors to the spot where their father was killed.
It was only 13 years ago, when Dahan’s first grandchild turned two, when the pain of her loss began to acutely surface. She said, “It had been sitting somewhere, in my subconscious,” and she was told by a psychologist that this was not uncommon.
She was able to process her tragedy then and connect with IDFWO, where she met other older orphans like herself.
“It helps when people with an equally difficult background share with one another and enjoy events together,” Dahan said, noting that Memorial Day continues to be difficult for her.
“I lost something so precious in my father,” said Dahan. “We have a state, and for that I am grateful. But it is a vicious cycle of violence, and it really takes a toll on the people.”
Remembering a hero
Vida Keren’s late husband is a hero. Major Shlomo Keren was a combat pilot during the Six-Day War. He carried out seven operational missions during the war, destroying 16 enemy planes, including giant bombers.
“On the third day of the battles, during an airstrike, Shlomo’s aircraft was shot down,” Keren said. They thought her husband was kidnapped, but it quickly became apparent that he and his comrades were killed.
Keren was left alone to raise the couple’s two daughters. The youngest was only three weeks old.
“It is so hard, and it hurts, and it feels like the weight of everything is on you, but you have to get up and just make it work,” said Keren, who is now 76 years old. “It is not easy.”
After the victory of the Six-Day War, the country was in a state of euphoria, Keren recalled. She said the country treated her and the other widows like queens, taking them on trips and raising them up as heroines in the immediate aftermath of the battles. The women had each other for warm hugs and support even as they missed their husband’s terribly.
“Shlomo did not get to hear that we won Jerusalem,” Keren said. “He fought so hard until the end, and I just wish he had known about Jerusalem. And I often think, ‘What would Shlomo think about the nation today and what we did with our victory?’”
Yet life went on.
Keren raised her two daughters in Ramat HaSharon and today she has four grandchildren. “The grandkids and my own kids are what give me the strength to go on,” she said, noting that every Memorial Day the family comes together and talks of Shlomo’s heroic work. The grandchildren are proud of their grandfather.
“It is important they have that memory,” she said.
Keren participates in IDFWO retreats and recently enrolled in an English class through the organization, which has “really lifted me up.” She is especially close with a group of widows whose husbands were also members of the air force.
She said it still hurts every time she talks about her loss – even this many years later.
“When I think about the fact that there are more wars and more murders, every time I hear about another soldier killed, it all comes back,” Keren said, her voice cracking with the pain. “The suffering does not end. It is our daily lives.
“Every soldier is a person. Every soldier is a whole family, and that family suffers forever.”
Waiting for his return
Tal Biton, 49, feels much like Dahan.
“We are all affected by this – even to this day,” said Biton, whose father Sergeant Major Yosef Biton fell during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Yosef Biton’s tank was hit by a shell during a battle against the Syrians in the Golan Heights.
Biton’s father was a reservist. Every year, Yosef Biton would serve in the army for a few days. During those times, Biton, his older brother, and younger sister, would wait downstairs, on the pathway under their Haifa apartment for their father to return home.
“When we would see him coming up the path, we would get so happy and run to him and hug him,” Biton said.
In 1973, when his father left for the war, something was different. One day, the children went downstairs to wait for their father. They waited and waited…and waited. Biton said it was hours and most children would get bored and give up, but for some reason the siblings didn’t. They just sat there, on that familiar path, waiting for their father to return home.
Toward nightfall, they saw a small group of soldiers pull up. They were sure their father would be with the group. Instead, the soldiers passed the children by.
Soon, the children were called upstairs. Their mother was screaming and shouting. The next thing Biton remembers is that the extended family arrived. Finally, he understood that his father was dead.
When the days of mourning passed, his mother did her best to hold the family together. She enrolled Biton in the private school that she and her late husband had planned for their son. But Biton only stayed there one year, as it was too expensive for his single mother. He became a latch-key kid, home alone with his siblings most days, while his mother worked from 7 a.m. until late at night, with only a couple hours break in the middle.
“I have few memories of my own,” said Biton. “Most of the memories of my father come from his army friends who came and visited and told us about him.”
Yosef Biton labored on the Haifa port and was remembered as a hard worker who sent part of his salary to his immigrant parents, yet never complained.
Today, Biton participates in IDFWO annual retreats and other gatherings, where he connects with others like himself.
“It is nice to know there is someone who cares,” he said.
Now a father of three daughters and living in Kiryat Bialik, he said he is still affected by the loss of his father.
“A long time has passed, but each year, I still miss my father,” said Biton.
Love from the movies
“They always say of dead people that, ‘They were the best in the world,’ but Nimrod really was the best,” said Iris Segev, 48. Segev lost her husband, Sergeant Major Nimrod Segev, on August 6, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. Nimrod was a computer engineer in a senior position at Microsoft.
Segev met Nimrod at a birthday party for her daughter’s friend, who was then four, two years after her painful divorce. He was the brother of the party’s magician, and during the whole event, Iris and Nimrod couldn’t keep their eyes off one another. Nimrod asked her to call, but because she suffered in her last marriage, Segev chose not to reach out.
Nimrod, eight years Segev’s junior, was persistent, until ultimately, they connected.
“From that first phone call, we knew we were destined for each other,” Segev said. “Our love was like the love you see in the movies. Until the last day, every time I saw him, I would get butterflies in my stomach.”
On the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, a day that commemorates a list of catastrophes so severe it has been set aside as a Jewish fast day, Nimrod was called up for reserve duty. Segev said she had an ill feeling. She begged him not to go and told him she would rather he be in jail for evading service than dead.
“I could see his tomb,” said Segev.
But her husband insisted it was his duty, like every other civilian, to fight for Israel. And the next morning he left, telling her, “Darling, it will be OK.”
A few days into his service, he came back, because he was suffering from dehydration. When Nimrod walked in the door, Segev started dancing. The family ate dinner together, and the next morning, after they dropped off their son, Omer, at preschool they went to breakfast together.
After breakfast, Nimrod would return to the army. As such, the euphoria of the night before was gone. Normally, the couple couldn’t stop talking with one another, but this morning they ate in silence, parting with hugs and kisses. Segev felt a gray cloud around her, as if something bad was about to happen.
“I texted him, ‘I love you,’ and he texted me back, ‘I love you more,’” Segev recalled. The next day, on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, Jewish Valentine’s Day, Segev said she felt a pain in her chest so intense that she knew she had lost her soulmate. She ran downstairs into the street below her apartment screaming, “My husband is in Lebanon, and I know something bad has happened,” but there was nothing on the news.
Hours later, there was a knock on the door. The Casualty Notification Officer had come to deliver the news that Nimrod’s tank was hit by a roadside bomb and immediately hit by an anti-tank missile. Nimrod and all the crew of the tank were killed.
“If I hadn’t had a two-and-a-half-year-old boy and a daughter I would not have wanted to live,” said Segev. “You don’t see a light at times like this. You are sure it is the end of the world.”
Eleven years later, Segev still keeps pictures of her late husband all over the house. She reads his poems to her son and tries to tell him of the father who never got to raise him. IDFWO helped organize Omer’s bar mitzvah and provided him with a bar mitzvah trip abroad. Omer has attended the organization’s summer camp, and Segev participates in IDFWO advance courses learning bibliotherapy.
Segev said that although it is impossible to fill the void of a lost spouse, the support she receives from IDFWO is very helpful.
“He didn’t just give his life for this country, and he is not just a number,” said Segev. “Nimrod was the best person. He was attractive inside and out. If a child abroad is going to learn about one of Israel’s fallen soldiers, he should learn about Nimrod and understand how much we have sacrificed for this Jewish country.”