(May 7, 2019 / JNS)
For the very first time last year at its annual Yom Hashoah ceremony, Yad Vashem honored the 275,000 disabled victims of the Holocaust—those killed first by the Nazis.
The man who helped bring about this development was Albert Shaltiel, founder of the ILAI Fund, an organization that improves the lives of underprivileged families with special-needs children. This year, Shaltiel and his son, Ilai, laid two wreaths at the ceremony. One was laid on behalf of Robert Kahen, president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, and the federation’s members.
It might seem odd that Shaltiel—who was born and raised in Iran, and has no familial ties to Europe or to the atrocities that took place there—would be the one to initiate such a ceremony. Yet he says it is precisely because of his singular and, at times, spine-chilling, life story—in which he came within a hair’s breadth of death at the hands of the brutal Islamist regime—that he is in a position to issue a clarion call to stand up and to fight for those who cannot.
“When we say never again, we mean it,” he said. “Yet another Holocaust could happen in a few years. When Iran says it wants to wipe us out, it also means it. We have to take this message seriously. It’s not just a curse, it’s an ambition they long for in both doctrine and prayers.”
He noted that Iran is fulfilling that ambition with terrorist proxies in the north, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and in the south, in Gaza.
“Iran has tentacles everywhere,” said Shaltiel. “Just this week, we saw that the IDF killed Hamed al-Khoudary, a Hamas terrorist who was also Iran’s main man in Gaza. He was in charge of transferring funds from Iran for the terrible assault we are now seeing on Israel’s south.”
Shaltiel lectures widely, retelling his life story. He does this, he says, because he is determined to make others understand the existential danger the Jewish people face from Iran.
‘The feedback we’ve had has been amazing’
Born just shy of a decade before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Shaltiel has memories of early childhood in a proudly Zionist home and a wealthy family. That all changed, however, with the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the new Islamic republic lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. A reign of tyranny cast its shadow over Iran, one in which Israel was viewed as “the Little Satan,” shepherded by its stronger and no less satanic big brother, America.
At 16, Shaltiel was made to take part in paramilitary exercises before being drafted into the Iranian army to fight against Iraq. A few months later, he made his daring escape.
Shaltiel’s journey out of Iran, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, saw him nearly dying at the hands of Iranian guards, who caught him amid cargo being transported by smugglers. He was imprisoned with a group of Baluchi tribesmen, who eventually took him with them when they made their own escape. He made his way to Austria and from there to the United States.
He settled first in Los Angeles and then in New York before making aliyah in 1998. It was while he was living in Great Neck, N.Y., that he first became acquainted with the IAJF.
For the past six years, the IAJF has partnered with the ILAI Fund, funding programs such as the iCan-iPad program, which provides iPads installed with software based on the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) approach, allowing children with autism and other disabilities to express their feelings and needs.
“From the get-go, the project was a huge success,” said Shaltiel. “Now I realize it’s more than that; it’s a miracle. The feedback we’ve had has been amazing. Suddenly, children who cannot speak can say when they are in pain or when they’re thirsty. And they can tell those close to them that they love them.”
Shaltiel says that despite everything he’s gone through, he wouldn’t want any part of his life changed.
“When I look back, despite it all, I can be thankful for the Islamic Revolution since that was the main reason for me to escape Iran and eventually live in my real homeland, so my children could become Israelis,” he said. “And I’ve had the tremendous [merit] of establishing ILAI Fund and meeting such wonderful people—both the children themselves and those who want to help them.”