It’s late afternoon and among the members of this very special minyan are two in bandages, another in a cast, one with burns on his face and arms, and still another wearing an oxygen pack on his back.
These wounded soldiers factor into the 2,771 (and counting) soldiers that the Israel Defense Forces have reported injured since Oct. 7, and they are a much-cherished crew. As soon as the Gandel Rehabilitation Center opened its doors on Jan. 16 to its first patients at Hadassah Medical Organization’s Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, the staff had to curb the enthusiasm of an unexpected crush of visitors. And not just family and friends, but Israelis from all over—even American visitors lining up to pay a visit to these injured heroes.
“Am Yisrael is really supportive, and it was beautiful to see how much everyone cares, but it didn’t give them the quiet time they need to rest and recuperate,” says Dr. Elior Moreh, who heads the dept for wounded soldiers here at the new center. “So, we had to limit the hours.”
Besides their families, however, it’s their comrades in arms—those men and women who have put their lives on the line for each other these last four months—are pretty much always welcome by soldiers and staff alike.
“They’re the best visits,” says Yoni (the soldiers’ names have been changed to protect their identities), a 23-year-old officer and paratrooper recovering from bullet wounds in his stomach, neck, legs and head.
In fact, the first thing his soldiers did after 45 days in Gaza was come straight to see him in the hospital. “And when one of their mothers heard that this was the first thing her son did after getting out of Gaza, she said that this makes her so happy,” says Yoni. “This is the priority she wants her children to have.”
After two weeks in the ICU, it’s been a slow climb back, but the young officer says he’s determined to walk again, a focus of his physical therapy work at Gandel. “You can really feel the staff is invested in our success,” he says. And, as painful a process as it is, he’s “actually surprised how quickly it’s coming back.”
In fact, that determination to come back to full capacity is a common denominator for the 20 soldiers in residence in the center’s first two weeks, as well as the 60 already coming in for day treatments, says Moreh. “They’re all highly motivated. They want to get back to their units, and the officers here want to go back and be a source of inspiration for their soldiers.”
‘They just feel safer here’
Hadassah had the center in the works for several years when, beginning in October, it became more urgent to provide the wounded a place to recover after hospitalization. Until then, many Jerusalem-area families had to make the trip to rehab centers in Tel Aviv or Ra’anana to visit their injured soldiers or to an older Mount Scopus facility with less capacity. It’s all part of what Hadassah national president Carol Ann Schwartz (who was just installed in January) calls “Hadassah’s 112-year-old commitment to Israel.”
“It’s so much better here than the old place,” says center nurse Batya Cohen. “They have space to move around, and the atmosphere is quiet, so they sleep better. They just feel safer here.”
The construction sped up beginning in October as an influx of wounded soldiers needed immediate care. But before the building could be finished and at least partially furnished, significant funds needed to be raised. Along with the Israeli government’s $29 million contribution, donors opened their hearts and wallets, giving Hadassah some $5.5 million to open the center’s War-Wounded Department as quickly as possible. Chief among them was the Gandel family of Melbourne, Australia, for whom the center is named.
When completed, the 323,000-square-foot, eight-story center is expected to handle some 10,000 patients each year and an outpatient clinic serving hundreds of patients a day.
Along with standard rehab services—physical and occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and respiratory and orthopedic rehabilitation—the new center features a therapeutic swimming pool, a post-traumatic stress disorder center and a computer that detects problems not always apparent in physical exams, as well as a team structure to tailor each soldier’s treatment to his or her unique condition.
Less visible is the emphasis on psychological healing, adds Moreh, with regular sessions with psychotherapists built into the schedule.
The goal, she says, is “to get help in understanding what’s happened to them, to deal with the guilt about their friends who didn’t make it out and about the others still fighting, plus how hard it is to go from feeling you can basically do anything to needing help putting on your pants.”
In addition, there’s an open-door policy, allowing residents to come and go as needed, including the injured officer who traveled to the south to give strength to his soldiers preparing to go back into Gaza, and for all the soldiers who sadly need to attend friends’ funerals.
‘A faster healing’
There’s power in being in this together, says Eli, a 29-year-old yeshivah student who was severely burned with lung damage six weeks ago when a missile hit his tank. “It’s been very meaningful that we are about the same age and in the same situation, all working together to get back from this hard time,” he says.
“The general vibe in this rehab,” he adds, “is encouraging us to take the responsibility for doing whatever we can to get our lives back.”
Another key partner in the healing are soldiers’ families. Sigalit Cohen-Sasson’s 28-year-old police officer son Timor was shot in the line of duty the morning of Oct. 7 by terrorists wearing IDF uniforms and hiding in unmarked trucks.
Now that he is recuperating at the center, his mother is participating in a family support program there. “It’s a relief to be able to tell our story and how my son is doing to people who really understand what we are going through,” says Cohen-Sasson, who lives in Sderot.
Two months in the hospital and three surgeries later, that son is optimistic. “Yesterday was a bad day, but today’s a little better,” he says. “You can tell they care; they’ve got machines for strengthening us, and they do everything they can to help us, to give us faster healing.”
“Everyone knows everyone here—we’re a small country, and in this war, our old boundaries are disappearing,” says Moreh. “We all see the soldiers’ immense courage, pushing themselves to get stronger faster to get back to their units.”
“I’m sure I’m going to go back, but I just don’t know when,” says Eli. “And for the same reason I went in the first place: to protect our country.”
It’s soldiers like Eli and Yoni whom Dr. Yoram Weiss, director general of Hadassah’s HMO, had in mind when he said, “The first patients—heroes and heroines to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude—can now begin their journey back to full health with the help of a specially designed department with advanced rehabilitation systems built and installed especially for them.” When finished, he added, the center will offer rehabilitation treatments for the entire population, including accident victims and those recovering from surgery, head injuries and more.
But for now, when all eyes are focused on helping these wounded heroes heal, what does Yoni, who’s slowly learning to walk again, want Jews around the world to know?
“Tell that them we are strong, that we’re proud of what we’re doing, and that we’re waiting for them to come here, too.”