Challenge Aspen Works With Chabad To Welcome Israeli Soldiers

Challenge Aspen Works With Chabad To Welcome Israeli Soldiers

by Dvora Lakein - Aspen, Colorado

March 11, 2008


On January 31, 2006, Gary Alfmon, a paramedic fighter in Y.A.M.A.M, a special IDF police, was sent into Jenin with his platoon. Working covertly on intelligence information and instructions mandating the arrest of two terrorists responsible for attacks in Netanya, Tel Aviv, and other locations, Gary and his squad approached the building with the barricaded terrorists. Gunfire burst forth and the soldiers sought cover, but Alfnon took a bullet to his head. His skull was smashed. 

Before Jenin, Gary was an avid sportsman who enjoyed biking, water skiing and skiing. One of his favorite movies is about a champion skier in Aspen--a virtual experience for this soldier, who, after two years of intensive hospitalization and rehabilitation, suffers from significant neurological impairments and blindness in his right eye.

Disabilities and all, come March 27, Gary will be skiing the slopes of Aspen.

Thanks to Shalom Illouz, a former IDF paratrooper who now lives in Aspen, and a few other good men, two wonderful organizations, and a supportive community, Gary will be among ten disabled Israeli veterans who participate in the first ever Challenge Aspen Chabad.   

Illouz is working with Rabbi Mendel Mintz, Chabad representative to Aspen, Harry Feldman of Chabad of Aspen, and Houston Cowan, CEO of Challenge Aspen, to organize the weeklong skiing event. Chabad organized flights, arranged for kosher meals, and will house the guests. Rabbi Menachem Kutner, Director of Activities for Chabad's Terror Victims Project in Israel, worked his roster in Israel to find those who can most benefit from the opportunity, and will accompany them on the trip.

Once the soldiers reach the slopes, Challenge Aspen takes over. Its goal is to “make possibilities for people with disabilities.” The organization helps disabled people, veterans and civilians, ski. The Israelis will meet with 400 American disabled veterans. Hundreds of volunteers and trained instructors will teach them to ski, and accompany them when necessary. Illouz insists that “this is not just a fun week in Aspen,” but rather a time for real physical exertion.   

“Learning to ski is difficult for people without physical handicaps,” explains Rabbi Mintz, an avid skier himself. For these soldiers, some of them in wheelchairs, or blind, or missing limbs, and some with shrapnel embedded in their bodies, this week will present a real challenge.

Organizers carefully selected participants based on their general health, their ability to handle the hard work, and the ease at which they will adjust to the high altitude and low oxygen. On the slopes themselves, participants will benefit from machinery, harnesses, and even wheelchair skis, making the powder as smooth as possible.

These heroes’ enthusiasm is strong enough to warm the Rockies. “Coming to America is a dream for Israelis,” says ex-pat Illouz, “and coming to Aspen is a dream for anyone.”

Roni Gozlan is one of the soldiers joining the group. A serious sportsman, his life would be radically altered after June 19, 2002 when he spotted a suicide bomber with a bulging backpack and a cell phone turned with the battery side to his ear. Screaming Shema Yisrael, Roni jumped on the bomber, who immediately set his bomb off.

Roni saved scores of innocent people standing at the French Hill Junction in Jerusalem, but after 22 operations in which doctors tried to save his legs, Roni had to have both legs amputated. Today, Roni plays second-league basketball from his wheelchair. He is the captain of the team. He rides horses and has won first and second place.

Living with physical disabilities makes the soldiers eager to challenge their physical limitations. One wants to “learn how to ski” another is planning to “become a pro.”

From his perspectives, says Rabbi Menachem Kutner, the idea of this weeklong event is for the soldiers “to ski back into life, fully and wholesomely.”

At a cost of about 5,000 dollars per soldier for the week, funds have come from within the community, with $20,000 coming from one email alone. “The community response has been tremendous,” Illouz says gratefully. Feldman, vice-chairman of Chabad of Aspen, says that everyone is pitching in because Aspenites “love when Chabad does for the broader community.”

Local venues are joining the fun. The Aspen club donated its gym for soldiers to work out and swim. An Israeli gallery in the neighborhood is hosting a cocktail party for the soldiers. Feldman arranged for two local doctors to meet the soldiers and give them encouragement and medical advice. The tourists will enjoy the hot springs of Glenwood Springs and other points of interest, courtesy of volunteers from the Jewish community.

Kosher meals will be prepared at the Chabad House by a chef from Boston who is donating her time for the week. “Eleven men for a week is a lot of food,” chuckles Feldman, referring to plans for a big Costco trip as well as importing kosher food from Denver and New York. Aspenites will join the soldiers at a communal Shabbat dinner and various events throughout the week.

Illouz hopes the enthusiasm generated by months of planning will remain well after the soldiers return home. He plans to bring Jewish victims of terror (from Israel and abroad) to Aspen for a week of skiing each season. There are 50,000 disabled Israeli vets and thousands more injured civilians. “Learning how to ski, and mastering mountain sports, is a real breakthrough for anyone, particularly a disabled veteran or civilian,” says Illouz.

Years after the hospitalizations are over, and the last of the medical procedures have been tried, the soldiers must ultimately negotiate life with their limited physical conditions, on their own. “Few of us really understand what it means to keep going after the things we take for granted, in terms of basic abilities to function independently, are suddenly gone,” says Rabbi Kutner.

“But these men defended our home and defended Jewish people, and they are owed a huge debt of gratitude by us all.”

The trip, says Rabbi Kutner, is one small way of recognizing the sacrifice they made so that their fellow Jews might live in peace.

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