Life with “Challenges”

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With new lockdown restrictions being introduced this evening in Israel and others worldwide joining this reality, these are certainly interesting times. For many, forced home confinement will be a challenging time, denied of the usual daily routines that we all, probably by now, take for granted. How good is it to go wherever you want; sit at a coffee shop with friends; entertain people in your home; go to a community gathering, party or event? Things that we will, Please G-d, get to appreciate very soon!

I have been giving much thought these days to the weaker members of our society. People who during these challenging times face even greater obstacles as a result of natural limitations they deal with. There are many such classifications, but for people with Disabilities and the organizations, volunteers and workers that assist them on a daily basis, this virus and its ensuing restrictions have introduced multiple complications.

Some of these individuals are however, the most inspiring people around and much strength and insight can be gained by learning their stories and the way they have responded to the cards they have been dealt. One of these individuals whom I have come to know is Yoel Sharon.

Yoel Sharon was paralyzed in his lower body after an Egyptian tank hit his APC during the Yom Kippur War, an attack which killed 19 Israeli soldiers and left three wounded. In spite of his severe physical limitations, Yoel was determined to continue the course of life he had been taking before the war. He went on to complete his film studies at Tel Aviv University and started what would become a very successful career in the film industry with offices in Hollywood and Tel Aviv. He also got married, had two daughters and lived a very active social life.

But something was missing. When Yoel was offered to produce a film about scuba diving around Sharm-El-Sheik featuring ex-commando veterans and the country’s top instructors, he listed as one of his conditions that he would only agree to the shoot if he was allowed to dive

The movie producers agreed and against the wishes of his rehabilitation doctor, who thought he was risking his life, Yoel became the first paralyzed person to learn to dive. He later described the shoot as, “the most exciting three weeks of my life. I had simply discovered the underwater world and as a paraplegic, I discovered the feeling of hovering, weightlessness . . . this incredible pleasure.” The experience sowed the seeds for his new life’s mission. When the first automated four-wheel-drive jeeps arrived in Israel several years later, Yoel bought one and organized trips for both abled and disabled IDF veterans so they could appreciate the beauty of the country and to enjoy the natural camaraderie that develops along the way.

When a good friend of his showed him a device from America that provided paralyzed people the opportunity to ski, he joined a one-legged ski instructor and organized Israel’s first snow-skiing course for the disabled in Austria. Yoel described it this way: “Suddenly, I found the ultimate thing – being part of nature as much as one could be at a sports site with everyone else, reaching enormous speeds, passing skiers on your left and right. Truly an amazing experience.” Yoel and his friend pitched the idea to the Disabled IDF Veterans Association expecting them to jump on board, but were met with skepticism. They realized that it was up to them to take responsibility for their lives and they went on to found a non-profit organization, the Snow Skiing Foundation for the Disabled.

They soon realized that skiing limited their scope of operation; they wanted to include all outdoor sports. So in 1994, Etgarim (Challenges) was formed as an official Israeli nonprofit organization. Yoel explains that Etgarim was actually born during World War II. “I am a second generation Holocaust survivor, a child of survivor parents. My mother is a Holocaust survivor from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My father is a survivor of the work camps in Russia – an amazing story of eight years in a forced-labor camp near the North Pole – with an escape story that is even more amazing. I think that when you are born to parents like these, even if they don’t talk to you about their past, you turn out to be a “survivor” in your genes. I believe that already at Bergen-Belsen or at the work camp by the North Pole, the first seeds of Etgarim were sown.” Etgarim aims to empower the special needs population to meet their potential, extend their abilities in all areas of life including outdoor and extreme sports activities and to be a greater part of their communities.

I pray and hope that members of Etgarim and all of us, will all be out on our “ski’s”, trails and adventures soon and that we will all be inspired by them to ensure that our world is better off when we do!

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