In every synagogue there are collection cans for spare change, with the proceeds distributed by the rabbi to individuals in need. At my shul, some of the tz’dakah goes to Yair Etan, whose right wrist was blown off during an IDF military operation in Jenin. Along with this disability, since birth his life has been marked by hardship. Nevertheless, he travels around Jewish communities telling his story and serving as an example of Jews being responsible for one another.
Etan was born in 1964, abandoned after birth by his mother, and raised without a family. With his adopted name, he settled in Petach Tikva, worked in construction, married, and raised three children. His family life also had its hardships, as all of his children were born with disabilities. His oldest daughter Shiran is blind and developmentally disabled; Orit suffers from asthma; and Netanel is also developmentally disabled and mute. Along with the high cost of living in Israel, the medical expenses involved with the care of his children weighed deeply on Etan, but the costliest episode in his life took place in 1997.
That year, like most Israeli men, he was called for reserve duty and sent to the Palestinian city of Jenin in an anti-terrorist operation. At the time, Shiran was 12 and Orit was a newborn. In this hotbed of terrorism, he lost his right arm at the wrist; he could no longer work – he received benefits as a disabled veteran, but not nearly enough to pay for his family’s medical expenses. Nevertheless, he counted his wife, daughters, and Netanel – who was born in 2000 – as his blessings, considering his own childhood without a family. Their home was an aging apartment with utilities that routinely broke down and with barely the space to turn around, but that is what the family could afford.
In 2015, Yair’s wife Smadar died after a lengthy battle with cancer. It was then that this disabled widower left his children with a caretaker and took the flight to New York, where so many other tz’dakah collectors walk the streets, sharing their ordeals of destitution. Etan’s story of multiple woes was heeded by the community in Great Neck, where Rabbi Mordechai Aderet encouraged his congregants to offer support. In Queens, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, and Rabbi Asher Vaknin of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, also lent support to Etan.
His story is reminiscent of a case with my childhood shul. In 2000, the Talmud Torah students of Congregation Machane Chodosh were visiting Jerusalem and learned of a family in need. The son was born disabled but the parents could only afford their modest apartment. The staircase to their home was as steep as the medical bills. The teens of this Forest Hills shul raised the money to install a chairlift for this family, improving their quality of life – making at least one aspect of their son’s daily life a little easier. This lesson in tz’dakah remains deeply imprinted on the memories of all who participated in this cause, and it is this memory that came to my mind when I learned about Yair Etan’s plight.
On my meeting with Etan, it was not easy to communicate. He does not speak English and relies on a thick binder to tell his story. Inside it are family photos, copies of diagnoses, official statements, and rabbinic letters. To say that his life is an open book is to leaf through the contents of Etan’s binder.
Yair Etan can only offer his gratitude in return for the donations, and considering the urgent nature of many fundraisers in our time, can our community help to lift him out from this deep financial hole? Considering the risks he took for his country and care that he takes for his children, donating a portion of tz’dakah for Yair Etan’s wellbeing is the least we could do.
For more information on supporting Yair Etan, email the Young Israel of Queens Valley at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Young Israel office at 718-263-3921.
By Sergey Kadinsky