Volunteers who have been an inspiration to others were applauded at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.

While not everyone has the ability to turn personal tragedy into a powerful force for good for the benefit of others, sometimes, the pain of loss leads to greater understanding of the suffering of similarly bereaved people and prompts a desire to help them to overcome, inasmuch as that is possible.

Among those who were recognized at the event was Eli Ben-Shem. Ben-Shem is a prominent figure in Israel’s construction industry who lost his wife to cancer. A few years later, in February 1997, he lost his 21-year-old son, 1st Lt. Kobi Ben-Shem in the disaster in which 73 soldiers were killed when the transport helicopters in which they were riding, collided in midair and crashed to the ground in a moshav in the Upper Galilee. Kobi had been an intelligence officer with a bright future.

Like so many bereaved parents whose sons and daughters have lost their lives during army service, Eli Ben-Shem turned to Yad Lebanim, the organization that memorializes fallen soldiers and helps their families, and in a relatively short period of time became its chairman.

The army is not always willing to provide space in a military cemetery for soldiers who deserted or committed some other crime. Ben-Shem argues that regardless of what the soldier may have done, the parents still undergo the pain of loss, and he steps in to persuade the army that anyone who at age 18 answered a call to serve, deserves to be buried in a military cemetery. He has engaged in many additional activities on behalf of bereaved parents, and in recognition of this, he was chosen to be among this year’s recipients of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism.

The prize is awarded every year to 12 individuals and organizations who through their volunteer activities, have made valuable contributions to society.

This is the 44th year in which the prizes were awarded.

Hundreds of nominations are received each year, and the advisory committees that examine each recommendation always has a hard time deciding on the most outstanding volunteers.

To ease the burden of choice, prizes each year are given within a specific framework.

PRIZE WINNERS who were applauded at the ceremony on Wednesday night were all veteran volunteers who turned their volunteerism into a way of life.

Miriam Grossman, a member of Kibbutz Gal-On in the Negev, was born in London in 1939, and immigrated to Israel in 1961. In 1996, her son Gal was killed in a motor accident while serving in the military police. In reaction to her personal tragedy, Grossman established People in Red, an organization dedicated to traffic safety and to reducing carnage on the roads. 

Community service was always part of Grossman’s life – something she learned in her parents’ home in London and in the Zionist Youth Movement, through which she came to Israel. For many years, she ran the Yoav Regional Community Center. She was also a Jewish National Fund emissary in Canada. Following her son’s death, she went each Friday to a different traffic intersection in the South to create awareness of the need for road safety. The placards that she and others carried were emblazoned with the words “An end to bloodshed on the roads.”

Ilana Harel, 90, was the oldest individual award recipient. Born in Bialystok in 1928, she escaped from the ghetto during the Second World War, and survived by assuming a false identity and working as a Christian caregiver to a sick woman. She came to Israel in 1948, married and raised a family. For many years she worked as the accounts manager at Rafael Defense Systems. Concurrent with her work there, she determined that her life’s achievement would be to help new immigrants find their place in the country and to help them cope with any problems they might have. As a Holocaust survivor whose whole family was murdered, she felt she had been spared for a purpose, which was to give of herself to others.

Harel was not the only Holocaust survivor among the recipients. Haim Roth, who was born in Amsterdam in 1932, witnessed as a boy of 11, the deportation of his two sisters and his grandfather to Auschwitz, and his adopted brother to Mauthausen. His mother succeeded in evading deportation and in saving him, three of his brothers and his father, and until the end of the war, they were given refuge by a Christian family and lived with false identities.

Roth came to Israel with his family, and for some years worked as an economist. But it was always important to him to maintain the memory of the Holocaust, and he was active in various organizations whose goal it was to perpetuate knowledge of the calamity that had befallen the Jewish people.

Some 30 years ago, he founded the “Every Person has a Name” movement. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, he recruits public figures throughout Israel and the Jewish World to read out the names of relatives murdered in the Holocaust and to place a headstone for those who have graves on which none exists. In addition to this, he gives personal testimony and lectures extensively on Holocaust issues, especially in schools and to IDF units.

These are just a few of the exceptional individuals who were recognized for their selfless volunteer work.

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