Israeli veterans recover with Aspen ski vacation

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Injured Israeli vet Yogev Menashe was among the participants in the Golshim L'Chaim program in Aspen one winter. Disabled Israeli veterans will be arriving in Aspen this winter to learn to ski, snowboard and heal..
Nina Hawn Zale/Special to The Aspen Times

ASPEN – The Hebrew language has no specific word for “skiing.” The word used – “golshim” – literally means “to slide,” and is also used to describe surfing, even surfing the Internet. Which does not mean skiing is nonexistent in Israel. Located in the country’s extreme north is Mount Hermon – pitched as a “magical winter wonderland,” even if the snow is mostly ice, the lift lines are predictably long, and the roads to get to the slopes are usually clogged.

There is, though, a Hebrew word for tranquility – “shalva” – even if that state of mind can seem in even shorter supply in Israel than ski mountains. So a group of injured Israeli veterans came to Aspen spent this past week in search of world-class skiing, and just as significant, a break from the place where they suffered their injuries and the routine of recovering from them. For the fourth winter, Aspen’s Chabad Jewish Community Center, assisted by UJA Aspen Valley, Challenge Aspen and a group of local volunteers, is hosting Golshim L’Chaim – “Skiing for Life.” This year, the program brought eight disabled Israeli vets to the valley for adventure on the slopes, as well as bowling, dinner parties and more. A three-person crew from Israel has been in town to film the events.

Among the vets in Aspen is Shahaf Segal. In January 2009, a 20-year-old combat medic at the time, Segal was shot while fighting in the Gaza War between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Trying to recover the body of his sergeant, Segal was shot in the arm and had several major bones shattered. In addition to the physical effort to save his arm – “The doctor told me he had to cut off my arm. I said, ‘You cut off my arm, I’ll cut off your head,'” he said – Segal has had to fight for his peace of mind.

“From the second you’re injured, your mind goes, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts,” Segal, who still his arm, though with diminished use, said of his anxious state.

Since the injury, Segal has been to New York, New Jersey and Switzerland to give talks about his experience. None of those trips did much to turn off the chatter in his head. But last winter, Segal was invited to participate in Golshim L’Chaim in Aspen. The experience was like a turn in the road toward recovery.

“You get to Aspen and see the people, the mountains, and immediately my thoughts, all the bad moods, went,” Segal, who had never seen snow before, said. “The white snow, it’s so pure. One of the guys said it’s like heaven. It just clears your mind immediately. It was the most quiet, easygoing week since I got injured.”

Segal – known as “the Mayor” for his talkative nature and his composure – thought so much of the experience that he volunteered to return as an organizer. This past week, he has assisted his fellow vets – one who had both legs amputated; one who was unconscious for two months, is blind and can hear only thanks to mechanical implants in his head and ears; others with shrapnel in their bodies. All of them, mostly first-time skiers, had gotten on the snow by early last week, and were working their way up to higher, harder slopes.

“Enough of the panda slopes,” Segal said of his colleagues’ efforts on the beginner slopes on Buttermilk. “Not any more. Time for the greens and blues. Time for the fun.”

But Segal added that Golshim L’Chaim was not simply for a good time; there was real emotional rehabilitation happening. Delivering a talk one night to a group of Aspenites at the Chabad Jewish Community Center on Main Street, Segal said his doctors had warned him away from physical activity: “‘Don’t run. Don’t swim. Don’t go to the gym. Just don’t do.’ But I was a pretty active guy.” Segal said of his snowboarding attempts last year, “I just fell down, fell down. And nothing happened. You just get up, clean yourself off and carry on. That changed my whole perspective.

“And that’s not just a statement. We live it. You watch Yogev – he’s a double amputee, and he’ll be skiing better than anyone, I promise.”

Following last winter’s Aspen experience, Segal began rock-climbing and is now part of a group of injured Israeli vets that climbs regularly. He was surprised and pleased to hear that Aron Ralston, the climber who amputated his own arm to rescue himself from a Utah canyon, had lived in Aspen.

“For two years, I’m fighting to keep my hand with me,” Segal said. “And in two seconds, he said, ‘I’ve got to take off my hand to live.’ Thinking about breaking your arm, cutting your arm off, staying conscious – that’s unbelievable.”

Rabbi Mendel Mintz, the head of Aspen’s Chabad Jewish Community Center, said that he began thinking about bringing Israeli vets to Aspen after seeing injured American soldiers participate in Challenge Aspen programs. He saw that picking up a new skill like skiing was an excellent vehicle to restore one’s self-confidence.

“If you’re an amputee, a double amputee, you feel like something’s been taken away from you,” he said. “But you ski down a mountain, you do something that even people without an injury might not be able to do, and it allows you to overcome any challenge ahead of you. It allows them to go into life with a new perspective. The schmoozing is nice. But knowing people’s lives are being changed – that’s the big part.”

Mintz added that the injured soldiers are not the only ones whose lives are being changed. It’s the community in Aspen as well. Some 50 people from the Aspen area have donated time, money or services. Mintz pointed to the Aspen Club, which has opened its doors to the Golshim L’Chaim participants, and the two women who volunteered to cook kosher food for a week, sometimes putting in 10-hour days. He also noted that several Aspenites who have supported the program have gone on to visit the veterans on trips to Israel.

“We thought we were doing a favor, helping the vets,” Mintz said. “But the people here, including myself, have benefited as much, seeing them. I don’t think we imagined how much of an effect it would have on the community here.”