NEW YORK (Jun. 10)
Everything changed for Pnina Cohen during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.
Like thousands of other Israeli soldiers since 1948, Cohen’s husband was killed while serving in the Israeli army.
At the tender age of 25, Pnina was forced to deal with her own grief while supporting her young family emotionally and financially.
“When my husband was killed my son was only 4 months old,” she says. “I had to work as well. The government couldn’t cover all our needs.”
Cohen decided to do something about it: She founded the Israel Defense Forces Widows and Orphans Organization.
Cohen, 54, spoke to JTA recently with the occasional help of a translator. She understands, she says, the daunting task facing Israelis widowed or orphaned in the ongoing Palestinian intifada.
Cohen has dedicated her life to helping Israeli families affected by wars and terror attacks, sometimes working 12- hour days talking with widows, “listening to their problems and trying to find some solution.”
Cohen is on a two-week tour of the United States with the Israel Humanitarian Fund, a U.S.-based group that funds social service projects in Israel.
Since 1995 the IHF has given between $5,000 and $50,000 in annual aid to Cohen’s group. Other funding comes from private donations in Israel.
With stops in New York City, Florida, and Los Angeles, Cohen plans to tell her story and promote her organization alongside Michal Dayan, a 21-year-old whose father was killed in Lebanon in 1985.
The trip to the United States comes at a “difficult time” in Israel because of the Palestinian violence, Cohen says.
“Last year, 45 wives joined our organization, and many small children,” she says. “We need a lot of money to support them with education and emotional support and whatever else they may need.”
In 1973, the Israeli government provided Cohen and her family with some 40 percent of what her husband had earned. Though she was working full time as a nurse, she took on the role of advocate immediately.
During a brief meeting in 1973 with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, Cohen pressed for increased monetary aid to widows and orphans. In 1978, she began to work toward creating the group.
After lobbying the Israeli Knesset repeatedly, Cohen founded her organization in 1991.
She runs the organization herself, with help from three secretaries.
Today, the group is contacted directly by the government after a soldier is killed in the line of duty, and helps provide for the family’s needs.
“It is a different time because of the organization,” Cohen says. “Now we can support our family, and support the needs the government cannot support.”
The Israeli government provides pensions for widows under the Fallen Soldiers’ Families Law, as well as employment assistance and national health insurance. Cohen’s group has helped win new government pension reform, housing grants and wedding expenses for orphans.
The group also helps widows and orphans celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and provides overseas summer camp opportunities, high school tutoring and university scholarships for children who have lost a parent in the service of the state.
The organization also sponsors trips for widows around Israel and occasionally to Europe, as well as holiday events and gatherings. The organization has helped the widows cope with loneliness by creating its own community, Cohen says.
Today the organization provides aid to 3,500 widows and 4,700 orphans. The group defines an orphan as a child who has lost one parent.
Among the children the group helped is Dayan.
In 1992, when Dayan was 12, the group paid for her to travel to Canada for orthopedic surgery for a rare medical problem.
Cohen’s organization also funded a similar trip six years later, flying Dayan back to Canada for another six-month procedure.
Now a college student in Israel, Dayan receives a scholarship from Cohen’s group.
“When you’re little I don’t think you understand” the value of the organization “until you need the help,” Dayan, now 21, told JTA recently. “Pnina was always there for us, I know from my mother.”
Her mother, she says, gets psychological help from the organization.
Dayan is studying educational administration and Jewish philosophy, and dreams of running her own school of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.
She discussed the complicated needs of kids going through high school without one of their parents.
While the Israeli government provides tuition fees and book allowances for orphans, high school is extremely difficult and expensive, she says, and often orphans need private lessons more than other children, but can afford them less.
“Because a child loses a father, the mother must support” the child “on her own, the children are alone, and statistically they need more support and help,” she says.
But Cohen prefers to deal with people and not statistics, Dayan says.
“She is like a mother or friend,” she says of Cohen.