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Noam Gershony, centre, with his traveling companion and long time best friend, Eran Meital, on his right, and Ariel Karabelnicoff, Executive Director JNF Manitoba/Sask on his left

Noam Gershony is a still relatively young man who has been to hell and back. His ability to triumph over extreme adversity and reach the heights of Olympic glory is an inspiration to all.

On Wednesday, November 7, the former Israeli air force helicopter pilot shared his journey with an appreciative audience at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. Gershony was in Winnipeg (with an additional visit scheduled for Saskatoon) to help the Jewish National Fund raise money for the construction of a fourth Beit Halochem facility in Israel – this one to be built in Ashdod in southern Israel. As he noted, it was Beit Halochem that played a key role in his – and many other wounded Israeli soldiers’ and terrorist victims’ – recovery and reintegration back into daily life.
In introducing Gershony, Jessica Cogan, the president of JNF Manitoba and Saskatchewan, recalled first meeting him about a year ago on an earlier visit to Winnipeg. “He was so inspiring that I suggested we ask him to come back here and once again share his incredible story of resilience.”

Although in a wheelchair much of the time, Gershony did walk up to the dais with the aid of two canes and stood throughout his presentation. He explained that his right leg is functional, but his left leg is completely paralyzed. A brace on the left leg enables him to walk for short distances.
In opening his remarks, he described a typical Israeli boyhood which included a love of sports. He played tennis, skied and water-skied and did sky-diving.
“I was raised in a strong Zionist family,” he said. “My dream was to serve in an infantry combat unit. I never thought I would become a pilot.”
Turning the calendar back to the summer of 2006, Israel was at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gershony was flying an Apache helicopter supporting Israeli ground troops in action. “It was near the end of July,” he recalled. “My co-pilot and I were flying at about 6,000 feet in formation with other helicopters in formation. We collided with a second helicopter. The other helicopter managed to land - with only minor injuries to the pilots.
“Our helicopter was badly damaged. There was an explosion. We crashed. My co-pilot died.”

Gershony survived – thanks to the quick actions of an IDF medic – but was left with both arms and legs, his pelvis and his jaw broken, along with spinal damage.
“I was in a coma for 18 days,” he recalled. “When I awoke, I had no memory of what had happened. I couldn’t move my arms or legs or speak.”
(Because of his broken jaw, the jaw was glued shut in order to give it time to heal.)
 He spent six months in rehab. The first two months were the hardest part,” he recalls. “I couldn’t eat (other than sipping protein drinks through a straw) for ten weeks. I spent many a sleepless night asking why this had happened to me and what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to flight school.”
What changed his perspective was a visit from the parents of his co-pilot. “I realized that I should be thankful to be alive and I had to make the most of my life,” he said. “I had to accept that nothing would ever be the same. I had to change my expectations and focus on what I could do.
“It helped a lot that my family and friends were there for me every hour of every day.”
At Beit Halochem, he learned to walk again – it took over two years – and he took up tennis again - wheelchair tennis.

In recent years he also returned to doing some of the activities he loved doing prior to his accident - snow and water skiing and taking part in a bikeathon in the United States.
“Less than a year after I got out of rehab,” I started playing tennis competitively,” he said. “I started traveling all over the world competing in tournaments. My goal was to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics in London in 2012.”
He described the Paralympics as an “unbelieveable experience. I saw people with unthinkable disabilities doing incredible and breathtaking things,” he said – showing slides of athletes without arms engaged in archery and pole vaulting.
He recalled the immense pressure he felt competing for the gold in wheelchair tennis. “Being up there on the podium with the Gold Medal and Hatikvah playing, I was a proud Israeli, a proud Jew and I felt that I was the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.
(He also won a Bronze in doubles play.)
An additional honour, he noted, was being invited last spring to be one of 14 Israelis chosen to light a torch in celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary. “I dedicated my torch to my fellow veterans and my fellow paraOlympians,” he said.
These days, Gershony is retired from competitive tennis. He is looking forward to going to the next Paralympics as a spectator or possibly as a coach. He helps train the Israeli national tennis team.
And, despite the constant pain, he is enjoying life. He is a math teacher and a father of four.
Gershony also praised the work of the Keren Kayemet LeLsrael (KKL)/JNF for the work it does.
Readers who may wish to donate to the JNF to support the Beit Halochem project can contact the JNF office at 204 947-0207.

In other JNF news, JNF Manitoba/Sask President Jessica Cogan announced prior to Gershony’s presentation that the JNF Negev Gala honoree for next spring wil be Steven Schipper, the former artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre for 30 years, who has also been a strong supporter of our Jewish community and Israel over the years.

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