More than 800 community leaders gathered Monday at the Hilton Chicago for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Illinois Annual Dinner, which celebrated Israel's and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)'s 70th anniversary and raised $2.5 million to support well-being and educational programs for IDF soldiers.
The evening, one of the Chicago Jewish community's largest events, featured active-duty IDF soldiers, including one the world's few women flight navigators; wounded IDF Sgt. Elad Horwitz, who survived a gunshot to the head during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza; and Amir Ofer, a hero of Operation Entebbe, the famous Israeli rescue mission at Uganda's Entebbe Airport in 1976.
During his long recovery, FIDF supported Horwitz through its Wounded Soldiers Program and partnership with Brothers For Life.
"My battalion was the first to enter Gaza. After about an hour, with tanks firing and helicopters overhead, my unit came under heavy fire. Suddenly I felt a blow to my head – and I couldn't see or hear anything," said Horowitz. "While I was lying in my hospital bed, still not yet able to take in all that had happened to me and filled with pain, FIDF sent a delegation to visit me and my injured friends."
Ofer was a key figure in the Entebbe rescue operation that saved 102 hijacked Air France passengers held hostage by terrorists. Ofer, who was then a soldier in the IDF's most elite special operations unit, was the first Israeli commando to enter the Entebbe Airport terminal, where he used a megaphone to tell the hostages, "Stay down! Stay down! We are Israeli soldiers!"
One of the evening's emotional highlights came when Staff Sgt. Ori Kulbak, originally from Skokie and a Lone Soldier – one who enlists in the IDF without immediate family in Israel – currently serving in the IDF's elite Paratroopers Brigade, was reunited with his family onstage.
The event honored Chicago entrepreneurs and philanthropists Jack and Goldie Wolfe Miller for their dedication to Israel's troops. Co-chairing the event were Judith Joy and Bruce Miller, and Alicia Oberman and Aaron Oberman. Presiding as the evening's master of ceremonies was Steve Miller, and the IDF Musical Ensemble performed a selection of popular and traditional Israeli music.
"I'm thrilled and proud that FIDF and our supporters were able to play a part in these soldiers' lives," said FIDF Midwest Executive Director Tamir Oppenheim. "As they did 70 years ago, the brave heroes of the IDF put it all on the line to protect Israel and Jews around the world. Our dinner was an incredible opportunity for our supporters to celebrate Israel's 70th anniversary, while meeting and personally thanking the young men and women who look after the Jewish state today."
Other distinguished guests at the dinner included former U.S. Senator from Illinois Mark Kirk, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest United States Aviv Ezra and Einat Ezra; FIDF Central Region Chairman Daniel J. Hyman; FIDF Central Region President Thomas Kane; FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir; and FIDF Illinois Director Orley Desser.