Esti and Randy Cohen’s home was fragrant with the aroma of 500 biscotti that Esti had baked for a charity event, as the Thornhill, Ont., couple sat at their dining room table to talk about IDF Widows & Orphans (IDFWO) and their experience in Israel, when the organization honoured them in April.
IDFWO provides programming and financial support to more than 8,000 widows and children of fallen Israeli soldiers.
Along with a certificate, the couple were also presented with a symbolic sculpture showing two figures on a pedestal pulling a third one up with a rope. Receiving the award was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Randy said, referring in part to sharing the honour with former Israeli defence minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and former MK Matan Vilnai, who was deputy commander of the Entebbe rescue in 1976. “Their whole life has been serving the country,” Randy said.
In addition to the award presentation, the Cohens took part in a week-long series of events planned around Yom ha-Zikaron. Being in the company of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin was exciting for them, but ultimately, Randy said, “for me, it’s about the kids.”
Esti, who was born in Israel, echoed many of the same sentiments. Her voice filled with emotion as she spoke of an Israeli mother who ran up to her crying at one of the ceremonies they took part in during the trip. The woman wanted to thank Esti for helping make it possible for her son to take a bar mitzvah trip to North America.
IDFWO bar and bat mitzvah trips gives participants, who are not necessarily Jewish, an opportunity to bond with other children who have also lost a parent, Randy said. It includes a stint at a summer camp in the United States and a ceremony at the Kotel when the children return home.
For the past seven years, the Cohens, who have a 25-year-old daughter and a son in university, have been involved in hosting Israeli children through IDFWO Canada for the Toronto leg of the trip. They are expecting 35 youngsters to visit this August. Esti, a former Hebrew teacher, has been co-ordinating activities and housing for the past seven years, while Randy’s focus is on fundraising and increasing awareness of the organization’s work.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without him,” said Esti, who also credited her team of volunteers.
Randy, a real estate broker, became involved in the organization because he admired the work Esti was doing, he said. Last year, he organized IDFWO Canada’s first large-scale fundraiser, a dinner that raised just over $120,000.
He said he would like to increase financial support for the organization, which supports the children of fallen soldiers from childhood through university. “I feel committed to help financially as much as I’m possibly able to,” he said. “Certain things grab my heart and orphans is just one of them. You have to have your priorities in life. You can’t always be working late.”
They are currently working on a fall fundraiser to help with the organization’s programs and camp in Israel, Esti said.
Randy lauded his wife for the love and effort she puts into creating a special program for the kids when they are here. Activities include an Oneg Shabbat, a trip to the CN Tower, a visit to the eZone entertainment complex and a Blue Jays game. Accommodations, meals and activities are all donated.
Randy said that volunteer work is Esti’s calling and that she has well over a dozen other awards. She is committed to helping children through organizations such as IDFWO, Shalva and Emunah.
Esti said she follows the news in Israel closely and prays every day that there will not be new IDF orphans.