How Etgarim was born
By Yoel Sharon, Founder and Honorary President
Etgarim was born on the last day of the Yom Kippur War, in the entrance to the city of Suez in Egypt. I was commander of an armored personnel carrier (APC) with 19 commando fighters. We were on a mission at the Egyptian agricultural buffer, and had just received orders to enter Suez to rescue paratroopers that were trapped in the city. During the fighting, a shell from an Egyptian tank hit the back of my APC. Sixteen soldiers died in the fatal attack, and only three were left alive. I was thrown an enormous distance, hit my spine and was paralyzed in my lower body. One of the survivors was Micha Shalvi, who later became an educator and whom I would approach twenty years later to develop the field of education-rehabilitation for children and adolescents at Etgarim.
I woke up in a helicopter evacuating me to a field hospital at Bir Gafgafa. I remember the clarity of my decision as if it were today: “Whatever happens, I’m going to go back to college in London, and continue the film studies I began before the war.” In spite of all the difficult physical limitations, I saw no reason to stop the previous course of my life. This belief was with me throughout every step of the way: at the hospital, at the rehabilitation center, in my studies at the university and later in my work. It was clear to me that I would continue to fulfill all of the dreams I had before I was injured, and all the dreams that would later join them, and I had many of those.
I went back to my film studies, though not in London but to Tel Aviv University. I was the only student there with crutches and a wheelchair. Those were the days when accessibility was not yet invented. Later on, I was the first and only film director in a wheelchair to make films. The guests on the set rubbed their eyes. No one understood how one could make an entire film from a wheelchair. And I, in my naivety, never understood what the big deal was. To me it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
In 1978, my third year of university, I made a documentary called “Journey”. The film documents a group of blind disabled IDF veterans on a journey on tandem bicycles from Jerusalem to Eilat. The group met at the Beit Halohem rehabilitation center. I encouraged them to go outside their limited area. We planned a journey from Jerusalem to Eilat for four days, while I documented with a camera crew. This was the first time that the handicapped ventured out into the open spaces – experiencing life, optimism, humanity, suffering and joy. The film won the award for “Best Documentary of the Year” and additional prizes at other festivals around the world. This was great but actually nothing had really happened. The film didn’t change reality.
Eighteen months later, I was offered the opportunity to produce a film about scuba diving around Sharm-el-Sheik. I said, “If I can dive with you during the shoot, it’s a deal. That’s my condition for making the film. Otherwise it doesn’t interest me.” The stars of the movie were scuba-diving instructors, commando veterans and the top scuba diving instructors in the country. One day, we practiced a dive with equipment at a pool in Tel Aviv. They put the oxygen tanks on me, and I didn’t drown! The second time was in the Red Sea. I went down, into the deep blue sea, and was completely ‘high’ for three solid weeks under the water. I was the first paralyzed person to learn how to dive.
Those were the most exciting three weeks of my life. I had simply discovered the underwater world, and as a paraplegic, I discovered the feeling of hovering, weightlessness, this incredible pleasure. I went back with a feeling that now we’re going to teach paraplegics how to dive. My instructors said they would volunteer to teach a group how to dive. When we got back to Tel-Aviv, my rehabilitation doctor, Professor Rozin, told me: “Are you nuts? I can’t permit you to dive. You’re risking your life…” My big dream about a diving class vanished. This was in 1980. I think the seeds of Etgarim were sown then.
I continued to fulfill myself, made movies, and run my own production company. I was realizing my ambitions. I had written, directed and produced. I had a production office in Hollywood, an office in Tel Aviv. I never thought that I would do anything other than make films. In addition to documentaries I made feature films. The movie “Shell Shock”, which I wrote and directed, was distributed all over the world by an American distribution company, a huge achievement in those days. I led a completely normal life, married my wife Dina. We have three amazing children, Itai, Yaniv and Danielle. I had conquered all possible peaks, and felt like the king of the world.
Unfortunately, many of the guys with me at the rehabilitation center had pretty much given up on life. Their lives were spent in rehabilitation centers for the disabled. They were rehabilitated and they were comfortable, but something was missing. In those days, I was the only paraplegic who would go to pubs, cafés, theaters or the movies. To Israeli society I was an abnormality, even though to me my life seemed completely right and natural.
In April 1993, the first automatic jeeps arrived in Israel. I bought one of the first and a month later organized a group of disabled IDF veterans, to go on a two day jeep trip to the Ramon Crater.
The 4X4 group expanded its activity, added new members who were not disabled, and we began to enjoy nature and the camaraderie.
In those days, my good friend Humi (lawyer Nahum Fritel), a disabled IDF veteran who had returned after three years of study at the University of California in San Diego, showed me a special device from the United States that enabled the paralyzed to ski. Although I had given up on the dream of skiing, when Humi showed me the device we became convinced. We proposed the idea to Beit Halohem. Avi Levi, a one-legged ski instructor, joined us. For years he had dreamed about teaching the disabled how to ski, and suddenly he had a chance. We sat with the chairman of the disabled IDF veterans’ association, and offered to open up a new, different, field of activity.
“What do you need this trip for, it’s far away, and it’s dangerous… Why not settle for swimming, ping-pong…” We stopped listening. We realized that we were in a new and different place now.
Humi, Avi and I organized a group of six paraplegics, for our first snow-skiing course for the disabled, held at the picturesque town of Fugen in Zillertal Valley, Austria. It was just like diving – my brain was exploding! Suddenly I had found the ultimate thing – being in nature as much as one could be, at a sports site with everyone else, reaching enormous speeds, passing skiers on your left and right. In short, an amazing experience, truly an amazing experience. We returned home to Beit Halohem, full of excitement from our discovery, and suggested to Beit Halohem to adopt the sport. We were sure they would spread embrace the initiative But that didn’t happen, because the activity isn’t on the agenda of the disabled IDF veterans’ organization. We suddenly understood that from now on, we needed to take direct responsibility for our lives. We would no longer accept being told how to “rehabilitate”, how to live.
It was clear to us that if we wanted to promote skiing, buy the suitable equipment, raise funds and organize everything properly, we could not do this as individuals. We needed to start a non-profit organization. That is how “The snow-skiing foundation for the disabled” came to be. Pretty soon we realized that the framework we established was too limited, and with all the effort we were putting in, it was worth expanding. We wanted a foundation to include all of the outdoor sports. At the founding meeting, November 1994, I propose the name “Etgarim”, and was appointed active chairman of the organization. I took a six month hiatus from my film activities, cancelled a project I was about to direct and returned the funding, in order to get Etgarim on its feet. At the time I wouldn’t have guessed that I would stay for twelve years and achieve what we have achieved.