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Son of US soldier killed in Afghanistan shares bar mitzvah with Israeli counterparts

“It feels really great to be around people who know what I’m going through.”


Andrew “AJ” Voelke was 8-years-old in 2012 when his father, US Army Major Paul Voelke, 36, was killed while serving in Afghanistan.

On Thursday, AJ and his mother, Traci, of Washington, DC, joined 30 Israeli children who also lost a parent in war, to hold a communal bar and bat mitzvah ceremony near Mount Herzl and to celebrate their milestones together at a festive event at the Jerusalem Theater.

Hosted by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, the children met with President Reuven Rivlin and Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman at a gala event worthy of royalty.

According to Yuval Lipkin, executive director of IDFWO, that was exactly the point.

“IDFWO was established in 1991 by the Ministry of Defense for orphans of all defense security forces in Israel,” said Lipkin. “We have worked with approximately 5,000 widows and nearly 3,000 orphans. They are very special children, and have a lot of challenges. We are there for them.”

Indeed, Lipkin said IDFWO works closely with children between the ages of six to 18 via a wide range of programs, including camps where they can spend time together, financial aid for school, medical grants, and critical emotional support.

“When the children are together, it is the only time they can be themselves, with the same type of people who have been through the same things,” said Lipkin. “They don’t have programs for them in schools, so this is the only place where they can feel free.”

After spending an all-expenses-paid, three-week trip in the US this summer with children from TAPS, IDFWO’s American counterpart, the 30 Israeli boys and girls were joined again by AJ to share their bar and bat mitzvahs.

“It feels really good to be in Israel because it’s a holy place for Jewish people,” said AJ, now an 8th grader, moments before celebrating with his Israeli friends.

Asked to describe his father, AJ smiled. “He was in the US Army, and he was a really good guy and really smart, and just a really fun person to be around.”

Although devastated by the loss


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