Napa teens bar mitzvah project helps him form a meaningful bond with a former Israeli soldier

Sam Sparks grew up watching behind-the-scenes video footage that his cousin shot as a member of the Israel Defense Forces’ public relations unit.

So when it came time for the Napa youngster to choose a community service project for his upcoming December bar mitzvah, he knew he wanted to do something to help IDF soldiers.


Jonathan Bernstein (left) visits with Grilak at the Hope for Heroism headquarters in Israel.

That’s how he started a correspondence with former Israeli soldier Roy Grilak.


Sam, 13, and his mother, Maura, turned to the Northern California chapter of the Friends of the IDF in order to find a suitable service project — but Sam knew he wanted to do more than pack goodie boxes for soldiers or ask family friends for donations.

He wanted to correspond with a soldier.

“He thought that would be more meaningful, instead of just raising money for a cause that you didn’t really have a personal connection with,” Maura explains.

While security and logistical concerns make communication with an active duty soldier complicated, the FIDF put Sam in touch with Grilak — and the two became pen-pals earlier this year.

Flash back to the summer of 2006. Grilak was just a few months shy of finishing his army service when he was severely wounded while entering a house on a military operation in a south Lebanese village during the Second Lebanon War. He was shot five times, with one of the bullets shattering his jaw, and his partner died in the battle.

Since then, Grilak has been involved in various projects that assist IDF veterans. In part, that’s how he got hooked up with Sam.


Sam Sparks and former Israeli soldier Roy Grilak during their visit in San Francisco

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the S.F.-based local chapter of FIDF, made the connection because he knew Grilak was going to be coming to the Bay Area in June. Bernstein figured it would be great if the two could meet at that point.


And that’s just what happened. They spent the day together, getting to know each other in person while touring San Francisco and Muir Woods. According to Bernstein, the bond was really strong.

Sam describes the relationship as not at all distant. “I think it’s really close,” he says. However, he adds, he was nervous when he first started exchanging emails with Grilak.

“There was a small barrier,” Sam says, underselling the gap between the life of a middle school student in Napa and that of an IDF soldier who has spent months in rehab.

But the two grew closer over the months, exchanging weekly emails.

Their correspondence continued after Israel began its military operation in Gaza last month. Sam, who was at Camp Newman at the time, quickly emailed Grilak  to make sure he was safe.

“He was really worried about Roy, and other soldiers in Israel and their families,” says Maura Sparks. (He also let Grilak  know he was away at summer camp and “having a great time.”)

Sam’s connection to Grilak  and his bar mitzvah project — raising money for Hope for Heroism, an organization that supports injured IDF soldiers — definitely increased his awareness of and interest in the Israel-Gaza war.


Grilak undergoes rehab after being shot five times during a 2006 mission in Lebanon.

“Sam has a cousin in Israel, but Roy has helped put a face on what the combat soldiers have gone through,” Maura says. “Roy is a real-world example of Hope for Heroism. It has made the concept of working with that organization much more meaningful.”


During the conflict, Sam and his mom received an email from Bernstein after he visited Grilak  on an FIDF mission to Israel. The two met up at Beit Achim, or House of Brothers, the headquarters of Hope for Heroism in Hod HaSharon.

“I saw Roy at the clubhouse where all the wounded soldiers gather,” Bernstein told  J. “It was really impressive. There are the regular activities and bonding going on. Many of the soldiers were putting together packages to send down to Gaza.”

Bernstein described the conference room as looking like “a military operation.” He also praised the efforts of Hope for Heroism.

“All the current soldiers with the organization are going out to meet with the hundreds of soldiers who are in hospitals now,” Bernstein said. “The soldiers from the organization are going in almost immediately when the wounded soldiers get to the hospital. The organization is deploying wounded soldiers from previous conflicts and sharing what they can with the recently wounded … and Roy is very involved in those efforts. He goes on visits himself and tells his own story.”

Living in Israel with his newlywed wife, Sabina, Grilak is continuing to deal with his injuries as he works toward masters’ degrees in accounting and law. Shot in his leg, jaw and left arm, Grilak’s right femur was shattered and his jaw destroyed — and there was shrapnel scattered throughout his body. One bullet went through his back and exited his chest without hitting any vital organs.

After lengthy hospital stays and long, long hours in a battle to rehabilitate, he still suffers from nerve damage and chronic pain. During his June visit to the Bay Area, he would visibly wince every minute or so. Still, that didn’t damper the meeting.

“Sam couldn’t stop hugging him and Roy seemed to appreciate it,” Bernstein recalls. “It seemed like they were both getting a lot out of the relationship.”

Sam continues to correspond with Grilak  as well as plan his bar mitzvah project, a dance-athon at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley, in the fall to raise money for Hope for Heroism. Not only does Grilak  work with that organization, but so does FIDF, which is matching any funds that Sam raises (as of last week, $1,200).

At the dance-athon, Sam, an avid hip-hop dancer, will be handing out IDF-branded wristbands that Grilak  brought from Israel. (For more information, visit

“Now I’m not even doing this for the bar mitzvah,” Sam says, “but more just because it’s nice and it feels good to do this for someone.”

Abra Cohen
of J. contributed to this report.


FIDF fundraiser set for S.F. synagogue


The Bay Area chapter of Friends of the IDF has scheduled an event next week to raise funds for Israeli military personnel wounded while fighting Hamas in Gaza.

All proceeds from the fundraiser at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco will go directly to the soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, according to Jonathan Bernstein, director of the FIDF’s Bay Area chapter. A similar fundraiser was held July 29 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Bernstein said support for the FIDF from the Bay Area Jewish community has been tremendous since Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, with nearly 1,000 donors giving more than $250,000 to the organization’s Rapid Response Fund. The money allowed purchase of 1,000 undergarment kits, 2,000 snack packages, 1,500 toiletry kits and a portable shower stall.

“In addition to providing the soldiers much-needed support, these donations have solidified our community’s bonds with Israel,” Bernstein added.

The FIDF fundraiser is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19 at Congregation Emanuel-El, 2 Lake St. A $36 minimum donation is requested. There will be a short presentation from FIDF and light refreshments. For more information, visit or call (415) 547-8360. — dan pine

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.