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Singing for Injured Israeli Soldiers

May 4, 2011 By:
Josh Lederman, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Ritasue Charlestein

Jerusalem

It's late afternoon at Hadassah Medical Center when the woman with fierce red hair and blue eye shadow strides determinedly into the lobby, a black-and-red guitar bag slung over her green military get-up. The two young soldiers trailing her inform her that her next patient is ready and waiting.

But before Ritasue Charlestein can make it to the next of many private concerts she'll give today, a hospital worker approaches her, paparazzi-style, with a cellphone camera, asking her to pose. Charlestein obliges.

Then it's back to work doing what Charlestein says she was born to do: sing to injured Israeli troops.

The middle-aged former Philadelphian considers herself a musical healer, and spends her days as a volunteer, touring Israeli hospitals and visiting each soldier individually.

"I want every soldier to feel at that moment that they are the most important thing in the world," says Charlestein. "I want them to know how much I appreciate everything they are doing for me and for the Jewish people."

Charlestein's service has won her official recognition by the Israel Defense Forces, special honors from the chief of staff, and a decorated uniform adorned with guitar-shaped epaulets custom designed for her.

Born in Queens, N.Y., Charlestein was raised in a Conservative Jewish family, but attended an Orthodox yeshiva. She attributes her love for Israel to summers spent at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

After finishing a master's degree in French literature at New York University, Charlestein moved to the Philadelphia area in 1972, where she immersed herself in Jewish and Israeli music. She spent the 1970s and 1980s performing at events for Jewish organizations and teaching music.

Charlestein's first "tour of duty" came during the 1982 Lebanon War, when she spent almost three weeks singing to some of the thousands of Israelis wounded in that conflict.

"It did something to me," she says. "I understood at that moment that there is something about me that helps people."

It was almost 25 years later when Charlestein heard Israel's call once again. She moved here in 2005 with one of her four children, son Ari, who planned to volunteer in the Israeli military. While he moved back to Philadelphia before his service began, Charlestein stayed. A few years later, her older son, Jordan, passed away tragically.

"I feel his death profoundly every day, doing what I do, and I hope that I'm making him proud of me," she says. "Each time I give to them, I'm giving him an extra hug."

These days, Charlestein lives alone in Jerusalem, but visits her other children every few months. Her son Ari, her daughter Julie and her two grandchildren still live in the Philadelphia area while her other daughter, Elysa, lives in Los Angeles.

In between visits, Charlestein surrounds herself with a different type of family: Israel's fighting boys and girls. "I want you to know how proud I am of you," Charlestein tells a baby-faced soldier perched silently on her hospital bed. "I've come to salute you, because you are a hero."

Charlestein recounts visiting a Beersheva hospital, where she says a young soldier who had been serving in the Gaza Strip lay with a bullet in his head.

The boy's family asked Charlestein to sing for him, but her visit sparked no response. She returned five days later to try again -- and this time, she saw his fingers and legs suddenly twitch.

When Charlestein returned home, her phone rang. The boy was awake. She and the boy have stayed in close touch, speaking by telephone every Friday before Shabbat.

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