All Golshim L'chaim photos courtesy of Ram Omer

Golshim L’chaim—Ski to Live brings Israeli soldiers to Aspen

Mar 6, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

On the morning of October 7, Amiran Butbel did what a courageous police officer does when he is under attack—he drove toward the terror.

With his commander and several fellow officers, he traveled from his station in Be’er Sheva to the Nova Festival and Kibbutz Re’im. On the road, dozens of terrorists ambushed the group. After his commander was murdered in front of him, Butbel took charge, rescuing injured colleagues, loading them into a Hamas terrorists’ abandoned truck, and covering the injured with his own body to protect them.

Amiran Butbel in hospital after October 7 attackThen, he was shot. One bullet hit him in the stomach, one hit his weapon. Hours later, he was rescued, but he had lost a massive amount of blood. He lay unconscious in the hospital for two weeks.

Five months later, Butbel skied down a mountain in Aspen, Colorado, an act that took its own kind of courage but also brought its own rewards.

“I came to another part of the world, I met other people who have had experiences like mine, and I did something I had never done before,” said Butbel. “My injury was so fresh, but this helped me handle the trauma.”

Butbel was one of 18 injured or disabled veterans or family members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who traveled to Aspen for “Golshim L’chaim—Ski to Live,” a week of physical recreation and spiritual inspiration, highlighted by specialized skiing with customized guidance and gear for people with a variety of disabilities.

Now in its seventeenth year, Golshim L’chaim was founded by Rabbi Mendel Mintz of Aspen’s Chabad Jewish Community Center.

“If you can learn to ski with injuries and a disability, then the lesson is you can do anything,” Rabbi Mintz said. “People leave here renewed with a new lease on life—with joy and exhilaration. What it does to their bodies and souls is truly amazing.”

The program is sustained by the time, talent, and treasure of many from Aspen, from Colorado, and from around the world.

JEWISHcolorado got behind Golshim L’chaim the very first year and partnered with us to make sure it was a success,” Rabbi Mintz said. “Without JEWISHcolorado’s loyal, consistent generosity and their commitment to support these heroes from Israel, this program never would have come to fruition.”

‘Gravity is your friend’

Each of the 18 individuals who came to Aspen for Golshim L’chaim brought individual stories and challenges with them. Six of the 18 were injured on or since the attack of October 7.

“A lot is fresh for them,” said Rabbi Mintz. “Many have friends who are still fighting. Some have lost friends in their units. All of them are in a place where they have many concerns. And yet, there have been many moments of celebration every day—with dancing and singing—from the moment they stepped off the plane.”

For some, the wounds are older, but no less painful.

Odel Banet and children

Odel Banet married the love of her life when she was 18. Although the family is from a community where IDF service is not common, her husband insisted on serving. In 2015, she and her husband and their two children were leaving the Kotel when they were attacked by terrorists. Odel was stabbed 17 times. Her husband was murdered, and her son was shot. Her Golshim L’chaim trip was the first time she had left her children since that horrible day nine years ago, but she acknowledged that making the trip was the right decision.

“We are here in this beautiful place,” she said. “I must focus and do this hard physical thing of skiing, but that helps me process the difficult emotional issues. It makes me feel free! My ski guide said, ‘Gravity is your friend,’ and that thought just helps me let go, enjoy myself, and heal.”

By the end of her week in Aspen, Banet’s new friends were kidding her about being a “professional skier.”

“I am so happy,” she said. “I gained friends for life, and I felt surrounded by love.”

Amiran Butbel

Her injured companion Amiran Butbel talked about returning to Israel a different man.

“I feel like everything changed for me on this trip,” he said. “I breathed the good air, I saw the snow, I feel good, and I have a different view of everything.”

‘It touches people in a deep place’

Golshim L’Chaim began 18 years ago on a day when Rabbi Mintz was skiing Snowmass. He noticed a group of injured American war veterans learning to ski in a program developed by the nonprofit Challenge Aspen.

Golshim L'chaim 2024 group photo

“It was inspiring to be on the same mountain at the same time and watch people with various disabilities learn to ski,” Rabbi Mintz said. “Your problems are not real problems when you witness that.”

By the next morning, Rabbi Mintz was sitting in a meeting with the CEO of Challenge Aspen with a novel proposal—bringing disabled combat veterans of the IDF from Israel to Aspen to learn to ski.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Rabbi Mintz recalled with a laugh. “I had no idea about costs. The first year we underbudgeted by 100%! But the impact could not be measured—it was tremendous.”

Through the ensuing years, Golshim L’chaim has become a community-wide event, culminating in a Shabbat that this year brought together 250 people, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“People from all different backgrounds and faiths get involved,” said Rabbi Mintz. “When we see how much we get in return, it far exceeds what we have given. It touches people in a deep place.

Golshim L'chaim participants hug

“I get energy for the whole year,” he added. “Watching a video of one of the soldiers going down Buttermilk Mountain in a sit ski was just the highest of highs. It gives me enough love and inspiration to keep me going—and not just me, but everyone who is involved in this program.”

This year, JEWISHcolorado’s Shlicha, Nelly Ben Tal, traveled to Aspen to greet the Israeli visitors.

“This is one of the most remarkable JEWISHcolorado projects, and I am grateful to have been a part of it,” Ben Tal said. “It was a powerful experience that will stay with me for a long time because it reminded me of the importance of community and shared moments. I hope Golshim L’chaim will continue to bring people together and create a sense of hope and strength.”

‘We have to protect our existence’

In the past 17 years, no Golshim L’chaim has been quite like this one.

“People are in an emotional state, so it has been a very warm and loving year because the horrors of October 7 are fresh,” Rabbi Mintz said. “Israel remains in an existential battle against forces of evil and terror. All of us have a deeper sensitivity to the challenges faced by the state of Israel, the state of world Jewry, and how we are as Jews.”

Participants in Golshim L'chaim 2024

For the 18 men and women who came to Aspen, the trip was a respite from life during a war. But they cannot forget the horrors in their homeland, and they urge the world to never forget.

“It is not an easy time in Israel,” said Banet. “It feels like a crucial time for our future. The support from the community outside Israel helps keep us strong.”

“The people in Israel want to live peacefully,” added Butbel. “But we have to protect our existence so if we need to, we will fight. And we will do it again and again.”