PROFILE

Specter is haunted by baptism of fire in Gaza

BY ADAM CAILLER

WHEN I called the head office of the Friends of the Israel Defence Forces (FIDF) in New York City, the last thing I expected to hear was a broad Mancunian accent.

Elliot Specter has been at the forefront of the organisation's social media output for the past 18 months.

"I am responsible for all front-end exposure for FIDF," he told me.

"I control the website, social media and all digital marketing for all of the FIDF chapters throughout America.

"I spent three years as a marketing manager for a travel wholesale company, a further seven years in New Jersey in a similar role before ending up in my current position."

While working for the FIDF, Elliot had experienced anti-Israel protests by a group that managed to gain entry to the headquarters.

Elliot elaborated: "We experience attacks quite often. Around a year ago, a group of protesters managed to convince the front desk security that they were legitimate donors to the charity.

"Once the first person had gained entry, he managed to let the others in.

"It was a non-violent protest, but it was still scary for our co-workers and staff. We had to involve the New York Police Department to remove them from the premises.

"Since then, we upped our security and now have armed security guards, as well as a new double-door security system and we are notified of potential trouble-makers at the ground floor of the building so it is a lot harder to break through.

"The charity has also held gala dinners throughout the year where protesters are always present."

The son of Judith Specter and the late Harvey Specter, Elliot has settled into life in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Sharon and their three children.

He sees a lot of similarities between Fair Lawn and the Jewish community in which he was raised in Prestwich, north Manchester.

The 46-year-old explained: "Where I live in New Jersey is quite a densely-populated Jewish neighbourhood which has a synagogue around every corner, similar to Broughton Park (near where he grew up).

"My three children all attend the Fair Lawn Jewish community centre, which has a synagogue and a cheder attached."

How he found himself working in America is an unexpected journey involving a lifelong dream - and a stint in Gaza.

As a pupil at Manchester's King David High School, Southport-born Elliot had always wanted to serve in the Israeli army.

"When I was a teenager, I was part of Bnei Akiva and Habonim youth movements," he said.

"Through the sessions and trips, I began to dream about making aliya and serving for the country I loved."

At the age of 21, after finishing his education at Salford Polytechnic, Elliot decided the time was right to move to Israel.

He settled on Kibbutz Hulda, in the south-central area of the country and was adopted by the kibbutzniks as a lone soldier.

Elliot recalled: "It was a daunting experience, being on my own in a foreign country at such a young age.

"It was my dream to be there, but I really had no idea what it would be like, especially in the initial few weeks. It was a complete shock for me.

"I was nave to the culture and my Hebrew was not good."

Thankfully for Elliot, he had connections who were prepared to help him settle in.

While on the kibbutz, Elliot fulfilled his lifelong dream by joining the IDF.

He said: "I had always wanted to join a combat unit, so after nine months of basic advanced training, I joined the Israeli marines, also known as the Givati Brigade, and my first placement was in Gaza.

"It was a real baptism of fire as Gaza was our territory, our southern headquarters.

"It was an interesting experience because we were still at the tail-end of the first intifada, but, at the same time, Yasser Arafat had taken control and was trying to police the region with his own taskforce.

"His intention was that Israel would pull-out of the 'occupied territories' and hand control over to his own security division, which did ultimately happen."

For Elliot and his fellow comrades, it was a "bizarre experience" as his team was the last unit to exit Gaza, which brought mixed emotions for himself and the inhabitants.

He explained: "As far as we were concerned, we were happy to leave. As far as the Palestinians were concerned, they were happy to see us leave, but angry that we were there in the first place.

"We had all sorts of things thrown at us as we were leaving. It was their way of saying 'good riddance'.

"We were under strict instructions not to respond in any manner, even after a fridge was thrown on to one of our jeeps. Luckily, it missed the target."

Elliot and his unit served three to four months in Gaza while alternating between training and three tours in Lebanon, where he encountered Hezbollah guerrillas.

He recalled: "We came under fire from ketusha rockets and mortar shells from them. (Then-Israeli president) Yitzhak Rabin had even declared a mini-war because we were forced to respond with tank fire and air support to push the guerrilla fighters back."

After the army, Elliot returned to his studies at the Tel Aviv College of Homeopathic Medicine to study for a BA.

He was also offered a position at a friend's company in America.

He said: "I was offered an opportunity to run a retail store in America and, having never been to the country, I saw that as an ideal opportunity to visit a place I had always wanted to see."

After completing his studies at the age of 29, Elliot left Israel to take up his new position.

He said: "I stayed in America for a year, returned to England for six months and then returned to Israel for another 18 months as a security guard at a hotel in Eilat, before returning to America to take up a permanent position at a photographic design studio in New York."

Upon his first return to Israel, Elliot met North Carolina-born Sharon.

Elliot remembered: "We had a brief relationship while she was studying in Israel.

"Once I returned to America, I decided to rekindle the relationship and we have been married for 13 years and have two girls and one boy."

Elliot left his position at the photo studio shortly after 9/11.

The digital photography revolution was taking place around that time and business was dwindling.

He said: "The company closed some of its 12 stores and I decided that it was a good time to jump ship."

Elliot will be raising money for the FIDF by taking part in a voluntary charity bike-ride at the end of this month.

It will raise money for wounded soldiers, some of whom are still serving in the forces.

Elliot said: "Once a year we have a bike ride from the Golan Heights to Eilat within a week.

"Each participant will give around 1,500-2,500 which goes towards prosthetic limbs and other care.

"I volunteered and will hopefully be filming it with a Go-Pro camera to document the trip."

The most surprising fact about Elliot is that he manages to keep an interest in his love of football, specifically Liverpool.

"I am, and always will be, a Liverpool fan," he said.

"It was drummed into me by my family as a young child and, as hard as it is, I still keep an keen eye on the club when I can."

For details on the bike ride, visit http://tinyurl.com/o8xnpur

 
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