Helping to Heal the Children

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House Drawing

Note to Editors: Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets have stopped falling on Israel’s north, but the trauma lives on, particularly among the children. Responding to this trauma, the Orthodox Union, in cooperation with the United Jewish Communities, has embarked on an ambitious new program to bring healing and comfort to those who spent the summer in shelters or were driven from their homes. The following essay, by the Director of the Orthodox Union in Israel, explains in fascinating detail how the program works, and the OU’s view of its role in tending to the needs of the people of northern Israel.

Helping to Heal the Children (and Adults) of Israel’s North, The OU Begins an Ambitious Program to Ease the Scars of War

By Rabbi Avi Berman, Director, OU Israel

Israel is a small country. So small that over a million of its citizens are directly in harm’s way when an enemy chooses to send out aimless rockets with intentions to destroy all in its path. I knew this sitting in my house in Vancouver, Canada — to which I had briefly returned this summer after assuming the title of Director of the Orthodox Union’s Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center in Jerusalem — listening to the news and watching the scenes on television. However, the full impact only hit me when I visited the north of Israel myself during the war.

Major cities like Haifa, Tiberias, Tzefat and Nahariya were shocked into paralysis for fear of a deadly strike. We walked through cities during the day and noticed that no stores were open for almost the entire month! Where were the kids playing? Where was the hustle and bustle of thriving city centers? The answer was that many families had fled southwards; others, less fortunate, were stuck in public bunkers for most of the war.

During the war, the OU joined many organizations which provided basic supplies of food and clothing for those who could not afford to buy them, or for those who could not leave their shelters to purchase things on their own. It is only natural that after the war organizations would depart, leaving many communities alone to fend for themselves and to pick up the pieces. Who would be there to help these stricken communities recover?

This question occupied my mind during those fateful days, as I kept wondering what would happen after the war. At that point, I decided that the OU’s involvement in the north was not going to be fleeting, that we would find money, invest in each community, and not leave, at least until we saw that every child was receiving proper attention, proper care.

Baruch Hashem, thank God, our initial plans came through and the Israel Center has already started implementing its many programs throughout the north during the past month; we expect to exponentially increase them in the months and years to come. We call these programs Project Tzafona (to the North).

Our first stop was a school familiar to us, the Even Shoham elementary school in Nahariya, where a branch of our Makom Balev youth group already successfully functions. (Makom Balev – A Place in the Heart – is a program of Jewish activities for both religious and non-religious children and teens throughout Israel.)

Even Shoham School: Counseling Our Children

When you enter the Even Shoham school, you are struck by a large piece of oak tag with red-inked quotations from children about their feelings of fear during the war. “I was terribly afraid,” wrote one. Another bluntly stated: “Fear, boredom, and lots of bad luck!” A third spoke of a month in a shelter which drove her crazy, while a fourth simply proclaimed, “I just wanted to go home.” Each note focused on another dimension of the fear and confusion they experienced that summer.

These feelings of fear and sadness, unease and displacement expressed on this small board are reflective of the state of mind of the entire northern community.

These comments also represented the small extent to which kids, teens and adults were given a venue to express themselves in the post-war period, coinciding with the opening of the school year. Educators figured that math, history, arts and reading are the best antidotes for a rotten summer. Psychologists will tell you that the trauma penetrates deeper into the psyche and that problems will inevitably emerge during the next few months or even after years, as kids show signs of distraction, depression, emotional issues and worse.

With this in mind, and with the mission to directly attempt to heal thousands of kids in the north, the OU together with United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American Federations, set out on a journey to rehabilitate the students of the northern communities. This ambitious effort to cater to ALL students in grade schools did not deter the OU Israel team, as we set out to implement the program in all its aspects.

The logistics were complex as we needed to develop a short-term game plan as well as a long term one. How do we manage to deal with so many children on one hand but not lose sight of the notion that counselling is not a one time pick-me-up and then you move on? Instead, it must reflect a long term commitment to creating relationships with these children so they know there is someone there willing to listen, willing to help.

Clearly we needed professionals to discern which kids were affected only minimally and which were going through deep psychological issues and were in need of more serious counselling. We hired an expert in the field, Debby Gross, who created and runs a very successful crisis center in Jerusalem. Debby has been given awards for her roles as a crisis counselor and she is currently training the staff of centers in Europe and Australia. We are confident that Debby is an excellent person to lead this initiative. She and her team would create a comprehensive system of counselors and programs for each class, involving children’s interaction and self-expression.

To date, thousands of youngsters have gone through several hours of counseling by a team of trained crisis therapists. Witnessing them in action was a remarkable sight as groups of children in a school environment at once settled down and opened up them.

The Yoatzot – psychological counselors — went into every class and began with a play meant to illustrate to the children the importance of expressing their emotions and not bottling them up inside. This short dramatization sets the mood for each class, so that boys and girls will not be embarrassed when the interactive part of the presentations takes place, in which the counselors ask students whether and to what extent they were affected by the war. At first kids are reticent, but once a hand is raised many join in to recall experiences of war which reminds them all of the harrowing time.

After twenty minutes they break into groups for a smaller more intimate setting. Each counselor hands out sheets to color in emotions, or to express feelings in writing, all attempting to elicit reactions from the students and to insure they are in a state of healthy rebound from a traumatic period.

The chart reads: “How much did the war influence you in these areas?” The categories are home, family, money, studies, eating, functioning, sleeping, concentration, self-image, social relationships, etc. The kids colored in as much as they felt it affected them and there was a discussion. Another exercise was to “Circle the emotions you felt during the war”– fear, sadness, confusion, frustration, helplessness, worry, anger, insecurity. Each child circled a specific amount; some only a few, others, like the one in the attached photo, circled every emotion and was truly in need of someone to talk to. After another discussion session, the kids were given a final sheet of paper with the picture of a lock on it. It represented their feelings which they often locked away without properly expressing them. Each student was told to write their personal feelings of what gave them strength.

I learned many things that day of observing. I learned that kids want to express themselves and deal with their emotions; they just need someone to serve as a catalyst. I learned, though, that there are youngsters who may fall between the cracks if they are not conscientious in their program. One boy said he had slept until that day in the miklat (shelter). One girl was underground the whole war! Another boy was visibly shaken at the memory of not knowing where his father was for a month. A girl remarked that her parents didn’t let her go down to the shelter at all, rather she should “be strong…”! Some kids were afraid of going into the shelter for fear of another attack; others wouldn’t leave the shelter knowing that it was the only place they were are ‘really’ safe. The war affected their behavior, created tension; boys became aggressive, and some went into denial.

OU Israel was there from the start, and we are going to be there day in and day out during the foreseeable future.

The Long Term Plan: We Will Be There for Our People

Concurrent with the major counseling sessions taking place in schools, OU/UJC are creating centers for long- term relationships with children of all ages as well as adults. The centers will offer psychological support and comfort to get the various communities of the north involved and become part of the program.. By setting up more branches of Makom Balev, Israel Center staffer Yisrael Goren is continuing his work of catering to the needs of children throughout the north and developing centers for Jewish activities, fun programs, and strong relationships. Children who run the gamut from Orthodox to non-religious find a home and a friend with the madrichim (counselors) and grow in many ways.

Staffer Meir Shwartz will be setting up six centers of ‘Bayit Yehudi’ (Home of the Jews) in centers in six cities we are focusing on in the north. Each house will function as a walk-in center, a place to learn, to engage in discussion, and to enjoy Jewish activities. They will be open to all adults and aim to bring a sense of the spirit of Torah to the secular segments of the population. In the Bayit, which is patterned after his very successful home centers in other cities, Meir creates an open, yet spiritual environment so that each person who walks through the doors feels unthreatened and inspired at the same time.

There is much more work to be done, many more youngsters to help, entire communities to assist in rehabilitation. Hayom katzar veha’melacha meruba — the day is short and the work is plentiful, and we are settling in for the long term. We will achieve our goals of bringing chesed (loving kindness) to these battered communities, as well as sparking their individual neshamas (souls) to grow as a result of this tragedy. On the original board at the top of the page one girl was brave enough to write a message of comfort: “Halimudim hitchilu ve’haperachim parchu –classes have started once again and the flowers have bloomed”.

As these cities return to their order, as schools resume and life gets back underway, we at OU Israel want to make sure that the flowers will indeed continue to bloom in every direction. Join us in making that dream become reality.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.