What can a Jewish community in the diaspora offer an elite IDF unit of released soldiers suffering from psychotrauma? The short answer is a heaping dose of Zionism and the warm embrace of “Ahavat Yisrael”- brotherly love and appreciation.
For one week the Ahavat Torah community of Englewood, NJ enveloped a group of mostly secular Israeli’s with gratitude and appreciation, tending to their every need, providing creature comforts (food and shelter) and fun activities in the evenings, so that they could have 8 hours of therapy a day to process and heal from service-related pscyhotrauma. A truly unique and groundbreaking program.
Nine families welcomed a group of 18 strangers into their homes and treated them like family, while the larger community came together to organize BBQ’s, soccer and basketball games, Shabbat meals and trips to NYC. The communal feeling during the week was palatable.
What is second nature to us, Jews who live by the mantra kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh, can appear abnormal or counter intuitive to the unaffiliated. After all, who brings complete strangers into their homes?
For the IDF soldiers it was simply astonishing!
They could not fathom how people they never met would welcome them so eagerly into their homes and into their lives. They were surprised to learn how much our community cares about Israel. They were astounded by how focused we are on the daily events in the Middle East. They said they had no idea that Israel mattered this much to the Jews in the rest of the world. It was illuminating for the soldiers to learn how much the IDF means to Diaspora Jews. It was equally illuminating for us to see our community through their appreciative eyes.
They seemed genuinely surprised when we thanked them for protecting our homeland and allowing Jews the world over to feel safe and free. They could not grasp the magnitude of our appreciation. In the words of one of the soldiers “this is the first time in my life that I see Zionism.”
Many expressed their admiration for the ease and openness of our Modern Orthodox hashkafa and lamented that it was difficult to find in Israel. They were amazed by the sheer size of our synagogue community and were touched that so many had come out to meet them at BBQ’s and shul events – just to say, “we support you”. They could not understand why we were doing all of this for them even as we tried so hard to explain.
One of the host families shared that having been a child in Hungary during the war, he could never have dreamed that one day there would be an Israeli military to defend Jews; and being able to host two soldiers is his small way of saying, “thank you”.
As the mother of four sons who were not required to serve in the Israeli military, how could I not open my home to two soldiers who fight for the safety of Israel and Jews everywhere? This seemed like the least I could do.
On the final morning, after many hugs and photos, the soldiers boarded the bus to return to the airport and back to Israel, leaving behind a community that was greatly impacted by their presence.
After a full week of intense therapy, they were now fully ensconced in creating pathways of discussion to allow for the healing process and a healthier re-entry into civilian life. As a community, we had further cemented our connection to the Israeli people. The 18 strangers had become lifelong friends.
The soldiers thanked us for hosting them. We tried hard to find the words to thank them for giving us the opportunity to do so. The “Peace of Mind” program was life altering on both ends. Many more families are asking to be on the host list for next year.
Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC is a psychologist and educational consultant, and the founder of “Lets-Talk” Workshops: Guidance workshops for all ages at all stages.