The murderous attack on the kosher market in Jersey City was especially unsettling for our 21 guests – IDF veterans who came to Englewood, New Jersey for a week to participate in the Peace of Mind Program at East Hill Synagogue. “We’re used to it in Israel,” they said, referring to terrorist attacks that target Jews and Israelis. “We just didn’t expect it to happen here in New Jersey.” We nodded in agreement. Sadly, neither did we.
Fifteen years after they served together in the elite Maglan commando unit, fighting in the 2nd Lebanon war and then in Gaza, their unit reunited to discuss their military experiences and to process service-related trauma. Two therapists accompanying them from Israel helped the veterans acquire the language needed to discuss their fears and feelings about their time in battle. This was a new and important skill that had not yet been developed by these highly decorated soldiers. As one of the veterans, Gal, shared when speaking in Shul on Shabbat, “As soldiers we are taught survival skills; how to fight, and how not to think about our feelings. Yet in the military we went through many difficult and terrifying situations. We were well trained for military operations, but we were not taught skills for how to return to civilian life afterwards. After participating in this program, we now possess the language to talk about what we went through, and we will be able to share our feelings more easily with our partners, our children, our parents. After this intensive week, we are going home more aware and more whole.”
The 9-month program created by Metiv: The Israel Psycho-trauma Center at Herzog Hospital, includes a week of 40 hours of therapy in a diaspora community. The distance from home allows for total focus on the part of the veterans to work on the issues that are most pressing, without any outside interference. The warm embrace of the Jewish community; providing unconditional love, support, and gratitude, creates the “safe space” needed for the men to work through complicated emotionally-laden topics.
The Maglan unit of the IDF is a microcosm of Israeli society; comprising religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Similarly, the host families are a cross section of our community; spanning levels of observance, different ages, and backgrounds. Yet our East Hill Synagogue community united around this program in the most cohesive way. Volunteers offered to carpool the men to and from activities, local kosher restaurants donated lunch meals, welcome bags with warm hats and gloves were distributed, communal dinners were hosted, activities were sponsored, and on and on. The Peace of Mind program brought our community together and brought out the best in each one of us.
At the end of the week, several of the veterans admitted that they had initially been nervous about staying with strangers – families that they never met, and they had questioned why the program didn’t simply put them up in a hotel for the week. Now, however, they say that staying two soldiers to a family was the best part of the experience. They developed warm friendships with their hosts, and they learned for the first time about the deep love and commitment that American Jews have for Israel. Most importantly, after 8 hours of therapy each day, discussing very challenging issues, it was wonderful to be welcomed back home by their surrogate family.
By the end of the week, we really did feel like family. Hosts promised to visit their soldiers on their next trip to Israel and their soldiers are all looking forward to it!
With the tragedy of Jersey City still reverberating loudly in our hearts and minds, we all agreed that hosting the Peace of Mind program, at this time of increased vulnerability and fear, underscores the immeasurable strength and stability that the IDF and the state of Israel provides Jews here in the diaspora. We have a place to go to if we feel persecuted, we have a place to call home, and we have new friends, that feel like family, waiting for us.