When Strangers Became Family

It’s the same scenario, but with 20 new participants each time. A group of recently released IDF veterans arrives in America to be welcomed into the homes of a Diaspora Jewish community, and inevitably the magic begins.

I’ve seen the magic happen five times already; twice at Congregation Ahavath Torah, in Englewood NJ, twice at East Hill Synagogue in Englewood, and now most recently at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The IDF veterans are here to participate in the Peace of Mind Program; a groundbreaking 9-month program developed by Dr. Danny Bram, trauma therapist at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, to help veterans process and heal from the invisible effects of service-related trauma.

The essential component of the program is an intensive week of therapy while living in a Jewish community abroad. The distance from home, work, and family is key to creating a safe space for the veterans to fully immerse themselves in the difficult work of reflecting on their combat experiences. The magical outcome is always the same; the diaspora Jewish community falls in love with the IDF team, bonding together and supporting them through this process.  In tandem the community and the IDF team experience a profoundly transformational week.

This past June, 20 veterans from the elite Maglan Special Forces, boarded a plane to the US, nine years after they fought together in the Gaza War, and they arrived at Lincoln Square Synagogue, accompanied by two very gifted Israeli therapists, to begin this important journey.

Astonishingly, for this team, just as with each of the four IDF teams that came to NJ before them, this was the first time the veterans had ever discussed their shared military experience even though they were in combat together for 3 years under extraordinarily difficult conditions, and have since continued to serve together yearly in their mandatory reserve duty.

Prior to their arrival, there were several months of intense preparations; enlisting hosts families, fundraising to cover the high cost of the program, soliciting meal donations from local kosher restaurants, recruiting congregants to help in various volunteer capacities, which all fades from our minds as we welcome 20 Israeli brethren. As strong Zionists and lovers of Israel, we feel indebted to them and are delighted to host them for a week so that they can engage in the important therapeutic process of confronting their service-related trauma to help minimize and alleviate it over time. They arrive as strangers and depart a week later as our adopted sons. During this intense week, we get to know them as family members, and we finally have a chance to thank them for defending Israel and us. We explain that by keeping Israel safe, they are protecting every Jew around the world.  They stare back at us in disbelief, unaware that their sacrifice benefits anyone beyond their Jewish brethren in Israel.

In addition to the 40 hours of therapy, over the course of the 7-day program, conducted in the synagogue ballroom, they engage in communal meals, and many fun activities with congregants, which helps balance the intensity of the therapeutic process, by connecting on a personal level with our supportive and loving Israel-affiliated families.

At Shabbat services, the day before the group returned to Israel, the congregation was deeply moved as Rabbi Robinson invited all 22 of the veterans, including the two therapists, to stand on the Bima to lead the prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel. In unison, the congregation sang out “אבינו ,אבינו שבשמיים… “To our father in heaven strengthen the defenders of our Holy Land; and crown them with victory…. Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for her inhabitants. “

As the prayer ended, the entire congregation stood up and applauded the IDF heroes that were now part of our community and would remain part of our lives. With tears in their eyes, the IDF team finally grasped our genuine appreciation.

Next, one of the Maglan veterans, Raz, addressed the congregation from the Bima to try to give us a sense of what they had gained from this week in the “safe space” we created for them. He shared with us a beautiful metaphor, saying “everyone of us is carrying a very heavy bag on his back. This week allowed us to finally open the bag and look inside.  Hopefully with time we will also be able to remove things from the bag and lighten our load.”

The impact on the veterans and on our community was transformative. Each host has already requested to host again, with one host telling me “I’m a lifer, sign me up for all upcoming groups!”

Close to 200 IDF teams are hoping to have this same transformative experience. 40 IDF teams are immediately eligible and in need of a host community for 2024. When the Peace of Mind program reaches out to your community, don’t hesitate to say “YES” and you and your community will see the magic happen too!

About the Author
Dr. Tani Foger has worked in the field of education, both in Israel and in the US, for over 35 years. She is an experienced educator and psychologist, with particular expertise in special education, second language acquisition, student learning styles, teacher consultation, social skills, and parenting. She is the Founder of "Let's Talk” - Guidance Workshops for Moving Forward and Conquering the Challenges in our Lives. Dr. Foger is a skilled facilitator offering workshops for all ages at all stages. She is currently in private practice and can be reached at DrFoger@gmail.com
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