They fought together in defense of Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Twelve years later, 19 members of the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade came together to New Jersey, where they found “a safe place” in which to heal the psychological wounds inflicted by military service and conflict.
The former soldiers were in the Edison-Highland Park-New Brunswick community as part of Peace of Mind, sponsored by METIV: The Israel Psychotrauma Center at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. The nine-month program includes a week with a diaspora community, which pays their expenses and houses them. Being able to take a break from daily routine and receive a warm welcome away from home helps in the veterans’ healing process as does the opportunity to talk freely with therapists, and with each other.
“The soldiers tell us that this is the best present” they have in their lives, said Sason Rehabi, clinical director of the Peace of Mind program and one of two therapists who accompanied the former combat soldiers on the Nov. 4 -11 visit to central Jersey.
On Nov. 10, 250 community members attended a dessert reception at the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House at Rutgers University in New Brunswick for a social gathering. Entertainment was provided by Kol Halayla, Rutgers’ Jewish a cappella group; SHEM Productions, an on-campus theater troupe; and Iris Bahr, the actor, comedian, director, writer, producer, and performer (“Svetlana”).
One of the visiting soldiers, Roee, a 32-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, said that he and the others “have been through a lot. We had a lot of training because we’ve walked in the desert for hours and went through extreme conditions.”
(The IDF does not allow last names to be used for security reasons.)
The unit, together for 13 years, would later patrol the border with Jordan and experience “extreme moments” that were hard for the then- 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to process, he said.
“When you’re 18 years old here, you go to college,” said Roee. In Israel, “We take a rifle and run after the enemy, and because everyone does it, no one stops and says, ‘Wow.’”
In the United States, he said, it is common for people to say, “Thank you for your service,” to those in military uniform, but in Israel “they may think it in their heart, but they don’t say it because everyone does it.”
“This week has been an unforgettable opportunity for us to do something we wouldn’t have been able to do anywhere else at any other time,”
Roee stood and told the audience, “Thank you for giving us a safe place, for comforting us while we are away from our homes, family, children, and friends, and away from our daily routine so we can focus on our therapy.
“Thank you for giving us the courage to open our hearts and souls. I thank you for giving us that concern. We never heard that kind of gratitude for our service. Thank you for surprising us and giving us the inner strength to take back to Israel knowing we have a loving community back here in New Jersey.”
The unit members spent their days in therapy sessions at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, one of five participating synagogues; the others were Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park and Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, Reform Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, and the Highland Park Minyan.
Peace of Mind committee cochair Roseanne Koeningson said the community raised $62,500 to fund the week-long program, which has been held every other year since 2012, when Anshe Emeth hosted the first one. She said fund-raising has begun for a planned 2020 program.
Participants stayed at the homes of 10 community members in Highland Park, Edison, and East Brunswick. Along with the therapy, the group joined in other activities, including meeting with students at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and touring the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a Jewish community like ours in all its diversity,” said Koeningson. “We are a multidenominational group who worked on this for two years.”
Another soldier, Emohai, said he “was surprised the week was so emotional” and said even though he had been close to other unit members, he got to know them even better during their week together in what he described as the “kind” and “open-hearted” community.
Neri Sraya, a therapist accompanying the unit, said each of its members experienced military service differently, as they served in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon. They were deeply affected by the combat death in Gaza of unit member Ohad Shemesh.
“They have stayed very close,” said Sraya. “They would talk about their general experience, but now they had a chance to hear from other members of the team how they experienced the situation.”
For host families the experience also proved memorable. For Udi Shorr and Ora Gourarie, members of HPCT-CAE, it was their second time hosting. Their guests, said Gourarie, “were so communicative and appreciative, and we had the most interesting conversations over breakfast.”
Shorr said beyond getting to know the soldiers, the program provided the opportunity to get to know his community. “It’s a unique thing to unite all the synagogues.”