As missiles fell on Israel, a group of former Israeli soldiers with lingering trauma from their war experiences found “peace of mind” in suburban New Jersey.
Sixteen members of an IDF infantry unit who served together in 2007 in Gaza were hosted by congregants at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. They were there through a partnership with The Temmy and Albert Latner Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital.
As part of the 90-day “Peace of Mind” program, former IDF members spend a week with a Diaspora community, which agrees to pay their expenses and house them. The break from routine and the hospitality helps in their healing process, as do opportunities to talk freely with therapists and each other.
“We feel an obligation,” said program chair Elissa Rozov of Highland Park. Anshe Emeth was the first NJ synagogue to participate in the program.
Rozov, herself a psychologist specializing in helping trauma victims, said the program “spoke to my heart.” She said the synagogue has raised $36,000 of the estimated $55,000 cost of the program, and fund-raising is ongoing.
Alon Weltman was one of two psychologists from the hospital center who accompanied the former soldiers during their Nov. 11-18 stay. He said some who have served three or more years can have repressed trauma or difficulty making everyday decisions after living so long in a restrictive military setting.
“They come back and we expect them to go on with their lives no matter what they feel,” he told NJJN. “We expect they will go off on their trip to India or to start life in a university and never stop to think, ‘What were their experiences back there?’
The visitors were hosted by members of the Reform congregation, although several religiously observant Israelis were put up by Orthodox families in Highland Park.
“In some ways we are taking care of our Jewish sons and daughters on the front line,” Rozov told NJJN during a wine-and-cheese reception held for the soldiers at Anshe Emeth on Nov. 15. “They are risking it all to defend Israel. We’ve really enjoyed giving them a warm hug.”
‘Connected to community’
Barbara and Leonard Littman of Highland Park hosted two Israelis whom she described as “lovely, charming, and respectful.”
“We want them to feel comfortable in our home, to really be able to relax,” said Barbara, “and that’s how it’s been.”
During their stay, the Israelis were treated to a whirlwind of activities, from bowling to shopping trips at malls in Edison and Elizabeth.
Although a planned trip to the World Trade Center Memorial had to be scrapped because of the disruption of PATH service resulting from Superstorm Sandy, a Manhattan tour included the top of the Empire State Building.
The group also went to Princeton University, where they met with students from Tigers for Israel, part of the campus’s Center for Jewish Life. They attended a performance at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. At Anshe Emeth, they attended Shabbat dinner and services and participated in activities with religious-school students.
The temple’s Rabbi Bennett Miller, who had been in Israel with congregants, flew in on the same flight as the former soldiers. Reflecting on the missile attacks on southern Israel, he told the group, “Our hearts are breaking.”
“I want all of you to know the entire American-Jewish community has thought about nothing but our brothers and sisters in Israel,” he said. “We will do all we can to help you.”
The former soldiers spoke of how the community’s warmth helped them even as they worried about being called back as reserves in the current conflict.
“In Israel you don’t really think of the Jewish community abroad,” said a soldier who identified himself as Jordan (some of the Israelis could not give their names or have their photos taken for security reasons). “When we are here we see how everyone is so loving, accepting, and appreciating. People here are saying they feel like celebrities. This experience has been so great for us. It really means a lot to us.”
Another Israeli, Michael Turjeman, said he felt a connection to the local Jewish community that would remain with him in Israel.
“I will remember how this community, they really care about us,” he said. “I feel connected to this community. When I go back to Israel I will know there are people outside who love us. It has been a wonderful experience.”