The Middlesex County Jewish community welcomed 17 Israeli combat veterans for a week of respite and healing from the trauma they had faced back home.
But the week was also a balm for the congregations that took part, working as an “icebreaker” among diverse synagogues and denominations and uniting the community in support of the Israelis.
The veterans’ program, Peace of Mind, is a partnership with the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at the Herzog Hospital’s Temmy and Albert Latner Institute for the Study of Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Jerusalem.
As part of the 90-day program, former IDF members spend a week with a Diaspora community, which pays their expenses and houses them. Organizers say the activities give the vets a break from daily routine, while the warm welcome helps in their healing process.
“I thought it was fabulous,” said chair Roseanne Koenigson of Edison, a member of Orthodox Congregation Ohr Torah, one of the sponsoring congregations, adding the soldiers were “blown away” by the community.
“The community reaction to them was very, very encouraging, and very appreciative,” she said. “Everywhere they went they got standing ovations. One of our goals was to be interdenominational, and our committee was made up of many different denominations.”
Koenigson said already there “was a buzz” about fund-raising efforts to bring over another Peace of Mind contingent next year — the community raised $55,000 to bring over the soldiers, but the cost has risen to $65,000 for future groups.
“There’s also talk of getting together in the broader Jewish community for Yom Ha’atzmaut [Israel Independence Day]” and other events, she said.
The Greater Middlesex County Peace of Mind also included Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, Reform Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, and the Highland Park Minyan. Soldiers stay in community members’ homes.
“I think it was a really great way to get the community together and really wonderful to see everyone get behind this project and support the soldiers,” said Lynn Sherman of Highland Park, who represented HPCT-CAE on the committee. “The community embraced them as if they were their own children.” Before they left, she said, the Israelis told organizers that the community “made them feel as if it was their home.”
Although none of the soldiers has post-traumatic stress disorder, which would have been treated in Israel, all have been in combat and have been somewhat traumatized by their experiences.
“The government gives you treatment for PTSD, but people without it don’t really get any attention,” said Liore Lander, one of two therapists traveling with the soldiers. “They need therapy to talk just because they are combat soldiers.”
Participants also met with Jewish students at Rutgers University, went bowling with community members, and visited the 9/11 Memorial and other sites in New York.
They had Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, where they also made an unexpected appearance Nov. 11 and were greeted by cheering students outside the school. They participated in a young persons’ oneg at HPCT-CAE hosted by the Highland Park/Edison Oneg Group; attended Shabbat morning services at Ahavas Achim; and that night were treated to a show and dessert reception funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
That event — which drew a denominationally mixed crowd of 350 to Highland Park High School — featured comedian Joel Chasnoff, a former IDF “lone soldier” whose routine centered on his service in Israel, and the Makhelat Hamercaz Jewish Choir of Central NJ accompanied by the Tsu Fil Duvids klezmer ensemble.
The comedy show and oneg were funded by the federation as a means of drawing the Jewish community together around its support of Israel.
Afterward, one of the soldiers, Dor, who served in the 669 Rescue and Evacuation unit and is now a civil engineering student at the Technion, told NJJN the week in New Jersey was “a very unique experience. There were so many things we got to see and the support of the community made us feel so special,” he said.
For security reasons the IDF does not allow the soldiers’ last names to be used.
“We were very surprised at the warmth and hospitality of all the families, although it took us some time to get used to the cold,” said Assaf, a Tel Aviv resident who served in Gaza in 2008. “I did not know the Jewish community here loves us so much.”