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O.U. treats emotional scars in Israel

Counselor Moria Benjo works with children in Nahariya at a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union. (Bruno Charbit)

Counselor Moria Benjo works with children in Nahariya at a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union. (Bruno Charbit)

NAHARIYA, Israel, Nov. 30 (JTA) – They’re the invisible carnage of Israel’s summer war with Lebanon — traumatized children, confined for weeks to bomb shelters, who remain haunted by fears of falling rockets and nighttime air-raid sirens. Though less visible than the scenes of physical destruction that flooded the news media during Israel’s monthlong war with Hezbollah, the psychological wounds inflicted on the region’s children are just as real. And despite the millions of dollars poured into the area in recent months, their needs are largely being ignored by Israel’s government and by Diaspora Jews. “We were surprised that no work is being done with these children,” Debbie Gross, a therapist working with children in the north, told JTA. “Nobody seems to understand if you move on, basically you’re just leaving scars. There seems to be no realization that these kids went through terrible trauma, they went through a war, and you can’t say, ‘School’s started, everybody back to normal.’ ” Gross reports that she is seeing more reckless behavior, particularly among teenagers, who say they don’t believe they will live beyond age 30. Some children still suffer the after-effects of the conflict, Gross says, refusing to shower without a parent nearby or to be alone without the presence of an adult. Like unexploded ordnance that detonates years later, such fears, if not treated promptly, can surface in adulthood — with devastating consequences for the individual’s ability to raise a healthy family and function as a responsible member of society, experts say. Rabbi Avi Berman, director-general of the Orthodox Union in Israel, tells of Yifat, 25, a mother of three who grew up in Kiryat Shemona, a northern Israeli city that has been victimized by Hezbollah rockets for years. The psychic wounds she suffered as a child were never treated and Yifat was crippled when air-raid sirens sounded in July, leaving her unable to be left alone in her home. “Because she was not treated as a child, she cannot deal with it today,” Berman said. “And we felt that our obligation as Jews is to go out there and make sure that nobody is going to be another Yifat when they grow up.” Berman hired Gross, the founder of a crisis center for religious women in Jerusalem, to oversee a counseling program for children as part of the Orthodox Union’s relief efforts in northern Israel, called Project Tzafona, or “To the north.” The program Gross designed brings counselors to northern Israel three days a week to enable children to deal with their feelings about the war. So far, she says, the program has reached 2,500 children. In one exercise, children are asked to use color to indicate which emotions they experienced during the conflict. In another, children are told to write down what made them feel safe. In addition to enabling the youngsters to voice emotions they may have repressed, the exercises also allow counselors to identify children whose trauma is particularly acute and who are in need of more intensive treatment. In Nahariya, counselor Moria Benjo works with children who suffered through the conflict this summer. Visible through the window are the mountain ridges from which Hezbollah terrorists launched hundreds of Katyusha rockets at Israel. Inside, Benjo is encouraging a group of girls to remember what gave them comfort during the bombardment. Benjo says the children are in great need of attention, though often they are hesitant to open up at first. “But when I begin to speak about it, their eyes are open and they don’t let me speak,” Benjo said. “They want to tell their stories. I see they want to talk about what happened, and we give them skills to accept their feelings.” Berman had been on the job less then a week when the Lebanon conflict erupted. Using connections established through the organization’s Makom Balev program, the Israeli version of the O.U.’s American youth organization NCSY, he began delivering supplies to residents confined to bomb shelters. After the war, Berman used some of the $450,000 raised through the O.U. Web site and an additional $425,000 from the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group to launch the counseling program. “There are 83,000 kids up north,” Berman said. “We want to reach each and every one of them and make sure that when they grow up, they’re not going to be traumatized by another siren.” Whether that effort is successful is mostly a question of funding, but it’s also a function of time. Gross says virtually everyone in northern Israel believes the next war is just around the corner. “Before there was a feeling the army will protect them,” Gross said. “There isn’t that feeling any more.”

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