Israeli trauma counselors lend hand in U.S.


JERUSALEM, Oct. 17 (JTA) — It was an uncanny coincidence.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 100 New Yorkers from the United Jewish Communities’ five-day solidarity mission to Israel were in Gilo, a neighborhood in Jerusalem that has come under repeated Palestinian gunfire over the past year, to hear how residents have been dealing with the trauma.

Several hours later, they sat around their hotel lobby, reeling from the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

That morning they had met with Danny Brom, a clinical psychologist and director of the Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma. The center, which is funded by the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, initially was established to deal with domestic traumas, but began dealing with the ongoing trauma of the Palestinian intifada last year.

At the time, Brom called the relationship with the federation an ideal connection.

Now that connection is hitting much closer to home, as Israeli organizations are turning around and helping their American counterparts.

“We will be asking for support from our Israeli colleagues,” said Alan Siskind, head of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York.”Our relationship with them has been very close, and has become even more poignant as a result of what happened in New York. There is a tremendous amount we can learn from the Israeli experience.”

When trauma strikes, Brom told JTA, many trauma specialists run in to help. That’s not his solution. He wants to think strategically.

A similar approach is used by Ruth Bar-On, director of the Israel Crisis Management Center, known in Hebrew as Selah.

Bar-On and her team of professionals and volunteers help immigrants hit by tragedy. The center was established in 1993 and also receives funding from the New York federation.

In the last six months, the focus has been on Russian immigrants, who suffered two major tragedies in the past six months.

The first was the suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco on June 1, killing 21 young people, mostly Russians. The second was two weeks ago, when a Sibir Airlines plane crashed into the Black Sea, killing 66 passengers, many of them Russian immigrants on their way to visit their hometown of Novosibirsk.

Such tragedies happen to native Israelis as well, Bar-On said, but immigrants have much fewer coping mechanisms. They need emotional and financial support, someone to tell the news to the children or just someone to talk to.

Bar-On and her 500 volunteers try to fill that gap. When the Sibir Airlines crash occurred, they fanned out across Israel, offering babysitting services, helping to transport people to Ben-Gurion Airport and bringing relatives together from different parts of the country.

“We work with individuals in real time, when their tragedy isn’t a news item anymore,” she said. “The healing process requires patience and dedication.”

Ironically, Bar-On was in the United States on Sept. 11 when tragedy struck. She watched the country mobilize and the caregivers swing into action. She’s now trying to return the favor to agencies that have given so much to Selah.

New York federation donations make up a large chunk of Selah’s budget, which also receives money from foundations, private donations and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

So far there have been phone conversations, memos and summaries sent of Selah’s materials. The agencies discuss how to deal with this kind of long-term situation.

“There is no one model because every country is different, but sharing is extremely important,” Bar-On said.

Selah’s methods include healing retreats, and building support systems for siblings.

“We unfortunately have accumulated experience,” Bar-On said with a sigh. “Human beings are the same in that they have emotional needs. But every individual is different and we have to learn how to meet those needs in a mass disaster.”

Sometimes, however, there are no immediate solutions, Brom, of the psychotrauma center, pointed out. And psychotherapy isn’t necessarily for everyone.

“When something like this happens, lots of trauma specialists run in,” Brom said. “They want to do good, but simple models don’t necessarily work. The New York tragedy is so overwhelming that it takes time to organize.”

The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services has been inundated with requests for training and counseling from agencies and corporations that were located near the World Trade Center, Siskind said. The agency is helping individuals, the Red Cross and the New York City Department of Mental Health.

“We’re well-known in New York, as we have a trauma center which has experience in responding to crises, but never of this magnitude,” Siskind said. “We’re sending several dozen senior staffers to do crisis counseling every day, because we know that needs will change as people’s responses evolve.”

“People are afraid, they’re expecting other attacks,” said Brom, who has helped set up trauma centers across Israel — including in Kiryat Shmona, which suffered periodic rocket attacks before the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. “What is needed is a community approach, training people to be aware and to think and to learn from what happened.”

Throughout Israel — in Gilo in particular — Brom counted on the community, using existing resources for information and utilizing laypeople as the eyes and ears of the mental health professionals.

“Teachers can be trained to see and listen,” he said. “Organizations need multilevel awareness training and planning to think about and learn about what happened.”

Nevertheless, talking about it isn’t for everyone, Brom insisted. In Israel, he’s seen many people harden their hearts to the tragedy and just go on with their lives.

Trauma, he said, is a broad concept for any event that breaks down normal coping strategies.

“You have to deal with shattered assumptions,” Brom added. “The world has changed, and we all have to get used to that. There are new levels of vulnerability.”

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