Terror attacks start with harsh sounds and blinding lights and screams and sirens and blood and rubble and flames.
Eventually the sounds echo into silence and the lights shine elsewhere and the screams and the sirens stop and the blood is washed away and the rubble is swept away and the flames are extinguished.
And then the survivors and their families are left to deal with the rubble of their lives, and the dead victims’ families are left to deal with the black hole in the center of theirs.
Unfortunately, there are many victims of terror in Israel, and the circles of people affected by the nightmare of any one victim spread concentrically and are far-reaching.
There are no quick fixes when it comes to helping these people. It is easy to turn away, and it is hard to keep looking, to reach out with help.
But OneFamily does.
Chedva Breau of Englewood, who is both a OneFamily board member and — after passionate involvement with the group — a consultant to it, said that OneFamily started in response to the terrorist attack on a Sbarro pizza place in Jerusalem 14 years ago. On August 9, 2001, a suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman; 130 people were left wounded, some of them grievously.
Michal Belzberg was about to celebrate becoming bat mitzvah the day after the explosion. She is the daughter of philanthropists Chantal and Marc Belzberg, who had just made aliyah to Jerusalem from Riverdale. “It was supposed to be a huge, grand bat mitzvah,” Ms. Breau said. “But their daughter realized that she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
“So she picked up the phone, and called every single guest, told them it was canceled, and asked them to send her the money they would have given as a gift, and she would donate it all to the victims.
“They raised $100,000 from the guests,” she said.
The Belzbergs still didn’t feel that they had done enough. “They went from hospital room to hospital room and from shiva house to shiva house. They realized what a great need there was for help; how affected and how shattered these families are.”
Once the victims of the Sbarro bombing had been helped, the Belzbergs might have moved on. “But two weeks after that first project, another bus was blown up,” Marc Belzberg said, on the phone from Jerusalem. “We looked at each other, and we said, ‘We took care of these guys two weeks ago, and it’s not fair that it should just be a bat mitzvah project.
“‘We should be taking care of it for everyone. It should be an ongoing family project.’
“That’s what happened — and it took over our lives.”
OneFamily’s mandate is to care for all the victims and the families of victims of terrorist attacks, beginning with attacks from the beginning of the second intifada.
“Now, 14 years later, we have 2,800 families we take care of,” Ms. Breau said. When families no longer need OneFamily’s services directly, they still stay connected to it, and they give support and hope to newer clients. It is an unfortunately ever-expanding mesh of connections.
“Families don’t really graduate,” Ms. Breau said. “The main goal is to help them rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. Once they do, they feel really indebted, and they feel so connected to the families that they come back, and they give back. A lot of the children who were given services have grown up and become big brothers or sisters, and then become counselors in camp — for free.”
OneFamily does not discriminate against any Israelis, Ms. Breau said. There is no litmus test. It cares for Jews across the spectrum, and for Israeli Druse and Arab victims of terror as well. Grief and pain overwhelm those distinctions. “They are all suffering, and everything else becomes irrelevant — politics, nationality, everything,” she said. “They do a comprehensive evaluation of the family. They send a coordinator and a social worker — both are full-time OneFamily employees — who go to the family’s house and analyze the family unit — financially, emotionally, what the dynamics and the risk are — and they make an evaluation.” By now, it is based not only on training and instinct but also on 14 years of experience, she added.
“The first thing they do is evaluate finances,” Ms. Breau said. “Often people need help right away. And then they start a comprehensive plan for the family. Often when families lose a child, the biggest risk is that the parents will get divorced, so we come up with a plan specifically for the bereaved couple — a retreat, weekly marriage counseling, introducing them to other parents in similar situations.
“Then we analyze each child in the family. Children suffer very much when they lose parents. If they have lost a brother in the IDF, we send them a big brother or big sister, a mentor, who will take them out, help them with homework. We set them up with proper therapy — art therapy, traditional therapy, support groups, swimming therapy, dolphin therapy.” (Dolphin therapy is a real thing; it’s based on the idea that dolphins are so charismatic, so extraordinary, so magical, that being close to them in the water can break through even a toughened child’s exterior and give comfort and even the possibility of change.)
“Every few months they do fun camps before the holidays — the holidays are a very painful time. We have four or five camps” that offer weeklong sessions.
“We take bereaved mothers — all of them who want to come, and who are ready to do it — on a trip to Europe. We go to Jewish communities, and the communities embrace them. The mothers get to talk about their kids, and they can see that they’re not alone.”
Some of the mothers recently compiled a cookbook. “It was about 80 mothers who lost sons who were soldiers,” Ms. Breau said. “They all had a block, where they could not go back into the kitchen.” They associated the kitchen, that center of nourishing and nurturing, of smell and taste and memory, with their dead children. “So a bereavement therapist thought about putting together a cookbook.” It was launched at the home of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. “There was a big ceremony, and the mothers spoke about their sons’ favorite recipes,” Ms. Breau said. The cookbook is in Hebrew, but OneFamily hopes to translate it into English.
That’s the help that goes to families of victims. Then there are the people who have survived attacks.
OneFamily gives them individualized physical therapy, based on their specific needs. It also offers financial aid. “Often a parent has to stop working to take care of the victim, so we supplement their income. The victims need treatment — we supplement government subsidies and usually end up paying about half,” Ms. Breau said.
“We basically offer every kind of therapy to every person in the family. The most helpful thing is when they have each other. They often can’t relate to society any more, so it is very powerful to hear people who have been through what they are going through, and that now they are doing better.”
Although OneFamily is an undertaking that consumes all the Belzbergs, Chantal is particularly involved. “She does it full time as a volunteer, day and night,” her husband said. “She knows every person we help.
“We just got back from vacation, and now she is taking a group of 30 bereaved mothers to Europe. She took another group of mothers a few months ago. Then she will land at Lod and then she will leave again with a group of 70 orphans. She is taking them I think to Romania — somewhere not expensive, with staff, where they can get away. She will be gone for two weeks on that trip.”
OneFamily puts together groups of people who have suffered similar losses and therefore have similar vocabulary, nightmares, and worldviews. Each group has its own dedicated staff member — the bigger ones have two. “They get together all the time; the group is like one big family,” Mr. Belzberg said.
The group to which the Belzbergs devote the most attention is the orphans. “We took it upon ourselves to know them very well,” Mr. Belzberg said. “We take them on a Shabbat retreat twice a year.”
There were 15 families who suffered the violent deaths of both parents, he said. “The children today range in age from 5 to 28; they were all under 18 when it happened. They are all strong, and they have become one big family.”
The camp programs also help children, he continued. Each bunk has just eight campers, and that gives the counselors a chance to come to know each charge very well.
“If you look at our biggest impact, it’s not in the financial grants, although we give away a lot of money,” Mr. Belzberg said. “The main contribution the organization has made — well, it’s ironic.
“We made up our name, OneFamily, meaning that the Jews around the world are part of the same family as the Jews who were hurt. World Jewry is their family.
“As it turns out, though, in addition to that, the groups have become a family to each other.”
It’s particularly true because “when someone in your family is wounded, everything you knew is gone. Your old friends are gone. Either they tell you to get over it, or they wonder why you are laughing. So their new support group becomes your new family.
“OneFamily means creating a new family, so people can meet each other — and heal each other. Doing it as a group is much more effective than sitting down alone on a psychiatrist’s couch for three years.”
Mr. Belzberg knows so many stories; their undercurrents of pain and loss tug at the listener even as they highlight resiliency and hope.
He talks about the Schijveschuurder family, who were at Sbarro’s when it was attacked. The family had made aliyah from Holland; both parents and three of the eight children were killed. As is not uncommon when both parents are dead, the court had to decide who would take custody of the children. The three oldest, all boys, were able to decide for themselves, and they chose to stay in Israel. The two daughters, too young to have much say, were sent to an aunt and uncle in Switzerland.
The aunt and uncle — who were much stricter than the parents and were charedi, although the birth parents were not — said that their nephews would not be allowed to visit their sisters. It would be too disruptive, they said. “I flew to Switzerland and met with their psychiatrists, and both of them said to me ‘Get them out of there,’” Mr. Belzberg said. The new placement was not working. The girls were miserable.
“We went home and waited, until they brought the girls to Israel for a bat mitzvah. The parents wouldn’t let the girls see their brothers until the last hour before they were to go to back to Switzerland.
“And then the boys basically kidnapped the girls.
“We got Yaakov Neeman, then the minister of justice, to step in,” Mr. Belzberg continued. The two knew each other. “We got him to take the girls to court, and the judge ruled that they had to go back to Switzerland for two months, so their adoptive parents could save face, not be embarrassed, and then they could come back.”
They did come back, he added. “They were saved from a place where they were very unhappy. Now they are great. One of them is married. They’re both doing well.
“That’s what happens when you are involved in a difficult situation. We can get things done that are hard to do otherwise.”
Mr. Belzberg has other stories of young people whose lives were devastated, who needed help, strength, and understanding. Many of them have recovered. There was the young man who sought escape in drugs. (His mother needed to know that he could be bailed out if he were caught at the airport. He could be.) There was the young man whose mother was blown up on a bus; a beloved only child from a poor family, he started wearing his dead mother’s clothes and jewelry. (“He started coming to our programs, first to camp, then to the division for young adults. He’s married now, he has kids, he’s happy. He’s said, ‘I owe you guys my life.’”)
He also talks about the ones who haven’t recovered. “Another boy gets drunk at a nightclub, beats up three Arabs badly, ends up in jail. I went down to the courtroom, he was behind the glass, and I told the judge what happened. I told him, ‘He’s not normal anymore. I’ll take care of him.’” He did, but the young man is “not 100 percent, and he never will be,” Mr. Belzberg said. “There are cases like that.”
Ms. Breau now works for OneFamily as a consultant because she felt the tug of the work it does so keenly. Last summer, during the Gaza war, she went on a mission to Israel led by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who leads Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood. Her story is not dissimilar to OneFamily’s founding narrative.
“We went to a lot of funerals and shiva houses,” she said. “I spoke to some of the mothers, and got their emails and phone numbers. The mothers said that the worst thing is that in three or four or five months, or maybe in a year, their sons would be forgotten. I said that I would do my best not to forget, to be in touch with them.
“So every Friday, just before Shabbat, I would email, or sometimes talk to maybe two or three of them, and I became close to a few of the families.
“It was through the sons of one of those families, who always answered the phone, that I heard about OneFamily. It literally was a lifesaver, he said, so I looked them up.
“I got involved, I called the founder,” Marc Belzberg, “and that was it,” she said. “I’ve been to Israel three times since, I have spent time with victims, and I have seen the retreats, and the daily activities.”
She told the story of Eyal Neufeld, a 19-year-old off-duty soldier who was on a bus near Tzfat when a terrorist chose to blow it up. “He was one of the few survivors,” Ms. Breau said. He woke up in intensive care. “He was blind and deaf, and he had such severe injuries in his arms that they wanted to amputate them.
“He was in a medically induced coma for three months, because every time he would come out of it he would have severe panic attacks. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. He had flashbacks, believing that he was still in the bus. His heart rate would go up dangerously.
“After three months his mother somehow was able to connect with him, through touch and smell, and he woke up and he got used to it. He wasn’t afraid anymore.
“In the first week they told his parents that he wasn’t going to make it, but then they moved him from the most critical to a less critical to an even less critical unit. He had many, many operations. They communicated through touch, and they told him that he would never walk again.
“He started from scratch. They kept telling him that he couldn’t walk but he kept insisting that he could. He had no sense of balance.
“OneFamily paid for a cutting-edge procedure to put cochlear implants in his ear — but it was much more complicated. It worked. Then he was able to hear. And then he got physical therapy — and he was able to walk.
“Now he was so inspired. He decided that now he can hear, and he can talk, he would do whatever he could to regain his eyesight, but he could not.
“But then he started to go to school. OneFamily has held his hand throughout the whole thing, supported him in every way. He decided he wanted to buy an apartment, so he told OneFamily that he wanted a down payment, and they gave him one. Then he needed help moving from his mother’s house — he needed someone to take care of him — so OneFamily hired a caretaker.
“He ended up marrying her, and they just had a baby, and he is finishing up his degree at school.
“When he speaks, the whole room cries.”
OneFamily offers Americans many ways to help. “We do a program called Adopt-a-Family, where we match up an American family with a wounded IDF soldier who wants an education but can’t afford it,” Ms. Breau said. “The soldier writes about his experiences and what he wants and why he needs financial help. They stay in touch, and eventually they meet in Israel.
“It’s just $6,000,” she added.
Another program pairs bar or bat mitzvah children in Israel and North America. The American child raises $1,800 for the Israeli child’s bar or bat mitzvah. “A lot of time they want a small party, or a dress or a suit. And then they meet.
“OneFamily is an exceptional organization,” Rabbi Goldin said. “The Jewish community is extremely good at acute care, but when it comes to chronic care we have our challenges.
“That’s understandable. We are there in the moment, and then things fade. What is exceptional is that OneFamily works hard not to allow those needs to fade from our consciousness. They find ways to provide support on a continual basis.”
Rabbi Goldin has known the Belzbergs since he and Marc were at college together, although they never were close friends. “The family is very comfortable and philanthropic,” he said. “They don’t have to do this, but this is something they have dedicated their lives to.
“It’s become natural to them. Somehow they maintain the energy, and the excitement, and the enthusiasm. You don’t ever get any sense of any flagging.
“These are exceptional people, who are blessed with good fortune and feel that they want to give.”
As Ms. Breau says, “OneFamily does small miracles every day. Every day.”
To learn more about OneFamily, go to www.onefamilytogether.org.