What an inspiring week it was!
The Ahavath Torah community in Englewood hosted 15 members of the IDF Givati Brigade, and all of us, veterans and host families alike, were profoundly moved by the experience. In fact, we feel we got back much more than we gave.
As one of the hosts shared in the farewell circle on the final morning, “15 strangers arrived last Sunday, and yet we welcomed them into our homes as family because they are acheinu, kol beit Yisrael.” The house of Israel are all our brothers and sisters.
That is exactly how we all felt; as it is written in the scriptures, so it was in reality.
Eight Ahavath Torah families hosted the IDF veterans, while many more congregants were involved in the countless tasks (carpooling, organizing sports activities, donating meals, and on and on) needed to make this week a huge success. We raised $53,000 to cover the all-expense-paid program, which is funded solely by the host community.
The Givati unit had fought in the second Lebanon war and later in Gaza. These 15 veterans now were in the United States as participants in Peace of Mind, a nine-month program developed by Metiv, the Israel Psychotrauma Center at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, that helps veterans process and heal from the invisible effects of service-related trauma. A central component of the Peace of Mind program is a week of therapy in a diaspora community abroad; the distance from Israel, from family, and from job obligations is deemed critical to the therapeutic process.
Traveling together with their two therapists, the group landed early Sunday morning and were welcomed into the warm embrace of our modern Orthodox community. The veterans’ days were comprised of eight hours of group and individual therapy sessions. In the evening, there were trips to the mall and New York City, with carpools shuttling the group back and forth. There were BBQs and pool parties. Local kosher restaurants generously donated all the veterans’ lunches.
The IDF veterans were astonished to learn how much our diaspora community was willing to do for them, and how eager everyone was to be part of this initiative. Throughout the week, we tried to convey how much the IDF and the state of Israel mean to us. We explained that by protecting Israel they are in fact protecting us and our freedom to be practicing Jews, both here and across the globe.
While the veterans repeatedly thanked us for inviting them so warmly into our homes, we told them that it is us who should be thanking them. We told them how much we appreciate their sacrifice, dedicating three years of their lives to serving in harm’s way, and then continuing to do a month of reserve duty each year until they turn 40. So the least we can do is to offer them one week of our time, we told them, to help them gain some peace of mind, and a healthier emotional life going forward.
It became apparent that the vast majority of Israelis know very little about the Jewish community in the diaspora. Our guests seemed oblivious to the vital role that Israel plays in the lives of our families and in our children’s education. I wondered how is it that most Israelis are so unaware of the centrality of Israel to our lives. And what can be done about that? We implored our guests to become ambassadors for us and to let their friends and families know that Israel is so near and dear to our hearts.
As one of the hosts so poignantly said, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to give back to you, and in this small way to slightly assuage our own guilt that you, in the IDF, are carrying the entire burden of protecting our homeland.”
So not only did they gain peace of mind, we too gained a small measure of inner peace.
On the following Sunday, as the bus pulled out of the Ahavath Torah parking lot, taking the group back to the airport, we were like a group of parents waving wildly to our children as they departed for camp. The IDF veterans waved back at us, their hands flailing out of the open windows, as they tried to catch a last glimpse of their host families of the past week. Those host families now felt truly like extended family. They are after all, acheinu kol beit Yisrael, and these are relationships that will continue way past the Peace of Mind program in Englewood.
While we in the Ahavath Torah community touched 17 lives, the Peace of Mind veterans, in the course of one week, touched our entire community.
We look forward to the privilege of hosting yet another unit of released IDF combat soldiers from the Peace of Mind program next year, and the year after that, and the year after that… If you’d like to get involved, please reach out to me at Drfoger@gmail.com
Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC of Englewood is a psychologist and educational consultant and the founder of “Let’s-Talk” Workshops, guidance workshops for all ages at all stages.