When strangers became family

When strangers became family

It’s the same scenario, but with 20 new participants each time. A group of recently released IDF veterans arrives in America to be welcomed into the homes of a diaspora Jewish community, and inevitably the magic begins.

I’ve seen the magic happen five times already; twice at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, twice at East Hill Synagogue in Englewood, and now most recently at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The IDF veterans are here to participate in the Peace of Mind program. It’s a groundbreaking nine-month program developed by Dr. Danny Bram, a trauma therapist at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, to help veterans process and heal from the invisible effects of service-related trauma.

The essential component of the program is an intensive week of therapy that takes place while the veterans live in a Jewish community abroad. The distance from home, work, and family is key to creating a safe space for the veterans to fully immerse themselves in the difficult work of reflecting on their combat experiences. The magical outcome is always the same — the diaspora Jewish community falls in love with the IDF team, bonding and supporting them through this process.  In tandem, the community and the IDF team experience a profoundly transformational week.

This June, 20 veterans from the elite Maglan Special Forces boarded a plane to the United States, nine years after they fought together in the Gaza War. They arrived at Lincoln Square Synagogue, accompanied by two very gifted Israeli therapists, to begin this important journey.

Astonishingly, for this team, just as with each of the four IDF teams that came to Englewood before them, this was the first time the veterans had ever discussed their shared military experiences, even though they were in combat together for three years under extraordinarily difficult conditions, and have continued to serve together yearly in their mandatory reserve duty.

Before they arrived, there had been several months of intense preparations; enlisting host families, fundraising to cover the high cost of the program, soliciting meal donations from local kosher restaurants, and recruiting congregants to help in various volunteer capacities. That all fades from our minds as we welcome 20 Israeli brethren. As strong Zionists and lovers of Israel, we feel indebted to them and are delighted to host them for a week. They arrive as strangers and depart a week later as our adopted sons. During this intense week, we get to know them as family members, and we finally have a chance to thank them for defending Israel and us. We explain that by keeping Israel safe, they are protecting every Jew around the world.  They stare back at us in disbelief, unaware that their sacrifice benefits anyone beyond their Jewish brethren in Israel.

In addition to the 40 hours of therapy over the course of the seven-day program, conducted in the synagogue ballroom, they engage in communal meals and share many fun activities with congregants. That helps balance the intensity of the therapeutic process by allowing them to connect with our supportive and loving Israel-affiliated families on a personal level.

At Shabbat services the day before the group returned to Israel, the congregation was deeply moved as Rabbi Shaul Robinson invited all 22 of the veterans, including the two therapists, to stand on the bimah to lead the prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel. In unison, the congregation sang out “Avinu Shebashamayim …” “To our father in heaven strengthen the defenders of our Holy Land; and crown them with victory…. Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for her inhabitants. “

As the prayer ended, the entire congregation stood up and applauded the IDF heroes, who were now part of our community and will remain part of our lives. With tears in their eyes, the IDF team finally grasped our genuine appreciation.

Next, one of the Maglan veterans, Raz, addressed the congregation from the bimah to try to give us a sense of what they had gained from this week in the safe space we created for them. He gave us a beautiful metaphor, saying “every one of us is carrying a very heavy bag on his back. This week allowed us to finally open the bag and look inside.  Hopefully with time we will also be able to remove things from the bag and lighten our load.”

The impact on the veterans and on our community was transformative. Each host has already requested to host again, with one host telling me, “I’m a lifer. Sign me up for all upcoming groups!”

Close to 200 IDF teams hope to have this same transformative experience. Forty IDF teams are immediately eligible and in need of a host community for 2024. When the Peace of Mind program reaches out to your community, don’t hesitate to say yes.  You and your community will see the magic happen too.

Dr. Tani Foger is a psychologist and educator. She and her husband lived in Englewood for 30 years, and they raised their four sons there. Dr. Foger was the founding principal of Yeshivat Heatid and most recently worked as the school psychologist at the Idea School. She is mpw in private practice; reach her at DrFoger@gmail.com.

read more: