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What Works: Helping Israeli Soldiers Heal

"This has been a life altering experience," the handsome young Israeli man remarked to Elissa Rozov just before he boarded an El Al flight home. "We came to you as 16 people in one state of mind; now we are leaving as 16 different people."

Two years ago, Rozov, a clinical psychologist and member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick, New Jersey, learned about "Peace of Mind," the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma(ICTP) program that helps members of the Israel Defense Forces who have experienced particularly stressful combat situations transition back to civilian life. Many of these men and women are ready to move on-to work, enroll in school, and start families—but the stresses of war nonetheless endure, draining their vitality and spirit.

To help each soldier regain his or her sense of well being, both individually and together as a group, Peace of Mind reconstitutes their original unit (15-17 people) in therapist-facilitated workshops, and then brings the soldiers to Jewish communities overseas (including the U.S., Canada, England, France, and Italy) for a week of working through their traumatic experiences as a group.

"It may seem odd to take the soldiers out of Israel, but Israeli culture does not support the kind of openness and vulnerability they need in order to share their difficult memories together," Rozov says.

Anshe Emeth spent 18 months planning logistics and raising the necessary $55,000 to cover expenses (airfare, ground transportation, professional facilitation, etc.). Then, in November 2012, the congregation became the second Reform synagogue in the world (after Kehilat Gesher - The French American Congregation in Paris) and the first in the U.S. to host a Peace of Mind group. Sixteen soldiers and their two therapists were treated to home hospitality (in many different members' houses), catered kosher meals, and entertainment (including theater tickets and a trip to the top of New York's Empire State Building). Between the activities and the planning, congregants from a wide range of backgrounds and Jewish involvements formed new relationships with each other and with their synagogue. In addition, Anshe Emeth forged relationships with members of a local Orthodox community when homes were needed to host some Orthodox soldiers.

Most important was the soldiers' take-away from the experience. At a follow-up workshop six weeks after they returned home, the soldiers reported being able to support one another as a group as well as opening up to their families about their combat experiences for the first time. "Also, when we showed them our love and deep appreciation for the sacrifice they make by defending Israel," Rozov says, "they were so surprised. They had no idea how much support they had outside of Israel!"

ICTP Director Danny Brom likens Peace of Mind to a "reverse Birthright program; if Jewish young people worldwide travel to Israel in order to build their relationship with the Jewish state, shouldn't Israelis who have given three years of their lives to defend the Jewish state understand the importance of what they have done for the Jewish people?"

"Personally," Rozov says, "as a Jew who lives in the Diaspora, I regularly become frustrated with Israeli politics, which divides a country to which I feel deeply connected but also powerless to affect. To know that our synagogue has helped Israeli combat soldiers heal from the emotional wounds of war is one way Diaspora Jews like me can make a personal contribution to Israel's future. We would like to host another Peace of Mind group in the future, and I hope that other Reform congregations will embrace this very personal way of giving back to Israel. Right now, 12 IDF groups are ready to go, but need communities to host them."

To learn more about hosting a Peace of Mind group: Alon Weitman, The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psycho­trauma, alonweltman@gmail.com, 212.444.1669. For advice on congregational logistics: Elissa Rozov, 732.545.6538, erozov@verizon.net.