KIRYAT SHEMONA, ISRAEL — “Mira,” a woman in her late 50s, hasn’t been able to stay home alone since the start of Hezbollah’s summertime war with Israel, when more than 1,000 rockets struck this hilly northern town on the Lebanese border.
“I don’t leave the house alone, either,” Mira, who asked that her name not be published, says sheepishly while waiting to see a therapist at the Community Stress Prevention Center, a walk-in clinic. “A Katyusha landed on the building next to ours, and since then I’ve been a wreck. I’m afraid that another war could begin at any time without warning, just like the last one.”
An attractive woman with dark circles under her eyes, she says she can’t sleep at night “without pills,” and as she talks, the words flow more easily, her hands clenched in her lap. “I don’t want to be alone, ever. When my husband leaves the house I invite a friend over. My daughter and I began to argue so much, she moved out. I became obsessive about the house being clean and drove her crazy. I clean the windows all day long.
“My marriage has suffered,” she admits, her eyes downcast. “Finally, I’m getting some help.”
Mira is one of the hundreds of local residents being treated for war-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the Stress Prevention Center, one of the facilities benefiting from a special $9.28 million grant from UJA-Federation of New York.
The grant, which was funded by emergency donations made during the war, is assisting thousands of northerners through a variety of projects based in Kiryat Shemona, a town whose preexisting social and economic woes were greatly exacerbated by the month of constant bombardment last summer.
In addition to the Stress Prevention Center, which provides up to 12 free sessions to adults and children as young as a year old, the grant is financing school-based programs aimed at identifying PTSD and lesser forms of post-war stress. Roughly five percent of all citizens of the north suffer from some form of PTSD, and of these, two percent have full-blown symptoms, according to Nira Kaplansky, a social worker at the stress center.
Other grant recipients include programs that help learning-disabled kids and those considered to be at high-risk for dropping out of school to meet their full potential. Leadership-development activities are helping local youths – who feel their leaders mismanaged the civilian side of the war and that their town has little to offer them after high-school – to initiate change from within.
A portion of the emergency funding is helping to transform Kiryat Shemona’s library into a community center and, with the help of local and overseas volunteers from Livnot U’Lehibanot, making once uninhabitable bomb shelters not only livable but a hub for community activity.
John Ruskay, vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation, says his organization’s grant is the logical next step in the north’s slow road to recovery. “During the war the monies were used for urgent needs,” he noted. “They helped move 45,000 people to safer places, to care for those who couldn’t leave, enabled the Israel Trauma Center to lend help.
“Now, after the war, senior leaders of UJC, JAFI, JDC and UJA-Federation and federations around the country are determining how best to use the funds available,” he says, referring to the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee and the federation system.
“The North American Jewish community was there [for Israel] during the war,” Ruskay said, “and we will help the north get on its feet and strengthen itself.”
Professor Mooli Lahad, president of the Stress Prevention Center and a world expert in trauma, says that despite Kiryat Shemona’s surface normality, many northern residents are still suffering from war-related anxiety, much of it related to the future.
“We conducted a poll and asked residents to assess their level of anxiety, and 48 percent of the children said their No. 1 fear is being alone when the next war starts. Most [adults] expressed disappointment with the performance of the local authority and the national government, but 97 percent of respondents said they expected the very same bodies to handle day-to-day matters during the next war. People said they could rely only on themselves and their neighbors.”
That’s why, Lahad said, when UJA-Federation was seeking ways to help the north, “the decision was made to strengthen the community from within. We’re working with first responders, therapists, teachers, parents, children.”
Amir Goldstein, principal of the Danziger School here, says that every one of his school’s 1,300 seventh- through 12th-graders have been “deeply affected” by the war and the government authorities’ poor performance when it came to preparing the bomb shelters, evacuating residents and providing food, water, and medicines.
“The kids are disheartened, dillusioned. They’re scared,” says Goldstein, who grew up in Kiryat Shemona. “’We’re trying to give them the confidence, the skills to assume leadership roles in the future and to cope in the present.”
Hadar Moyel, 15, who spent the war moving from town to town “like a refugee,” says the two-day seminar she recently attended as part of the school’s leadership course “made me feel more empowered. Before the workshop I was sure I’d leave Kiryat Shemona, but now I realize that if I want to change the town, it’s up to me and my friends to do it.”
AMEN, the JDC’s youth volunteer program that has been operating in the town since January 2006, was able to expand its programming with the federation grant.
“We have programs in 30 municipalities, and now we’re able to bring teens from other locations to Kiryat Shemona for joint activities and launch several new programs,” says Shanit Vaknin, AMEN’s northern coordinator.
During the war, AMEN volunteers took beleaguered residents on outings and delivered food and medicine to shut-ins. They entertained kids in bomb shelters and generally raised morale.
The youth volunteers, many of whom joined AMEN because they were required by their schools to perform community service in the 10th grade, often continue to volunteer in the 11th and 12th grades “because I get a lot more than I give,” said 17-year-old Moran Shevach, a senior, seated in the organization’s chilly office. “I love working with children and without it I’d feel incomplete. This has become my second home.”
“Kiryat Shemona is my home now, but I have to say there isn’t a lot to do after school,” said 15-year-old Peter Nakhle, a Lebanese Christian whose family fled south Lebanon three years ago. “A Lebanese friend of mine told me about the program so I checked it out. Volunteering makes the day fly by quickly and I feel like I’m doing my part.”
The Jewish Agency initiative Ayalim, another program receiving a boost from the New York federation, recently established itself in Kiryat Shemona, where it created what amounts to an urban commune devoted to community service. The organization, which also has a program in the Negev, has set up shop in an underprivileged neighborhood where the drab apartment blocks still bear the scars of Katyusha fire.
After procuring several apartments from the public-housing authority, Ayalim’s college-aged volunteers and local residents spruced them up. Today, 30 of the program’s 70 volunteers live in the community. All of the student volunteers, who attend nearby Tel Hai College, receive either a scholarship or subsidized housing or both for their work in schools, community, youth, and absorption centers.
Recently, the group created a cheery community center out of a once-abandoned apartment that routinely attracts up to 18 local children looking for books to read, games to play or help with their homework. A Japanese-style shoe rack stands outside the door, and the children enter in socks and take a seat on bright, comfortable cushions in the library or games corners, where volunteers make them feel like part of an extended family.
“This is my second year with Ayalim,” says Kinnert Kramer, a 26-year-old social work student at Tel Hai, playing a board game with children from the neighborhood. “I like to help kids with their homework and to give them the love and attention they’re yearning for. It gives me lot of satisfaction.”
Nira Kaplansky, from the Trauma Center, stresses that most of her clinic’s patients are children. After experiencing the terror of sirens and rockets, of dark, infested, claustrophobic shelters, she says, “older children don’t want to be alone. They may be afraid to go to the bathroom by themselves or to take a shower. Younger children usually sublimate their fears. They think everyone is a burglar or a terrorist.”
The goal, Kaplansky says, “isn’t to make people happy. It’s to get them back to where they were before the war.”