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North Still Battling War Trauma

North Still Battling War Trauma

Upper Galilee, Israel — With just weeks to go before she begins her military service, Shahaf Moreno is under pressure.
Moreno, 18, who lives in Acco, didn’t do as well as expected on the civil studies portion of her matriculation exams last year, and so she’s sacrificed some summer fun for classes in the Third Half, a summer school program designed to prepare kids for a retest this week.
Because of last year’s Lebanon war, the Third Half program was canceled for the summer of 2006, and Moreno and thousands of other kids here couldn’t take the retest last fall.
Now, Monday’s retest was a last chance to improve her score, which will be used to determine not only her eventual university admissions but what type of duty she’ll be assigned to in the army this fall.
“I didn’t return to my home until three days after the war,” said Moreno, who spent the summer traveling around Israel with her family before returning to Darsky High School in Acco for her senior year. “A rocket had landed three blocks from my house.”
With smaller class sizes and more personal attention, Moreno was confident she’d do well on Monday’s retest. “Each year I’ve taken this course my grades have improved,” she said.
Considered particularly vital in economically depressed towns like Acco, the Third Half program, run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, existed before last summer’s war. But through funding from the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign, formed to address the needs of northern Israel during and after last summer’s rocket bombardment, it was expanded to 18 centers in the north and 21 in Sderot, where citizens face near-daily rocket bombardment from Gaza, adding another 1,500 high school students to the roster for a total of 8,500, and enabling them to work in smaller groups. The funding also allowed students who passed the matriculation exam, but want to improve their scores, to participate. The fee for participation was also drastically reduced.
It’s one of numerous programs still dealing with aftermath of the six-week war, which killed nearly 162 soldiers and civilians, injured hundreds more and left a wake of trauma felt most keenly by children and teenagers.
In all, the Israel Emergency Campaign has provided $232 million to programs aiding the needs of children, Ethiopian-Israelis and other immigrants, Israeli Arabs and rescue workers who were traumatized by their experiences.
But the work continues.
With the school year beginning in just weeks, authorities are working to assess the lingering needs in the north and in Sderot, where daily missile attacks still occur, and to determine what additional resources are needed and how much money is available.
“We are struggling,” Israel’s minister of education, Yuli Tamir, told a group of reporters from American Jewish newspapers on Tuesday. “We got the money for psychological support last year and we are trying to get additional [funds]. Because of what we feel and what the results of the research shows, we still need extra resources for this. We are struggling to get the money. I’m not sure we will get the resources we want for this, but we will certainly give them more support than in other parts of the country.”
Tamir said she would approach UJC for additional funds to operate more after-school programs.
Michael Fisher, the Israel Emergency Campaign field coordinator, said Tuesday that most of the programs running this year will be funded at near-equal levels in the coming school year, minus startup costs and some efficiency savings. He said the committee was looking for an “exit strategy” to allow the programs to be more self-sufficient and not rely on emergency grants.
But the need for services here shows no sign of slowing. A recent public opinion poll of 500 northern residents found that over 40 percent of adults and 60 percent of children live in fear of another war, and separate research now being analyzed by the Israel Trauma Coalition from information provided by schools suggests that 28 percent of students show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Further, 25 percent of elementary school and 20 percent of high school students said their studies were impaired and they are fighting more with their friends since the war. Thirty-nine percent of students said they felt bad things may happen again. Two-thirds of elementary school students and half of high school students in the north reported functional problems as a result of the war.
“It’s not normal,” said Hebrew University School of Social Work psychologist and professor Rami Benbenishty, who is analyzing the data for the Israel Trauma Coalition, which has been heavily funded UJA-Federation from its inception. “Many of them relive the war every day. It’s important to look at who is getting worse and who is recuperating.”
In a meeting with Jewish reporters on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said reports of trauma in the north were exaggerated and artificial, and questioned the credibility of those who suggest otherwise. Rather than trauma, Olmert said he felt people were disappointed that there was not a more decisive victory for Israel in the conflict. He said he had vacationed in the north during Passover and felt it had fully recovered. He added, however, that he was grateful for the funds from Emergency Committee.
Officials of the UJC who arranged the meeting later noted that the trauma research had not yet been made public.
Responding to Olmert, Nachman Shai, senior vice president and director general of UJC Israel, said, “UJC is extremely proud of the work we have done with our partners and the government of Israel both during and after the war. The IEC projects under way meet the needs of the people in the north and south in full coordination with the government of Israel. In fact, a forthcoming independent evaluation of IEC programs finds that the vast, vast majority should be funded for another year.”
UJA-Federation’s support of the Israel Trauma Coalition also included providing funding for more clinicians and treatment centers, and allowed the coalition to leverage more funds from the government.
Benbenishty noted that within one year of 9/11, the number of New York students showing signs of stress dropped from a high of 40 percent to just 3 percent.
Mahmud Dawud, a psychologist from Acco who treats Israeli Arabs who were affected by the war — 40 percent of those killed were Arabs — said the trauma among them was compounded by the realization that they were attacked “by their own people, not an enemy.” But he said few were likely to seek treatment because of the stigma attached to therapy, and that there are not even enough trained Arab therapists to treat those who do.
While trauma is not new to a country that in recent years has seen not only the outbreak of war but suicide bomb campaigns, intifadas and a previous missile attack in 1991, anxiety over this attack may be worse because of the perception that Israel’s leaders fell down on the job.
“We need to change the minds of people,” said Mooli Lahad, another psychologist with the Trauma Coalition, who said that some positive effects of the war — such as positioning of foreign troops in Lebanon to keep Hezbollah at bay — have been obscured from the public. “There is a lack of confidence in the leadership.”
The war-response programs already have a successful track record among kids. In Kiryat Yam, a Haifa suburb of about 50,000 residents, a program offers children advanced university-type courses adapted for grade-schoolers in journalism, medicine, communications and physics to help kids regain their scholastic confidence. The Academy of Young People, started last March, involves 350 1st through 6th grade kids who have grade averages lower than 85.
“When kids have anxieties, the safest place for them is in these programs,” says Kinneret Zevi, the regional coordinator for the Jewish Agency, which oversees the project. “It’s part of building self-esteem and rebuilding their belief in the system.”
Following last summer’s rocket attacks, Aviv Shemo, now 11, who regularly heard the boom of rocket impacts, had trouble sleeping because he was afraid of missing a warning siren during the night. This summer, he’s been taking courses in veterinary medicine, and the family has adopted a dog.
“Within a month and a half, he was able to stay in the house alone, for the first time,” said his mother, Chen. “It’s directly related to his work at the Academy. Instead of staying home watching TV, he’s doing something positive.”

Adam Dickter is participating in a UJC-sponsored media mission.

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