The embrace of Jewish communities aids Peace of Mind program

A former Israeli special operations team tgathers as a group for a private moment along Israel's Mediterranean coastline during their participation in the Peace of Mind program which treats full special operations units for post-combat trauma.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2017

WASHINGTON — A distinct component of the Peace of Mind program is the involvement of host communities — something that would be difficult for any other country in the world to replicate.

Israeli special operations teams travel to London or New York or Toronto and land in the embrace of Jewish communities that welcome them like long-lost family. The bond is instant because these communities are dedicated to Israel’s existence and see the soldiers as fighting for them.

“The community feels incredibly indebted to these people so it goes both ways,” said Barbara Messer, who has organized five programs to be hosted at her summer beach community on Fire Island on Long Island, N.Y. “They are absolute strangers, and in about 10 minutes, everybody is talking to each other and it feels like they are family.”

The Peace of Mind program, part of the Metiv: Herzog Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, was created for former Israel Defense Forces special operations teams to receive treatment as a unit after traumatic experiences. In a core part of the nine-month program, the teams travel abroad for a weeklong stay at a host community.

They sleep at private homes and spend their days in intense group treatment. While their hosts don’t witness what happens behind closed doors, they share an intense period in their healing. For many, it’s a bonding experience. Messer, for example, later traveled to Israel to attend a participant’s wedding.

“Strong bonds are formed, and it’s after a week of knowing them,” said psychologist Alon Weltman, the program’s director. “It’s very intense, very emotional.”

To many soldiers who go through the program, the gratitude of the host community is more than simply feeling appreciated. Israel has been at war with its surrounding Arab neighbors since its creation in 1948. The small country and its armed forces have been denounced as occupiers of the Palestinians in much of the world. Its soldiers are often treated with disdain.

“The first thing we say to them in our welcome speech is, ‘We are just here to say thank you. We know Israel is safe because of you,’ ” Messer said. “And that’s a game-changer for them. Too often, Israeli soldiers are vilified. For them to come to America and get such a warm hug, it’s helpful.”

Sometimes, details from the program seep into the community, said Tehilla Harris, a member of Messer’s Fire Island community. One group had taken part in raiding the Turkish humanitarian flotilla that tried to breach an Israeli blockade off Gaza in 2010. Israeli commandos who boarded the ships killed nine Turkish activists after the soldiers came under attack. Images of the commando raid were seen around the world. Harris said several of the commandos were deeply scarred — some physically hurt when activists attacked them with pipes, others emotionally.

“That was something we’d all watched unfold on TV,” Harris said. “That unit was a really tight unit.”

In the end, Messer believes that what drives the success of these weeklong community-hosted programs are the relationships at every level — deepening those among the men and building new ones with their hosts.

“They had misunderstandings, misperceptions being in combat together,” she said. “They had a chance to iron that out. They became close, and then the community helps them. So relationships on every level are healing.”

Twitter: @DiannaCahn