Fixing souls


Despite its floppy ears, droopy dark eyes, soft fur and long legs that can “hug” a child, Hibuki isn’t just any stuffed animal.

It’s a therapeutic doll — one that children ages 4-6 in Israel’s North have been using to help them cope with the anxiety they have been experiencing since last summer’s Lebanon war.

Typically, a psychologist or counselor will give a child a Hibuki (“huggy”), tell him or her that Hibuki is usually a very cheerful puppy, but recently has been very sad and then will ask the child why that may be so.

The children will “project” onto Hibuki their own feelings about the war and their fears, according to Aviv Abuhav, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University.

Children are then asked what they can do to take care of Hibuki and make him feel better; they’ll suggest, for example, making him a party or taking him to bed with them.

The exercise is a form of self-therapy. It enables children to realize that they are no longer “the weakest link in the chain,” but rather feel empowered by being responsibile for another being, explains psychologist Shai Hen-Gal.

The “huggy puppy” project, which has served 9,000 children so far (including some 2,000 in the Sderot region) and helps therapists determine if further intervention is needed, was developed by Abuhav for Ashalim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s children’s division in Israel. It is one of many projects that have been funded through the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign, and is being introduced in the Sderot region as well.

IEC has raised $360 million — including $14.2 million in pledges through the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — to aid Israelis affected by last summer’s Lebanon war. In November, residents of the nation’s embattled Sderot region also began receiving IEC emergency funding. The Hibuki project has been extended to that region as well.

UJC has been working in partnership with the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel to help create new programs and expand existing ones to help Israelis traumatized by fighting. They have benefitted from new air conditioners and improved toilet facilities for shelters, as well as respite programs that remove both children and entire families from the line of fire.

Since September, an IEC work group, consisting primarily of federation representatives, has been deciding how to allocate funds for post-trauma intervention and education, as well as for loans, grants and consulting programs aimed at expanding business opportunities and for community capacity-building programs that officials says are aimed at strengthening resilience and services to different segments of the population.

While most physical signs of last summer’s war are no longer visible, psychological wounds still are, according to psychologists, teachers and others who met with a UJC media delegation earlier this month.

“You see that most of the houses are fixed and you think that most of the souls are fixed,” said Mooli Lahad, a psychologist and vice president of the Israel Trauma Center, a recipient of IEC funding. But, while houses can be repaired in a few days or months, he added, healing souls takes much longer.

Psychologist Rami Benbenishty, a professor at Hebrew University, is completing a study on the after-effects of war on children in the North. The study, conducted by Hebrew University’s School of Social Work and the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma and completed in July, found that in Nahariya, one of the areas hit hardest by Katyusha rockets last summer, 19 percent of elementary school students still have high or very high anxiety levels; 14 percent of junior high school students report depression at high or very high levels; and almost all children need some kind type of psychological assistance.

In all, about two-thirds of elementary school students and about one-half of the junior high students, according to the study, say they are having trouble with their studies, are fighting with friends or family, or are otherwise finding it difficult to function normally.

Benbenishty hopes to determine how the data can best be used to help those suffering from post-war fallout. He reports that 25 percent of primary school age children are saying they need professional counseling; older students, he said, are more likely to turn to peers.

Hila Laufer-Shemo tells visitors that her 9-year-old son, Aviv, had difficulty sleeping for several months. It is only in the past month and half that he is willing to be home alone, although he’s not really alone anymore. The family, she says, recently got a big dog.

Twenty percent of children ages 2 to 4 are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Benbenishty, who noted, however, that children that young usually have PTSD only if their parents do also.

Parents who see the world as a dangerous place — and there are plenty of them in the Middle East — will teach children to see danger, he explained. For that reason, he said, he is concerned for the future of Israel and the region as a whole.

Lahad, too, has those concerns. The public perception in Israel that the army could quickly repel enemy attacks was eroded by last summer’s war, he said.

“There is a strong connection between symptoms and how much [people] trust government,” Benbenishty added.

Psychologist Mahmud Dawud, meanwhile, pointed out that stress levels are even higher among Israeli Arabs, many of whom feel that they were “attacked by their own people, by relatives, by Arabs, not by an enemy,” Dawud said. This “was very taxing on them.”

Plus, therapeutic counseling is more widely stigmatized in the Arab community than in the Jewish community. “The priority is to go to a religious or spiritual leader,” he said. In addition, that community is underserved by counselors, whether the providers are themselves Israeli Arabs or Jewish practitoners trained to be culturally sensitive.

All told, last summer’s war seems to have hit the populace harder than previous battles, and as a result, “we have to build islands of resiliency,” Lahad said.

Toward that end, IEC has been funding educational programs that help children forget about last summer’s war by keeping them busy, and assist those who have had trouble focusing in school.

Just three weeks away from entering the Israel Defense Forces, Shahaf Moreno, 18, was being tutored at one such program, the Third-Half summer semester, offered by JAFI.

Here, students whose grades have suffered are able to prepare for matriculation exams; final grades have an impact not only on future studies, but on job prospects. With the extra help, Moreno says that she is confident that she will get a good grade on her exam.

Another “island of resiliency” is an afterschool enrichment program, the Academy for Youngsters in Kiryat Yam for first-sixth graders. Participating students study veterinary medicine, law, robotics, engineering, journalism and other subjects. The project’s aim is to help build self-esteem, say school officials, who noted that the level of violence among students, which rose dramatically after the war, has dropped in schools that have implemented this program.

Chen Shalev, 10, tells visitors that the program helped her by providing a secure place for her to study and learn new things.

And, she said, it helped her forget about last summer’s war.

Direct economic aid is another component of IEC efforts, and more than $36 million has been allocated primarily in the North for loans, grants and business mentoring programs to help small and medium-sized businesses owners not just get back on their feet, but learn to weather potential economic losses in the future.

Shiri Havkin is one recipient. She owns Drora’s Herb Farm — selling herbs, soaps, vitamins, lotions and cosmetics — in Rosh Pina, and says that 80 percent of her summer business comes from tourism.

When business dried up last summer, she was almost forced to close. She credits an IEC loan, along with business mentoring, with keeping her going.

Another war, she said, could force her to close the shop.

Despite these individual success stories, has the money been well-spent overall? Clearly, the recipients are grateful, but Israel’s prime minister questions the effectiveness of these efforts. Ehud Olmert told the media delegation that reports of widespread trauma are exaggerated and, without specifying, that money may have been better spent elsewhere.

Mitch Pilcer, a reserve captain in Israel Defense Forces, owns Country Cottages guest houses on a moshav in Israel’s North.

“I would take with a grain of salt what people say about trauma. … I think what we saw last year was great resilience,” he said. “Israelis came through this crisis with flying colors.”

In a follow-up e-mail, he said that while he believes that contributions can be well spent on replanting forests and renovating shelters, “Israeli citizens who live in the north generally enjoy a high standard of living that is drawing more and more people from the center of the country to settle in villages and towns throughout the Galilee. It would be a shame if American Jews in being over eager to help out would attach the stigma of being victims to people who enjoy the security and tranquility that usually describes life in the Upper Galilee.”

At the same time, he wrote, “The assistance that Israel receives from world Jewry is a two-way street that allows Jews living abroad a connection and involvement in life here in Israel, and allows local residents to understand that the they are not alone in facing the common enemy of Islamic fascism.”

Not a single Katyusha had hit his moshav.

Debra Rubin visited Israel on a United Jewish Communities-sponsored media tour. 

Posted: 8/24/2007 10:22:07 AM