The average American high school teenager who chooses to spend part of his or her summer vacation in Israel would certainly be forgiven if the threat of Kassam rockets encouraged a quick exit and return stateside.
If one thing has been proven during the course of the last three weeks, however,it is that a group of young girls from the New York area who came to do a summer internship at Reuth Medical Center, one of Israel's most established and venerable health and rehabilitation centers, are anything but average.
“Yesterday we were at the pool when the siren went off,” says Dara Shulman, 24, who came to Israel from New Jersey in order to serve as a guide and counselor for high school kids interning at Reuth. “The feeling of having so many people running with you – kids, adults, it doesn't matter – and people are not panicking. They're even joking around in the shelter, and then they go back out, and it's fine. They go swimming. It doesn't faze them. In America, I would probably be panicking and nervous about my cousins and about my friends, constantly worrying whether everyone is safe. But being here as a Jew, it's great to be part of that, because we're not going to let Hamas interrupt our daily routine.”
Rocket sirens, bomb shelters, Iron Dome explosions overhead, 24-hour-a-day news coverage of war, and all of the attendant anxiety aroused by the topsy-turvy security situation that has deteriorated significantly in the last three weeks have given these girls a summer experience like no other. Not only is the nature of their internship – one that entails being exposed to and interacting with chronically ill patients, some of whom are missing limbs or afflicted with various physical and mental disaiblities - challenging enough, but they are also learning to cope with the everyday traumas of a people under fire.
Miriam Frankel is the deputy executive director of Reuth Medical Center in south Tel Aviv. As a native of Perth, Australia who for years was active in Jewish and Zionist causes, Frankel knows the importance of having Diaspora Jews engage local Israelis to deepen bonds and strengthen connections.
Reuth, the nonprofit foundation which in addition to running one of three long-term rehabilitation centers in the country also offers housing and welfare services to elderly needy and Holocaust survivors, now offers a platform for young women from the New York metropolitan area who are not only interested in the medical field but who can also get a first-hand glimpse of the long-term therapeutic processes which patients undergo, all while at the same time doing it in Israel.
“We have an active board in America, and as an organization that's been around since 1937, we're very forward-thinking,” Frankel said. “We know we're going to be in the center of the map in another 10 years, so we have to make sure that we develop a new generation to get involved in what we are going to do.”
Frankel and her staff have been pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the young American interns to get close to patients whose medical conditions may be too gut-wrenching to observe on a daily basis.
“We were concerned whether the girls would find the hospital too difficult,” she said. “If it's too hard, we can have them volunteer with the elderly or with the survivors. Not only didn't they choose for that, but they took upon themselves things in the hospital that we didn't think they would want to do.”
“This year's girls, let me tell you, are the most amazing bunch because they have been the most challenged,” she said. “There's been nothing like it this year. I don't think anyone could have foreseen what happened this time.”
“In addition to learning how to deal with the hospital environment, they've also discovered an awful lot about their inner strengths,” she said.
Aside from the extraordinary security circumstances that have made this summer particularly anxiety-filled, the interns are gaining insights from the more personal and intimate manner in which Israeli hospitals deal with patients on a day-to-day basis.
“They like making the patients becoming their own person, being an individual, not a patient,” Shulman said of the staff at Reuth. “They encourage them to wear their own clothing, put pictures on the wall. Some of them even bring their own food. They encourage individuality. When you think of a hospital, you think of a place where everybody looks the same. 'OK, you're a sick patient. You're a sick patient.' You don't feel that here. You don't look at the person by their disability or by their illness. You look at them as individuals. It's very nice to be around an atmosphere like that.”
Israel's more casual, informal approach has allowed the interns to get a close look at how therapists interact with patients. Unlike the United States, which has more rigid requirements for those seeking to gain first-hand access to rehabilitating patients, Reuth is allowing the interns to actively assist in so-called “soft therapies” - music therapy, drama therapy, animal therapy, and jewelry crafting, leisure activities that allow patients to momentarily take the focus off of their afflictions.
“It's like a family here. They want to learn from one another. Because they're family. They want to push each other, to inspire one another.”
“The first couple of days, we tried out different therapies in the hospital,” said another intern, Lauren Schechter. “Every day I get to sit for a couple of hours and watch various patients and therapists. The therapists are very nice. They will explain what's going on with the patient. It's an incredible learning experience for me. I never really had an interest in physical therapy before. Now it's something that I'm definitely going to keep on my horizon.”
“When I heard about Reuth, I knew that this was an opportunity to get hands-on experience, and I get to do it in Israel,” said Dina Fleyshmakher. “I love Israel. I'm very Zionistic. I get to make new friends. I get to learn but I also get to have fun. It's my summer. I want to spend it learning, but they're also adding trips and games because they know it's my summer. I'm gaining so much.”
“Being in a hospital made me appreciate the little things like being able to see,” she said. “And the war has made me appreciate so much in life. After the summer, I get to go home where I feel safe, but people who made aliya and people who live here chose to live in an environment that is always changing. That made me appreciate them more.”
Harlee Miller has been interning for the last three weeks, during which time she has certainly felt the culture shock having come from relatively quaint Long Island.
“It's definitely an experience I never had before,” she said. “As far as the hospital goes, I've been in occupational therapy, and I love it. I've made connections with two therapists, and the patients who see me every day know my name and they're excited to see me. I love that part of it.”
“A lot happened in three weeks. There was the killing of the three boys (Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah) and a close friend of mine passed away, and now the rockets. I'm thankful for this experience. I think it has made me stronger. I'm thankful that I'm here.”
Miller's love for Israel and her interest in the medical field drew her to the internship program. Even if the Gaza chaos began earlier, it wouldn't have deterred her from coming.
“I feel more like an Israeli now,” she said. “I like it.”