In an unmarked building at No. 7 Rue Leon Cogniet in Paris, 10 recently demobilized soldiers from the elite Egoz commando unit finally let down their guard.
Is it true that nothing is accidental? Is it just luck that Jerusalem psychologist Dr. Ruth Pat-Horencyzk "returns every last phone call"?
Was it serendipity that brought Skipper Patrick Berthault back to Paris from the Caribbean and ultimately to the Tikkun Olam Committee of Kehilat Gesher, a feisty, trilingual Liberal congregation in France?
And what stroke of fate led Pat-Horenczyk and her colleagues at the Temmy and Albert Latner Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP) of Jerusalem's Herzog Memorial Hospital to unerringly choose psychotherapist Sasson Rahabi, who proved a perfect match for the young men?
These seemingly unrelated events resulted in a workshop in Paris for 10 Egoz veterans of the Second Lebanon War. The idea is to give them both a good time far from home and a "tool box" of coping strategies that will stand them in good stead for years to come.
While it's Berthault's mother who is Jewish, his father was equally involved in the preparations for all the Jewish holidays. "He had a real affinity for Judaism," Berthault recalls. When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Berthault returned home from the sea to provide support and pick up his doctoral studies in pharmacology. He had joined Rabbi Tom Cohen's tiny havruta - the precursor of Kehilat Gesher (fondly referred to as KG by its 150 members, as Cohen is always called "Rabbi Tom") a number of years before. Following his father's death, Patrick sought more involvement. He joined Janet Pape, founder of KG's Tikkun Olam Committee, and infused it with an Israel connection.
When asked why he loves Israel, Berthault replies, "Why do I love the sea? Why do I love coffee? It's natural for me."
Both Cohen and congregation president Denise Silber supported the idea of reaching out to Israel in the framework of tikkun olam, the belief in redeeming the world through good deeds.
Some members felt that the congregation's energy and resources should be spent on outreach and internal development rather than tikkun olam. Silber, who heads an on-line consulting company in health care, steered the course between them and the desire to, as one KG member puts it, contribute to what should be every Jew's "magnetic north or lodestone. You need a home, even if you don't live there; you need to help Israel and support it. Jews need to anchor themselves and to perform tikkun olam in an inspired way." The decision was to find a project where "giving" didn't have to mean giving money.
And so, the KG Tikkun Olam Committee had the green light to embark on a tikkun olam project with an Israel connection. Ofer Cohen, a Jerusalemite working on his master's degree in psychology at the Sorbonne and about to return home for a visit, was dispatched with a mission: Find KG an Israeli project.
Pat-Horenczyk prides herself on returning her calls, and so a small project was born.
THROUGH OFER COHEN, Pat-Horenczyk and Berthault made contact. The result was that 27 KG members took it upon themselves to translate the ICTP English-language Web site (www.traumaweb.org) into French, ensuring that new immigrants from France, as well as French speakers all over the world, could benefit from professional, hands-on advice about how to cope during periods of acute stress. The project also brought the KG members closer to the ICTP and its work. And they were hungry for more.
Pat-Horenczyk was happy to oblige. En route to a meeting with psychotrauma professionals in Denmark, she stopped in Paris to lecture to a key group of KG members and interested professionals. The response to her lecture on living under the threat of terrorism, and to her descriptions of an ICTP pilot project she initiated for the IDF's 669 airborne search and rescue unit, were overwhelmingly positive.
Berthault was especially enamored of the project for combat soldiers. Its goal is to ease the transition back to civilian life and aid in the processing of potentially traumatic events. While he knew about this only from stories he strained to overhear when cronies came to call, his beloved father had fought for France in Algeria as part of an anti-guerrilla squad.
Berthault felt that involvement in such a project, in addition to helping young men in Israel who risk their lives for Jews everywhere, would honor his father's memory.
And so, in the midst of their growing pains, Rabbi Cohen and Silber fully endorsed Berthault's and Pape's choice for a second, more ambitious tikkun olam project for the congregation - a series of workshops modeled on the 669 project, this time in Paris, for 10 soldiers who had recently finished their tours of duty with Egoz.
The project hinged on bringing the young men to KG. A congregant with an investment banking boutique stepped in at a critical juncture and ensured that the costs of airfare would be covered. Members of KG agreed to host soldiers in their homes, and show them as much of Paris as could be crammed into a long weekend.
THERE ARE brownies on the table when the soldiers arrive at midnight and a steady flow of cookies, humous, baguettes and Camembert cheese at KG, where workshops are held. The rented premises, consisting of two rooms and a small kitchen on a commercial street, are identified by a scarcely noticeable plaque that reads Kehilat Gesher.
From home hospitality to Metro tickets, every detail is taken into account. The Sorbonne student dons an unofficial tour guide hat, cheerfully and patiently shepherds the visitors all over Montmartre, the Louvre, through the Metro, along bus lines and onto the Seine. Pape gathers up every scarf and pair of gloves she can locate in her home to keep the Israeli visitors warm when the autumn weather in Paris stays sunny, but turns cold.
"I thought they would be so macho and while they horse around a lot, it's like they have a special radar for looking out for each other," the US native remarks.
ICTP helped with the expenses and chose psychotherapist Rahabi and a group of recently demobilized Egoz soldiers who had seen action in the Second Lebanon War during which three close comrades, Rafenael (Fenny) Muscal, Benjy Hillman and Liran Sa'adiya, were killed. In his private practice, Rahabi specializes in dealing with stress and trauma. Most importantly for this project, he also specializes in working with combat soldiers.
Rahabi calls them "scratches." He says that we all have them, and they affect us all differently, depending on where we receive them and how deep they cut. He states unequivocally that anyone who was in a combat situation in which people were wounded and/or killed carries a remnant of that experience. He was involved in traumatic incidents as both a soldier and as an officer.
"I need to heal the warriors," says this dedicated professional who gave of himself to his charges in Paris way above and beyond the parameters of the project. The mutual appreciation was total and deep.
In Paris, the reticence displayed by the Egoz group at a preparatory session in Israel dropped away. Isolated together, far from home and daily diversions, participants were ripe for the experience. They seemed poised for Rahabi to gently tap them, trusting that he would catch and hold the pain held in check just beneath the surface, still raw more than a year after the war.
In approximately 30 hours of workshops, Rahabi explained that each participant carries emotional baggage as a result of his experiences in the army, but stressed that none suffer from any pathologies. He touched on the differences between trauma and other types of stress. He encouraged participants to share their thoughts and emotions, while granting legitimacy to everything that arose. Additional subjects covered included the transition from military to civilian life, choosing a career or profession, interpersonal communication and choosing a life partner.
Rahabi says that his greatest wish is to lighten their load, "These boys are sent to protect us, to keep us safe, to risk their lives. Yes they are highly-trained fighters, but they are still boys."
Rahabi also stresses that the fact that they go through the workshop together is a vital component. "Research shows that these five days will enable them to cope much more easily with the challenges that lie ahead. Having fun is a crucial element. Trauma causes us to see life narrowly. The pleasurable side of this project reminds them that life goes on. It provides optimism and hope. And this is amplified by the outpouring of love and appreciation that they received from the community here. We don't know how to express our gratitude to those who put this together."
The new civilians found the five days "priceless, invaluable." While referring to themselves as "more than brothers, more than a fellowship," they were still unused to being together in a positive situation. While bonded as only those who have shared such experiences can be, they learned to be together in a new way. Between workshops, they went to clubs and restaurants, saw the sights of Paris and had a taste of Liberal Judaism, of which most had been previously unaware.
They learned that talking to each other about their shared experiences, about grief and bereavement and terrifying situations - which they had been convinced would weaken them - was actually strengthening. They recognized the value of consciously processing their difficult times. They expressed themselves in a safe place where a professional helped them to integrate their experiences into their daily lives. Fun was a key part of the trip, which included a visit to Euro Disney.
Berthault hopes that this was only the first of many projects of its kind for Israeli soldiers. "When you do something hard, you need a rest before you go on. These boys risked their lives for three years. They know how fragile life is. To see them now, so peaceful and happy, so modest - it fills us with joy. We can only imagine what they have experienced."
Pat-Horenczyk is satisfied. "They learned that it's okay to feel pain, to express pain and then to go out and have fun. That's emotional resilience. That's life."
Kehilat Gesher's official title is the French-Anglophone Jewish Congregation in Paris and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. According to its brochure, KG is "the place where you can pray, even if you don't know how; a congregation where you can make friends; the home where you can teach, learn and ask all those questions that seem so out of place elsewhere; a community where you can share in the mourning of your losses and celebrate your joyous events. (And the rabbi also provides a colorful, detailed walking tour of Jewish Paris.)"
Rabbi Tom Cohen, who says he moved to France for the love of a woman - he met his French wife when both were in Israel studying to be rabbis and she is also a rabbi with her own congregation in Paris - says he often feels that he and his wife "are on a rocket ship catapulting into space, but we're in the process of building it as we go." A devotee of the rock band Rush, he struggled with the choice between rock star and rabbi, ultimately choosing the latter.
He sees KG as "the international synagogue in Paris. We tend to have the ex-pats, mainly Anglo-Saxons but also Dutch, Swedish, all sorts of Europeans. We also get French families who spent time overseas and learned about different ways to be Jewish."
Betsy Matheny, unofficial KG historian, remembers when in 1991, shortly after she and her husband moved their family to Paris from Alexandria, Virginia, Cohen was asked to conduct Shabbat services, followed by a potluck dinner, in the homes of some English-speaking, Jewish Americans living in Saint-Germain. By 1993 they had become a non-profit and grown from a group of seven families to 20. Today the congregation numbers about 150 members.
In the early days, services were held in the basement of Goldberg's restaurant, followed by a communal supper upstairs. Now KG has two rented locations, one in the suburbs and one in Paris. Cohen alternates between them. On the Shabbat when he's absent, the teenage members of the congregation conduct the service.
Unlike in most Diaspora congregations, the Torah reading follows the Israeli order. KG members hold one Pessah Seder at home and one communal Seder. At services, they recite a prayer for France and a prayer for Israel. Usually the prayer for France is recited by one person, while the whole congregation prays together for Israel.
KG celebrated its bat mitzva just two years ago, with every member reading from the Torah. The congregation is still struggling to grow and establish itself. While there are other Liberal congregations serving France's estimated 660,000 Jews, KG is unique in that it caters to Anglophones and is extremely pluralistic and welcoming. The service is trilingual so that the many Americans (members say there are about 70,000 Americans in Paris and they estimate that about 5 percent of them are Jewish) and their French spouses can all feel at home.
The congregation is especially proud of its rabbi. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Cohen radiates goodwill and sincerity. He says an important watershed for him was the day he decided not to be self-conscious about his heavily American-accented French and while his sermons are in English, his French is fluent and he conducts services in three languages, moving easily among them. He says his goal is to encourage people "to take a second - or even a first look at their Judaism." He believes that Judaism has something to say to all Jews about their lives, because, he says, it has in it a vocabulary through which they can express the touchstone values that they have within.
His was the only Jewish family in the Portland neighborhood of Oak Grove, which made him the unofficial source of explanations about all things Jewish. His favorite description of a Jewish holiday was: "On Hanukka we get eight days of presents, but on Christmas you only get one day."