The No. 1 Club

First-of-its-kind gov't initiative helps terror victims rejoin society.

art therpay 248.63 (photo credit: Courtesy)
art therpay 248.63
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The atmosphere at the National Insurance Institute/Yad Sarah-sponsored club for victims of terror is surprisingly upbeat. After making their morning coffee or tea, the stream of people, mostly aged 50-plus, take their seats around a long table and wait patiently for art instructor, Hasida Levy, to begin explaining the day's assignment. Talk is light and the 20 or so people gathered here on this Sunday morning seem relaxed and jovial as they catch up with one another after a few days break from the recently inaugurated social club. "We'll have to work on something else today," begins Levy, apologizing that the materials for the Hanukka project did not arrive as planned. Instead she holds up a hamsa, a five-fingered hand considered a good-luck charm, and patiently explains how to blend colors to make additional shades and how to spread it smoothly onto the flat wooden surface. She then demonstrates how to create a simple stencil from paper in order to add an elaborate pattern to the hamsa charm. "The idea is for them to be relaxed while they are working on their art projects and to be able to just chat freely among themselves about how they are feeling," Levy tells me after handing out all the necessary materials. "Art is an excellent way for them to feel less self-conscious and get them talking about what is on their minds," adds Levy, an art teacher for 32 years, who now volunteers her expertise to the group. "And, at the end of the day, they will have a lovely piece of artwork that they can give to someone as a gift." The first of its kind in Israel, this social and rehabilitation club is specifically for those who are recognized by the government as victims of terror, both those who have been wounded themselves and those who have lost loved ones in such attacks. Launched in Jerusalem earlier this year as a joint effort of the NII and non-profit aid organization Yad Sarah, the program organizes a wide variety of presentations and outings with the aim of helping civilians whose lives were literally blown apart and are still yet to find their place back in society. "I was physically blown apart and the doctors had to rebuild me," says former bus driver Yitzhak Hayat, adding dryly: "I have actually redesignated May 18, 2003 as my new birthday." The date, he continues, was the day that a Palestinian terrorist dressed as a haredi Jew boarded the No. 6 bus he was driving and detonated a bomb, killing seven and wounding 20 people. "I went on to the next world but managed to fight my way back," recalls the 63-year-old, a slight determination glimmering through his sad, green-blue eyes. "I was in the emergency room for 10 days and spent more than 100 days in hospital." He shakes his head quietly when I ask him if coming to the club for the last few months has helped him get over the trauma. "My situation is very complicated," Hayat says, sighing. "There has not been a huge change in my case. I know that I look whole now on the outside, but if you look closely you can still see the scars." He gestures to the long, reddish gash tucked under his chin, and, of course, he is also referring to the emotional scars that have left him petrified to even be in traffic next to a bus, let alone feel confident enough to ride on one. "Everyone here went through a similar experience to mine and that helps me a little," says Hayat. Another member at the club, which meets every Sunday and Tuesday for more than half the day, is Rina Moyal. Her husband was one of the seven people killed on the bus Hayat was driving. "It was weird for me to be in the same group as him at first," admits Moyal. "But after getting to know him, it is actually comforting to think that he knew my husband." She continues: "He [my husband] took that bus every morning for two years and Hayat has told me how he used to look forward to their chats." While spending two mornings a week with the man who was probably the last person to see her husband alive has helped heal her somewhat, Moyal admits that moving on with her life has been extremely difficult. "We were very close and spent all our time together," says the mother of six. "We did not really have a lot of friends. He was my world and now he's gone. It is very difficult to be on my own." "IT'S A club for people who have not been able to return to a fulfilled life after suffering a terrible tragedy," says Esty Barkan, director of rehabilitation for the NII in Jerusalem, and the brainchild behind the club. According to Barkan, the club is not a support group or a direct therapy program for victims of terror - there are already plenty of those around. "Its goal is simply to make them want to get out of bed in the morning," she explains. "It is a warm and safe place for them to go and meet other people on a regular basis. Of course the underlying aim is for them to be together and heal with others who have gone through similar experiences." Barkan says that the NII chose specifically to work with Yad Sarah because it is "a household name that everyone, especially those in Jerusalem, are familiar with and trust." She also says that with Yad Sarah so well established countrywide, it will be much easier to expand the program to other locales. "They provide the physical structure of the club, as well as its director and the volunteers to help out," says Barkan, herself a veteran social worker. Acknowledging other similar groups run by non-profit organizations such as One Family Fund, Barkan explains that the Yad Sarah-based club is different not only for the mere fact that the government is behind it, but also because it recognizes all terror victims, even those hurt before the most recent spate of bombings in 2000. Rachel Avraham's husband was killed in the 1988 bombing of Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market. "It was a long time ago," admits Avraham, shaking her head with a firm "no" when asked if she ever remarried. "The state did not even recognize me back then as someone who was a victim of terror, I was merely the young wife who was suddenly left to raise three young daughters on my own." Avraham is quick to recognize all those who did reach out to her and recognize her suffering. "One group even took me to Washington so that I could tell the Americans what happened to me," she says proudly, adding quickly, "But the hurt just never seems to go away… my heart is charred." Avraham joined the NII-Yad Sarah club for terror victims when it first opened eight months ago and is happy that it gives her a place to go, an outlet. "Otherwise I would probably just stay at home all day and cry," she says fighting back the tears. "It is really important for people like us to get out of the house," agrees Shlomit Uzana, who attends the club with her husband, David. The two have been the indirect victims of at least three terrorist attacks, including seeing their 17-year-old grandson critically wounded in the 2000 bombing also at the Mahaneh Yehuda market, her brother killed in a shooting attack near the settlement of Eli, and in 2004, losing their son, Yuval, in a bombing of the No. 14 bus line. "He left behind his wife and two children," says the 66-year-old with tears beginning to form in her eyes. "We are still very close to his wife and see our grandchildren all the time. "I really hope they expand this program," says Uzana, recalling some of the different workshops and day trips that have been arranged for them. "They told us that soon we will get our very own room that we'll be able to use every time we come." Uzana adds that the main source of comfort for her and David is that they are with other people who "really understand." "We can't talk about these things that have happened between us, but we can talk about it with other people and that really helps," she says. MORE AND more of the club's members line up to tell me their horror stories - it's part of the healing process, explains one of the group's volunteer coordinators, Hannah Erman. "Just being here is a framework for the treatment," says the club's coordinator, Yonit Efraty, a trained social worker who has previously worked on several Yad Sarah projects. She says that presentations, art workshops, movies, stories and music that have "nothing to do with terror" are the main tools used to give people such as Hayat, Moyal, Avraham and the Uzanas something else to think about besides their painful experiences. "What happened to them comes up all the time during our meetings, of course," says Efraty. "But we don't want it to be the main focus. We don't want this to be like other groups that already exist. We want to strengthen each person's positive qualities, or for them to come here and laugh, even after all they've been through… even if they were up all night the night before thinking about the loved one they have lost. We want them to come here and feel better." Perhaps the club member who has most benefited from the social aspect is Anatoly Guslitsek, the supermarket guard from Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, who was blown apart when a female terrorist attempted to enter the store on March 29, 2002. "You see these," he says holding up both hands. "After the attack they did not work properly. Doctors at Hadassah hospital managed to fix them. It was really a miracle." As an afterthought he adds: "Coming here and doing this kind of artwork really helps them too." Originally from Uzbekistan, Guslitsek had been in Israel for only seven months before becoming a terror victim. "I will never forget that date," he says sadly. "I worked as a television engineer before I came to Israel, but when I finished ulpan, the only job I could get here was as a security guard. I thought it would be a good way of making a living until something else came up. I never thought it would come to this. I thought I would be strong, that I would be able to stop such a thing from happening." "My wife, Anna, was at home when it happened," continues Guslitsek. "She had no idea until my son called her and told her to turn on the TV." He goes on to describe the painful months and years he has gone through to rebuild his life in a new country. "We did have help from the NII, a social worker named Alisa was with us every step of the way and when they started this club she asked me if I wanted to join. I hesitated at first, but my son encouraged me to just try it," says Guslitsek, describing how he started coming to the club twice weekly until Anna took ill and he missed a few sessions to be with her in the hospital. "See that couple over there," he points. "They called me to see where I was, so did Yonit, our leader and some of the others came over to my house to see if I was all right. It was such a warm feeling, like we were a sort of… family." "I had a good life in Uzbekistan and a prestigious job," he continues. "Of course I think about going back there, especially after what happened to me, but my son is here and this is the only country in the world where you can be freely Jewish. And now that I have my friends here it would be very hard for me to leave."