Post-trauma experts bring Israeli resilience to a reeling Mumbai

Indian medical personnel 'shocked' by footage of Sderot attacks.

mumbai israeli doctors 248.88 (photo credit: Priya Tandor/AJC)
mumbai israeli doctors 248.88
(photo credit: Priya Tandor/AJC)
Israeli physicians Rony Berger and Marc Gelkopf have seen no shortage of surprises in Mumbai, where they are training Indian professionals in post-trauma recovery following the recent terrorist attack there. But most surprising of all has been how quickly they have been thrust into an unexpected role: as ambassadors for Israel. "We do interviews and conferences, anything that we can find," Berger told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Mumbai. "We're exhausted. We've been working 14 hours a day." The public speaking role has been thrust on them in addition to the lengthy training sessions they've been running in hospitals, schools and community centers since Monday. They are scheduled to return to Israel this weekend. In the aftermath of last month's terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 171 people, including six Jews in the local Chabad House, the doctors, both specialists in post-trauma recovery, reached out to help the hundreds of wounded and their families. Via IsraAid, an Israeli nonprofit collective with extensive experience in disaster relief, the doctors were flown to India after just three days of planning. Berger and Gelkopf gave the Post a glimpse into their daily lives, as chaotic as they are, in the middle of a disaster zone. They run five- to 10-hour workshops every day in multiple hospitals in the city, training doctors and nurses in post-trauma therapy techniques that they had developed in Sderot. The two doctors have extensive experience in working with victims of rocket fire in the western Negev town that has been targeted by Gazan terrorists for the past eight years. In Mumbai, they also walk the streets, looking for ways to lend a hand in the community directly. Gelkopf recounted a moment, early in his trip, where he and his colleague were passing a restaurant that had come under fire during the attacks, leaving multiple casualties. "We saw a sign giving a crisis hot line number, inviting victims and their families to call for assistance," he said. "So we called the number, and asked if they would like us to come in and help. They were very grateful. For us, it was purely improvised." But a large part of their time has been spent in a capacity for which they have no professional training: public relations. Berger said he even gave a press conference, early in the trip, to some of the largest newspapers in India. During the media event, he mentioned his interest in providing therapy to Indian police and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress. Soon he was receiving phone calls from individual Indian policemen, asking about treatment. That led directly to an invitation to the J.J. Hospital, Mumbai's largest medical center, and one that is entirely state-run. "[The Indian government] realized that we might have more experience than they do [in post-trauma therapy]," Berger said. At that point, doors began to open for them all over the city. Berger and Gelkopf immediately recognized the value of acting as envoys for Israel, and they embraced the role. Berger was pleased to be able to show an aspect of Israel that Indians might not always have a chance to see - a helpful and professional side, with a great deal of expertise to share. He said the reaction from the Indian community had been unfailingly warm and hospitable - including that of the substantial Muslim population, a community for whose safety both doctors had been worried. "I warned against the development of extremist feelings against minorities that can develop for a community undergoing post-traumatic stress," said Berger, whose research into the aftermath of traumatic events has examined in depth such political implications of disaster. "I think that impressed the Muslim community." Both doctors have had the chance to share many facets of Israeli life with the Indian public, which knows very little about daily life in Israel. Gelkopf recalled a particularly gripping moment that occurred during one of their first training sessions in the hospital. In an effort to explain some of their treatment methods, the doctors showed a short film created by the Natal Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, which employs them in Israel. The film, which is available on YouTube, features Berger employing some of his therapeutic techniques for several victims of rocket attacks in Sderot. Often he arrives to help minutes after a rocket has struck. Far from merely learning about the Israelis' stress-relief techniques, their work on the border with Gaza was eye-opening for their Indian counterparts. "They were shocked," said Gelkopf. "They really didn't know about the struggle that so many Israelis face every day. They were full of sympathy for the people of Sderot." These interactions are tremendous opportunities, according to Priya Tandor, the American Jewish Committee's India representative. (The AJC, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, is funding Berger and Gelkopf's visit.) Tandor is coordinating the beginning of what she believes will be substantial civilian cooperation between Israel and India. Tandor was optimistic, and even enthusiastic, about Israeli-Indian relations. "There are so many ways Indian and Israeli hospitals and organizations can interact," she told the Post, echoing the hope of IsraAid, the project's coordinating organization, that more Israeli doctors will visit the country, bringing their expertise. Berger agreed. He was sure that he would return to India after his one-week visit and said he had lost count of the invitations. "Although," he added, "I also hope that other [doctors] will come - I still want to have time to take care of people in Israel." Gelkopf was just as optimistic. "I'm sure I'll be back," he said. "Relationships are being created here."