At-risk youth find solace with Gandyr

What is the road less traveled by?

Jude Yovel Recanati (photo credit: YULIA BURSTEIN SHAHAM)
Jude Yovel Recanati
Robert Frost famously noted that in every life lived “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and only one could be taken. The evocative lines are taught the world over to young adults grappling with which career to embark upon, where to live, whom to marry. A chilling story references the poem for me: an ex-pupil of a high school where I worked, who tragically died defending Israel, had a copy in the pocket of his uniform.
But for many thousands of young Israelis the fork in the road doesn’t represent choosing medicine over an MBA; their decisions are whether to run from abusive homes to sleep rough on streets, or to deaden the pain of a hard life with drugs. And in these corona challenging times, more and more youngsters are finding themselves at risk for obvious reasons: jobs have dried up; depression is galloping; families are disintegrating amid enforced, endless closures in small spaces.
In the middle of this chaos and uncertainty, Jude Yovel Recanati – beautiful, calm, radiating the light of a competent, coping adult – steps in on a daily basis to save lives and bring health and hope to those in need. Recanati, heiress to a family fortune, could easily have spent her life having her nails done and having lunch. Instead, she works two full-time shifts: overseeing NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, which she established over 20 years ago; and Gandyr, a family philanthropic foundation for studying, researching and financing young adults at risk – for example, without family support. Both initiatives are working overtime in these crazy days.
NATAL, located in the center of Tel Aviv, stepped up as the pandemic hit, instantly switching most of its counseling and support to virtual meetings. On the 15th of March corona closed the physical doors; on the 16th Zoom sessions were up and running. The phone Helpline, which usually calms nerves frayed with PTSD stemming from national trauma – including wars, terrorism, and natural disasters such as fire – soon recognized that the pandemic was impacting hugely on mental health, and doubled its staff.
“Using Zoom we quickly trained another 60 volunteers,” explains Recanati, herself an art therapist. “The current need is just enormous.”
PTSD is not hard to define, although until fairly recently it was not really acknowledged. People who experience a bombing or the horrors of war firsthand might shake, feel depressed and have trouble falling asleep; every little noise makes them jump. This acute reaction usually lasts about a month, after which most people gradually get back to normal; when symptoms persist for longer, the condition could become chronic.
The syndrome can be devastating; often victims can’t work, and families may fall apart. Sometimes people huddle at home all day, unable to face the world. And while the government treats those directly involved in terrorism or war (like patients admitted to emergency wards), people who were close by or affected in other ways are not usually recognized as victims.
In the mid-nineties Dr. Yossi Hadar, a psychiatrist at Bar-Ilan University, identified this gap in services. He approached Recanati, who was studying psychotherapy under him at the time, with the idea of establishing NATAL. When Hadar tragically died of cancer in 1998, Recanati implemented her supervisor’s vision. She provided a family-owned building in the center of Tel Aviv to house the headquarters and clinics, and has provided the entire annual operating costs since the inception.
“We started in 1998,” she recalls, “with high hopes of healing the country.” Post-Oslo Israel was daring to hope that Rabin would finally welcome the “no more war, no more bloodshed” era that Sadat and Begin had promised. Recanati dreamt of helping Israelis already suffering from stress, and eradicating this trauma from the country. Today the optimism seems utterly mad. “We thought we could cure the victims and that would be that; peace was just around the corner.”
The Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the rockets on Sderot and the South, and Operation Protective Edge put paid to the dream; the COVID-19 pandemic just exacerbated the mess.
Now, in addition to the multitudinous PTSD sufferers from war and terrorism, newly traumatized citizens are turning to NATAL. Overworked medical and rescue personnel, recovering patients suffering from lingering depression, and lonely individuals sheltering in isolation are only some of the people calling volunteers who guide them through the long, lonely days. The Helpline staff develops a caring relationship with its clients; the same volunteer calls every week to provide cheer and human conversation.
IN 2004, with NATAL up and running, Recanati, together with her late husband, Dr. Israel (Rolly) Yovel and their three daughters, established the Gandyr Foundation, to highlight the challenges and opportunities facing vulnerable young adults between 18 and 30. The aim of the foundation is to facilitate the entry of this population as productive adults into society, with the skills to contribute on every level: personal, family, social, and in the workforce.
It’s a crucial task: often young adults at risk have nowhere to turn. COVID is destroying many critical pillars of existence, sometimes irrevocably: shaky marriages are at higher risk, life expectancy can plunge, less money can mean less educational opportunities and career choices. Young adults working as waiters, for example, to cover their rent and academic studies, have been forced to move back home, and often to put their education on hold.
According to Dr. Naama Meiran, an organizational psychologist and CEO of Gandyr, some 70,000 young adults finished their higher education this year. Almost half of them won’t find work; thousands more won’t find work that they want. CVs will be permanently scarred: employers 10 years from now will wonder why a graduate of Bezalel, for example, spent two years stacking supermarket shelves.
Recanati explains that corona anxieties have led to a huge spike in depression: some additional 325,000 cases have been reported in Israel this year.
Gandyr is trying to fill some gaps: delivering food, Zoom support, helping with finances. The foundation supports social organizations and NGOs that work with young adults, providing grants, monitoring and organizational help. It cooperates with tens of young adult centers around the country, as well as with National Insurance Institute initiatives that help people to help themselves. One such initiative pairs victims of sexual abuse with social workers to give the professionals better tools to deal with victims’ pain. In Dimona a group of single mothers, some with absolutely no support, meet once a week and bake for cleaners and guards; volunteering gives meaning to their pretty bleak days.
It’s hard for anyone to feel upbeat in these crazy times; spreading comfort to others is certainly one way out of the darkness. Jude Yovel Recanati is bringing hope to tens of thousands of Israel’s vulnerable; she epitomizes the power and beauty of this land. May the people in it have the wisdom to choose the right road, going forward, so we all go from strength to strength. ■
The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. [email protected]