Naomi Kamin is lying on the ground. Her arm is over her 5-year-old son Gefen’s shoulders, and her hand is covering her 8-year-old son Shaked’s head. If a missile were to hit at that moment, the protective gesture wouldn’t do much, but a parent’s instinct takes over as sirens sound, and Naomi does what she can.
A widely seen photo splashed across the front pages of international news outlets during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 sums up the experience of thousands of Israelis for more than 15 years now.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis came under rocket fire from Gaza this past May. Yet, long after the international news crews left, an unrelenting battle continues – the fight to address the mental health needs of Israel’s Gaza Envelope residents – and it’s the local therapists who remain on the front lines.
As a resident of the Gaza Envelope, Naomi is no stranger to red alert sirens sounding, signaling incoming missiles. Adjusting to this reality and living with it sets her and her community members apart from most people who cannot imagine such a life. However, Naomi wouldn’t live anywhere else, and as the manager of Jewish National Fund-USA’s Eshkol Resilience Center (ERC), she is working to help her community cope with difficult times in one of the fastest-growing regions in Israel.
This Resilience Center, one of several, is located in the heart of the Eshkol Regional Council, a territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and is usually referred to as “the Gaza Envelope.” Along with the neighboring Sha’ar Hanegev region, the area is home to 70,000 residents, all of whom are easily within missile range.
“They say we have 15 seconds to run to the bomb shelter, but in reality, it’s more like eight seconds,” said Naomi.
When a missile is incoming and the air raid sirens blast, local therapist Nitzan Harush cannot afford to guess whether she has those extra seven seconds or not. Everything stops, heartbeats pound, and everyone runs for safety as fast as they can. And after the sirens? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say between the sirens, as the conflict with Gaza can flare up again at any time. Well, that’s when Nitzan’s work really begins.
As a therapist at the ERC, Nitzan works with children and adults coping with the ongoing trauma of living just meters away from the volatile border with Gaza. “We had one boy come in,” Nitzan recalled, “who lived on a kibbutz so close to the border that when they would burn tires and spread tear gas in Gaza, he would feel his eyes burning when he went out to play. It caused a trauma for him.”
For Naomi, there is a clear distinguishing factor in the experience that Israel’s southern residents are contending with. “Often, trauma is a single event, it ends, and you deal with it. Here, the trauma is ongoing, and it always returns. It’s entirely different, and we learn to deal with it as a chronic condition.”
Naomi and Nitzan know what it means to live through conflict. Both of them, together with the 24 therapists on the ERC’s staff, live in the Gaza Envelope and experience the realities of life on this border alongside their patients. They both believe this is a critical part of what allows them to do their work successfully.
For Naomi, it brings an added layer of responsibility, too, especially when conflict arises and the therapists themselves must also seek shelter, their spouses may be called up to the army reserves, and their own children contend with the acute fears of the moment. “Their job is to call the patients and check in on them,” Naomi explained. “My job is to call the therapists and see if they are ok, if they are sleeping, how their children are doing, do they need a break or are they ok to come in and work? Our instincts are to help everyone else.”
Yet, with so much adversity facing the area, why is the Eshkol region growing so rapidly? Why do Naomi and Nitzan both say they wouldn’t live anywhere else? Why do they continue to do the difficult work of helping to build resilience in a population that will continue to experience trauma?
“It’s pretty fabulous here!” Nitzan beamed. “My friends in Tel Aviv can’t believe the quality of life I can afford here. From education to the community to nature. There are so many positive things living here, but then there’s that sometimes huge and overbearing thing,” he said referring to the conflict.
Naomi agrees wholeheartedly. “The people here are so special. We are so optimistic, and we love where we live. I love my work, I love the people I work with, our optimism strengthens us, and I am given confidence thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA’s support of our community.”
That sometimes huge thing, they both agree, is constantly evolving and they, as therapists must evolve alongside it in order to help their community thrive.
For the treatment of anxiety, time is of the essence, and Naomi, Nitzan, and their colleagues work hard to ensure that everyone can access therapy.
“Anybody can call us and start treatment very quickly. Most people get 12-24 sessions, and it really helps them.” More than that, she explained, “They really invest in us as therapists, and I would not be able to do the work I do without the advanced training that we are given. These methods really work, and they really help our community manage anxiety as a chronic condition so that they can move forward in their lives. We know that these experiences will happen again, so we must help our patients find anchors of strength that they can call on. We need to build resilience as a skill set.”
“We are always thinking creatively about what our community needs and how we can help them,” Naomi said, describing, for example, a program developed for 8-10-year-olds who they noticed were struggling greatly with being outside at nighttime, and were not exploring independence the way you would expect at that age. “We pair the kids and teach them survival skills; it’s empowering. More importantly, we start at 5:00 pm so the kids learn to deal with their fears together as it gets darker outside. Parents tell us that their kids feel stronger and more capable after participating, that they’re no longer scared to go visit their friends after dark.”
“Things are always changing here,” both therapists noted, “yet it helps to identify the things that protect us and the resources you have.” Nitzan explained, “A kid has an experience: their mom went out to get groceries and the alarm sounded, and they froze and didn’t know what to do and were scared they were going to die. They’re not just returning to school the next day like everything is fine. You have to go back to that moment in time with them and give it legitimacy. Then we also look at all the strength and tools you have inside of you to cope in the future. It gives the patient a feeling of capability, a belief in themselves, and it works.”
Naomi agreed, sharing, “What we do here really works; we teach them to use their own strengths, we give them tools, and they learn to use them and to live. People who live here are strong, we’re healthy, and most of all, we are optimistic. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
“I think there should be Resilience Centers everywhere,” Nitzan said. “It should be the heart of every community.”
To learn about Jewish National Fund-USA’s work in the Gaza Envelope, or to get involved, visit jnf.org/gazaenvelope or contact Lior Zommer at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in B’Yachad Magazine. To receive your complimentary copy, email CustomerService@jnf.org or call 800-542-8733
This article is published in cooperation with JNF-USA.