Wading Through Widowhood: Smoothing away stress

Judith Yovel Recanati estimates that 10% of Israelis suffer from PTSD as a result of war and terrorism.

Judith Yovel Recanati (photo credit: Courtesy)
Judith Yovel Recanati
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My mother brought us up on the old Yiddish philosophy: Take everyone you know, put them in a circle, wrap up each’s troubles and pile them in the middle.
Then choose whichever sack of tzuris you fancy.
“You know which one you’d take?” my wise mom would say.
“Your own! Other people are in worse situations.”
And so we learned perspective through other people’s pekelach (troubles).
If Judith Yovel Recanati and I were to pack up our troubles in an old kitbag, we’d find unwelcome commonality. Her parents, and mine, died much too young; we both lost our husbands decades too soon to cancer. Yet Recanati, beautiful, calm and a powerful force for good, has not let personal sadness slow her down.
Gracious and steadfast, she runs the Gandyr Foundation she founded with her late husband, gynecologist Israel “Rolly” Yovel, and works tirelessly to improve the lives hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Here’s one way: The Middle East, where we hang out, is not the warmest and fuzziest spot on earth.
Bombs exploding out of the blue, drivers plowing into bus stops, lone wolves wielding knives… Israelis have a lot to contend with. On top of that, our kids spend their first years out of high school learning to fight wars, and all too often find themselves putting that dreadful knowledge into practice.
Wars and terrorism have hidden costs; post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the worst. PTSD is not hard to define, although until fairly recently it was not really acknowledged.
The average person who experiences a bombing or the horrors of war firsthand might shake, feel depressed and have trouble falling asleep; every little noise makes him 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 recognized as victims.
In the early ’90s Dr. Yossi Hadar, a psychiatrist at Bar-Ilan University, identified this gap in services.
He approached Recanati – an art therapist who was studying psychotherapy under him at the time – with the idea of establishing NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. When Hadar tragically died of cancer soon afterwards, Recanati continued implementing his vision.
“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 Sadat and Begin had promised. Recanati dreamed of helping Israelis already suffering from stress, and eradicating this trauma from the country.
Today, that optimism seems utterly mad: “We thought we could cure the victims and that would be that; peace was just around the corner.”
Then the intifada broke out.
And the Second Lebanon War. And Operation Cast Lead. And the rockets on Sderot and the South. And Operation Protective Edge.
Not quite the events to pave a yellow-brick road to utopia.
Recanati reckons that 10 percent of Israelis suffer from PTSD as a result of war or terrorism. When you factor in traffic accidents, the Holocaust, abuse, neglect and other shocks to the system, this becomes one pretty crazy place; there are those who claim the entire country is post-traumatic. NATAL tackles the 600,000 to 700,000 victims of war and terror who otherwise would get no help.
And all this because of one woman.
First off, Recanati bought a building in the center of Tel Aviv to house the headquarters and clinics; she also covers all annual operating costs. Today, the government puts in NIS 250,000 of the NIS 15 million budget; the shortfall is covered by donations. Patients pay according to their ability: NIS 50, or 25, or nothing at all.
Belonging to the moadon (club) is basically free – for a few shekels a month, people gather three times a week to get therapy; join friends to paint, make music or garden; cook and eat meals with company – and actually leave their homes. Volunteers man a multilingual hotline for hundreds of patients a week, and a team of 150 professionals – including art and music therapists and psychologists – are on hand to offer help.
Apart from the last war, when Tel Aviv was under fire (and even then, most citizens felt reasonably safe thanks to the Iron Dome), the Center of the country is usually less battered than the periphery.
NATAL professionals reach out to victims of PTSD wherever they live.
One little boy in Sderot, for example, refused to step out of an iron cage after his house was demolished by a rocket. It took a therapist one year of work to get him to finally agree to put on pajamas and go to bed; the child was determined not to waive his vigilance in case his house was blasted again.
Juliet Mandelzweig, a body psychotherapist and trauma touch therapist at the center, relates to this little boy. “Most manifestations of trauma are body-based,” she says.
“Sufferers don’t sleep, have headaches or are constantly hyper-vigilant, always on guard against another blow.” Because people store trauma in the tissues of their bodies, sometimes it isn’t enough just to talk about pain. Trauma touch addresses directly to body; what is released can then get processed by regular verbal therapy.
For me, NATAL is therapeutic in other ways. Judith Recanati’s kitbag and mine would contain similar joys, as well as our sorrows.
We both have three daughters (although she has seven grandchildren and counting… I’m waiting excitedly for my first). She is my role-model; a road map of how through fortitude and grit, one can continue to be a force for good, and continue to enjoy the good.
It’s hard to imagine NATAL going out of business anytime soon… but wouldn’t that be nice? Here’s hoping.
NATAL’s free helpline: 1-800-363- 363; its website: www.natal.org.il