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Trauma from Palestinian rocket attacks inflicts deepening wounds on Israeli society

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Fifteen seconds. That’s how long a resident of Sderot has from the time a Code Red alert is announced until a Palestinian rocket strikes the town or is intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. In other southern Israeli communities, one might have 30 seconds, maybe even a minute. But it’s never very long.

Israelis fell asleep to sirens March 12 and awoke to sirens March 13 while enduring a barrage of at least 60 rockets launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist group, the largest rocket attack emanating from Gaza since late 2012.

Over and over, Israelis ran into the bomb shelters, taking cover from the threat. They know the drill. Gaza rockets have been raining down on southern Israel since 2000. But what Israelis are just beginning to understand is the long-term impact of these rockets on their society.

Working in conjunction with Georgia State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Henrich, Professor Golan Shahar, a clinical/community psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, followed 362 adolescents from southern Israel between 2008 and 2011. They measured four times per year the adolescents’ exposure to rocket attacks and their levels of anxiety, depression, aggression, and violence. Strikingly, longitudinal results evinced only modest effects of rocket exposure on anxiety and depression, and no effects on aggression, but robust effects on violence commission.

In other words, explained Shahar, by the fourth year of the study, a sizeable portion of the youths had “gotten used” to the rockets from the point of view of becoming distressed and anxious. But a sizeable number had become more violent—and seriously so.

“These findings were something that made us feel gratified as scientists, but made me alarmed as an Israeli citizen,” Shahar told JNS.org. “Kids who at the beginning of the four-year study had been seriously traumatized, who had been exposed intensely to missile attacks, became extremely violent four years later. And I am not talking pushing and shoving, I am talking carrying weapons, carrying knives.”

“This is the first longitudinal study attesting to the prospective longitudinal effect of exposure to terrorism on adolescent violence,” he said. “These findings should serve as a red flag for healthcare practitioners working in civil areas afflicted by terrorism and political violence.”

Shahar said scientists know that chronic stress (as opposed to smaller bursts or more isolated stressors) changes the brain by causing the part of the brain that controls impulsive behavior, the prefrontal cortex, to mature more slowly.

“We are programming the next generation neuropsychologically to become impulsive and dangerous,” said Shahar. “And we are doing this on both sides of the border; there is no reason to expect the kids in Gaza are not becoming more violent from what they have to endure. … Unless this conflict is contained, unless it is resolved, the worst is yet to come.”

According to Shahar, the impact of rocket-induced trauma is likely to be most acute among the next generation of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. While a study released in September 2013 by the IDF Medical Corps Mental Health Department revealed that reported cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Israeli soldiers are among the lowest in militaries worldwide, Shahar’s research raises the possibility that the situation might shift as Israeli youths are exposed to consistent rocket attacks. Some 1.6 percent of regular IDF troops and 0.7 percent of reservists were diagnosed with PTSD, and such diagnoses in other militaries worldwide ranged from 2 percent to 17 percent, according to last year’s IDF study.

Col. Dr. Eyal Fruchter, head of the IDF Mental Health Department, said he does not see increased violent tendencies among members of the army, but his recent work in attention bias modification supports Shahar’s research about desensitization.

Fruchter began testing strategies designed to prevent and ameliorate PTSD symptoms in soldiers after he saw that military deployment to combat zones involved exposure to trauma at a higher-than-average rate and was leading to an increasing number of PTSD cases. Most recently, Fruchter translated cognitive-neuroscience knowledge and attention bias modification research into a novel computerized training tool that helps make soldiers more attuned to words like death, battle and gun. The test, easily delivered to soldiers during different stages of the deployment cycle, is now being used during basic training. Fruchter told JNS.org that soldiers who are desensitized to trauma are less prone to PTSD or anxiety and more prone to action in the field.

Similarly, Fruchter has revamped the army’s debriefing process to focus more on action than emotion. There are three parts to the process. First, the soldiers discuss what they have seen (for example: “I was sitting on the roof and I saw a bomber come from the right side”), then what they did (“I was on the roof and I was trying to connect with Moses on the radio”), and finally what they will do next (“Now I am going to clean my machine gun to get ready for the next occasion”).

According to Fruchter, the IDF borrowed aspects of the debriefing process from the U.S. and European armies, but the major shift is that rather than relying on top commanders to debrief with soldiers, officers are trained to debrief with one another, making the process immediate and accessible even in the midst of a battleground.

“We will probably have a mental health gym soon in every basic training camp that will have an aspect of this neurofeedback/attention bias modification program and training in the main debriefing process to make people more resilient,” Fruchter said.

Joe Goldman served in the U.S. army for 14 years and was stationed in the Middle East. He said emotion should stay off the battlefield and thinks this aspect of Fruchter’s plans make sense. But he said once a person leaves the army, if there is not an emotional debriefing, it can lead to emotional instability—something he has seen firsthand.

Scott Claster, who served as an IDF platoon commander in the last Lebanon War, during which several of his comrades fell in battle, expressed similar sentiments. “It hits you after the fact,” he said, adding that the army should do better not only at making people effective in battle, but at helping them transition back into civilian life.

Yehoshua Boncheck, a reservist in the Golani Brigades, said not talking about emotion plays into the testosterone of the Israeli army and translates into a macho, impatient, and nervous Israeli society.

Is Fruchter worried that additional desensitization to violence, coupled with an often already traumatic army experience, may lead to increased violence among the Israeli public?

“I’ve heard this claim several times before,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. She can be reached at maayanjaffe@icloud.com.

Foundation for Jewish Camp Convenes

A record number of 700 nonprofit camp professionals and lay leaders, philanthropists, Jewish educators, students and community professionals from across North America came together in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for three days in March to address the opportunities and challenges facing the field of Jewish camp and the Jewish community at Leaders Assembly 2014. The biennial conference, hosted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), welcomed day camp professionals for the first time and covered a wide range of topics including technology, affordability, and inclusion through informative conversations, skill building workshops and stimulating presentations.

This year’s theme, “One Field, Moving Forward,” speaks to the diversity of attendance as well as the innovation and collaboration taking place in the field of Jewish camping.  The event opened in New Brunswick, NJ on Sunday with an address from FJC CEO Jeremy J. Fingerman who set the stage: “We need to invite, include, and expand our reach to many others to experience the warmth of joyous Judaism. We can move forward, we can touch more lives, and help impact and secure the Jewish future.”

With Fingerman’s words as inspiration, attendees proceeded through the dynamic program which included an abundance of learning from, and discussions with, peers as well as several inspiring speakers.  Throughout the conference, an overarching theme in all of the presentations was clear: each attendee individually plays an essential role in ensuring that the field continues to thrive and that the Jewish future is bright.

Alexis Kashar, civil rights & special education attorney, shared her journey of being a woman and parent who is deaf in the Jewish community. She challenged the group to be the change they wish to see in camps, schools, synagogues, or community centers so that the joy of Judaism is accessible to more children and their families: “We have to eliminate the physical and attitudinal barriers to others so we can walk together as equals.”

Other highlights of the conference included a panel discussion with Michael Krasny, founder and chairman emeritusof CDW Computer Centers, Inc, and Michael Leven, president and chief operating officer at Las Vegas Sands Corp.,on the subject of customer service and leveraging relationships to generate organizational growth.  Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker, artist, founder of the Webby Awards, and co-founder of The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences discussed the role each member of the community plays in influencing character growth in campers and staff year-round, and a rousing performance by David Broza, singer-songwriter, instrumentalist and peace advocate, infused Israeli culture into an evening dedicated to the Jewish state.

The field also paid tribute to friend and supporter, Edgar Bronfman, z”l. Bronfman was an advocate of Jewish camping and part of the original collaboration that created FJC which, along with the Wexner Foundation, was recently awarded the inaugural Sidney Shapiro Prize for Excellence in Philanthropic Collaboration from the Jewish Funders Network. “Edgar commended the Foundation and its early founders for their ability to bring together a diverse coalition of supporters,” said Dana Raucher, executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. “He attended FJC’s first Leaders Assembly in 2006, and I can only imagine how proud he would be to see over 700 camp enthusiasts come together today.”

WRJ Funds Grants to Encourage Female Enrollment at URJ Sci-Tech Academy

Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has made a $5,000 grant from its YES (Youth, Education, & Special Projects) Fund to provide scholarships for girl participants.

The scholarships are meant to encourage and support the participation of girls in science and technology, which have traditionally been male-dominated fields. Each scholarship recipient will receive $500 toward registration at the camp this summer.

To be considered for a scholarship, applicants must be enrolled at the camp between March 1 and April 30, entering grades 5-9 in Fall 2014, and belong to a URJ congregation.

“I was thrilled when my two worlds, my sci-tech career and my WRJ leadership, collided when WRJ voted to fund these scholarships,” said WRJ President Blair C. Marks, who works for Lockheed Martin Corp. and knows firsthand the importance of gender parity in the growing fields of science and technology. “As my own experience has taught me, it is so important for girls to feel safe and welcomed into male-dominated professions and to see puzzle- and problem-solving not as insurmountable challenges but rather as opportunities. To me, these scholarships are consistent with WRJ’s tradition of standing up for women and girls, and I am very proud that we have chosen to lead in this manner.”

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, like the URJ 6 Points Sports Academy started in 2010, offers a unique summer camp opportunity designed to meet the particular interests of youth under a Jewish lens. “Finding a camp that will meet my daughter’s needs so perfectly is a blessing that I cannot begin to describe,” said Lisa Jay of Montabello, New York, whose daughter Hannah loves math, science and engineering and who recently applied for the WRJ scholarship. “We were always hoping to find a Jewish sleep away camp experience that would be appropriate for her interests, but never found one that came close until hearing about Sci-Tech. She is not one for new experiences, but she did not hesitate once we found this camp!”

WRJ has a well-established relationship of support for and involvement with Jewish camping that goes back many decades. From 1952, when the Chicago-area sisterhoods helped found the first Union camp, Olin San Ruby Institute (OSRUI), until the present day, individual sisterhoods, districts, and WRJ as a whole, have consistently supported the Reform Movement’s camps.

The YES Fund, which is funding these scholarships, represents the collective financial efforts of individual donors and WRJ-affiliated sisterhoods to strengthen the Reform Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism. YES Fund grants from WRJ provide Reform Jewish institutions and individuals worldwide with the tools necessary for religious, social, and educational growth.

ORT America Slates 2014 Annual Meeting

ORT America’s 2014 Annual Meeting will feature speakers Shmuel Sisso, Director General and CEO of World ORT; a speaker from the Israeli mission to the United Nations; a student from World ORT’s Kadima Mada program in Israel and an alumna from Bramson ORT College in New York City. Break-out sessions include fundraising, expanding membership, and marketing. The ORT America Board of Directors, the Board of Directors of Women’s American ORT Foundation, and the National Next Gen Board will also meet.

ORT America Next Gen will be hosting a weekend of programming, starting on Saturday, May 3, and extend through Monday, May 5. The 2014 Annual Meeting Chairs are David Gottlieb (Chair, Next Gen NYC and Nikelle Klareich (Chair, Next Gen, Atlanta).

The 2014 Annual Meeting Committee includes Terry Azose (Vice President, ORT America Board of Directors); Larry Kadis (Chair, Executive Committee, ORT America Board of Directors); Linda S. Kirschbaum (National President, ORT America Board of Directors); Alan E. Klugman (National Executive Director); Naomi Reinharz (National Director, National Next Gen).

The meeting will be held at UJA Federation Headquarters, 130 East 59th Street, New York, New York, on Sunday, May 4, 2014, from 10 AM to 2 PM. Couvert is $75 per person.

For further information, contact Michael Bettencourt at mbettencourt@ORTamerica.org. To register online, go to www.ORTamerica.org/annualmeeting. Contact: Naomi Reinharz for information on ORT America’s Next Gen Programming at nreinharz@ORTamerica.org.

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