August 23, 2007
Just ask Israeli kids who lived in bomb shelters
by marc s. klein
j. editor and publisher
Hibuki used to be happy, but now he’s a little sad. Why?
How can we make Hibuki happy again? Maybe he is hungry and needs to be fed; maybe he just wants to play. Or maybe all Hibuki needs is some tender loving care, and then he will be happy again.
Questions like those were posed to 7,000 kindergartners in 15 northern Israeli cities and 2,000 in the southern Sderot region as they were handed one of the soft stuffed animals. Hibuki, loosely translated as “huggy,” does just that if you wrap the plush hangdog around your neck by connecting the Velcro at the tips of its oversized paws.
Aviv Abuhav, a psychologist, said he and his colleagues decided to pair kindergartners with Hibukis after realizing that the Katyusha bombing attacks during last summer’s Lebanon war left many kids with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.
And for many, those symptoms remain a year later. Some of the kids, Abuhav said, are still bed-wetting. Others are afraid whenever they hear a loud noise. And some don’t want to leave their parents’ sides or go outside alone.
“They are able to project their feelings to the puppet,” he explained. “Because of the puppet, the children are no longer the weakest link in the chain.”
When kids were asked how to make Hibuki happy, they were really being asked how they could be made happy again.
Abuhav said that with the help of teachers and parents who were instructed on how to talk to their kids about Hibuki, “in three months many of the children had a decrease in anxiety.”
Hibukis have proven their worth in the north and in southern Israel, where daily Kassam bombings are a fact of life for residents of Sderot and its environs.
The Hibuki project is one of many made possible with the help of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay — both arms of United Jewish Communities. UJC is the umbrella organization for 153 additional Jewish federations in the United States and Canada.
Together, UJC federations raised more than $360 million since the Israel Emergency Campaign was created in July 2006 as the Lebanon war broke out. San Francisco’s federation contributed $5.3 million for that special campaign, while the smaller East Bay federation gave $1.4 million.
Much of the money was distributed to the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Israeli nonprofit groups, which immediately went into the field when the bombing started to see the needs of the northern population as well as the southern area outside of the Gaza Strip.
UJC decided that the projects it funds had to address education, economic opportunities and “community capacity-building,” such as aid to cities and programs to serve underfunded areas.
Besides those projects, UJC made sure that air conditioners, toilets, toys and TVs were brought into shelters where some Israelis in the areas impacted were spending many hours of their days and nights.
In the northern town of Kiryat Yam, where many children are new emigrants from Russia or Ethiopia, there were no existing after-school enrichment programs of the kind many U.S. kids take for granted.
Unfortunately, it took bombs from Lebanon to open the eyes of Israel’s Knesset to the needs there — and to work with UJC in funding needed programs.
A program of after-school enrichment classes was started for 350 kids, ages 9 to 12. A diverse field of studies was introduced, including medicine, robotics, law, the Internet, science and veterinary medicine.
Sipir, 10, is studying TV with an emphasis on how to be a broadcast journalist and conduct interviews. The course helped her escape the memory of the Katyusha rocket that fell near her home, creating a huge crater.
Avi, who is 9, only recently agreed to go outside on his own. He lay awake at night waiting to hear the sirens that go off when a bomb is about to fall. But now he is spending most of his time thinking about veterinary science, as a result of the enrichment course he is taking.
Ten-year-old Chen wanted to forget about last summer, but had no place to go other than home and school. The enrichment program gave her something to do, and now she says she wants to be a labor lawyer.
In other towns in the north, the Israel Emergency Campaign funds enrichment programs for Ethiopian kids, 25 percent of whom normally don’t graduate from high school in Israel. The program hopes to reverse that trend.
UJC also is helping to fund a program for high school students who were so upset by last summer’s bombings that they were unable to study for their high school matriculation exams. The program allowed them to study over the summer and then take their exams.
Professor Mooli Lahad, a psychologist and vice president of the Israel Trauma Center, provided some perspective on how the bombings impacted residents of the north.
He said visitors today look around and wonder if anything happened. “You see that most of the houses are fixed, and you think that most of the souls are fixed. But, unfortunately, healing of souls is a longer process.”
Until the war, northerners felt secure. But now, he said, “40 percent of adults and 60 percent of children are afraid and worried about the next war, because they don’t feel authorities will help them,” according to a study that the Israel Emergency Campaign helped sponsor.
Ten months after last summer’s war, a poll showed that 28 percent of parents reported that they and their children were still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he added.
The war also had an adverse impact on northern Israel’s Arab population. Mahamud Dawud, an Arab psychologist from Acco, said his community had trouble dealing with that fact that “they were attacked by their own family, not an enemy.”
While many Jews in northern Israel sought out psychological help for their trauma issues, many Arabs declined it even when it was offered to them.
Dawud said there is a stigma among Arabs against psychological therapy. “Also, they feel the violence will continue and therapy isn’t needed.”
Besides, he said, “their priorities are to go to religious and spiritual leaders.”
He told a story of a Druze mother who took two of her sons for psychological treatment. When her husband found out about it, the therapy was terminated.
He said some Arab mothers brought their sons in when their husbands were out of town and unaware of what was happening.
The Israel Emergency Campaign is assisting the Arab population when help is accepted.
But Lahad fears that the bombing in both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods will have long-term effects on Israel.
“More and more parents will see the world as dangerous. When people feel that way, they don’t like to take risks, and making peace is taking a risk.”
Minister of Education Yuli Tamir admits that many of the Israel Emergency Fund programs are long overdue in the underfunded north and south.
“War created the opportunity to upgrade education,” she said.
Fewer students graduate high school there than in the rest of Israel, she admitted. Schools are old. Science laboratories need to be added or rebuilt. The school infrastructures are often crumbling.
“We want to tempt people to stay here [in the north], and one of the best ways to do that is to make the school system as good if not better than the school systems in the rest of the country,” Tamir said. To that end, she got the Knesset to make a special allocation this year for educational improvements.
But she said after-school activities will continue only if American money continues to arrive.
The task before the Ashalim Project, which is a partnership between JDC and the Israeli government, was to find a way for children to better deal with an imminent bomb attack.
Loudspeakers throughout the threatened areas announce “Tseva adom,” which means “Color red.” And when you hear that, you need to run for cover — and run fast.
Ashalim found a way to neutralize the anxiety-causing siren by putting “Tzeva adom” to a musical tune that kindergartners to third-graders would find amusing.
It worked, based on the images in a film shown to visitors in the north. Not only did children practice the song in class, they began singing it during recess and at home. It’s now being used in Sderot as well.
Children sing the words and move their bodies as instructed. Below is a portion of the song translated into English (with body movements described in parenthesis):
“Hurry hurry hurry, because it’s dangerous (running to a safe place) ...
We shake our body — shake shake shake (shaking the body and the hands)
We loosen our legs — loosen loosen loosen (throwing legs forward)
We will blow in deep (deep inhalation)
We will blow out as far as possible (exhalation)
We will blow in deep (again, deep inhalation)
We can laugh (releasing laughter)
It’s all gone (clapping), and I feel good it’s over
When the song ends, the children are smiling and laughing — not what you’d expect if a real crisis happened.
But if there is anything Israelis agree on, it’s that the song’s effectiveness should never undergo a test in another bombing.
Marc S. Klein participated in a United Jewish Community press mission to Israel the first week of August.