Until there was the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), Israeli firefighters like Asaf Abras had no organization to help them grapple with the grueling and sometimes gruesome scenes they faced.
“During the second intifada, Jerusalem, where I was a firefighter, was the target of terrorism attacks, at times twice a day, in restaurants, in commercial places,” said Abras. “The images were horrific.”
But in 2001, UJA-Federation of New York created ITC, and a social worker from the coalition came to the fire station where Abras worked.
“At first we shut down from speaking with a stranger,” he said. “But she came several times to talk about trauma, and we started to share our feelings. It was a great relief and great help that a professional could see that firefighters suffer from nightmares and post-trauma.”
The ITC works with more than 40 nongovernmental organizations to help Israelis cope in times of crisis, including rocket attacks, acts of terrorism, and natural disasters.
“We look to support organizations that tackle complex problems with insight, discipline, and leadership, and ITC is one of our most important initiatives,” said Richard Ellenson, co-chair of UJA-Federation’s Mental Health and Well-Being in Youth and Families Task Force. “ITC not only sets up the resources to respond during times of crisis, but also trains at-risk populations in how to handle their own issues.”
Only a joint effort can provide a comprehensive program, adds Omer Egozi, ITC director of resources development. “To help trauma victims, you need to specialize. Treatment for the elderly is different than for a child, an adolescent, or someone who is a minority,” he said. “It requires the coordination of different groups who each have their own specialty. That’s why ITC was established, to create a national effort.”
Since ITC began 13 years ago, the organization has also reached out internationally to offer its professional expertise after Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s tsunami, Boston’s marathon bombing, and Ukraine’s recent violence. ITC is currently working in the Ukraine with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an overseas agency of UJA-Federation of New York.
Responding to Ongoing Trauma
ITC provides direct care as well as training for professionals and guidance for emergency preparedness. ITC staff members treat children, adults, couples, and families using a range of techniques, including game therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, mind-body methods like breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, and eye movement and desensitization and reprocessing, also known as EMDR, psychotherapy that uses rapid eye movements to lessen distressing memories.
The staff adjusts treatment methods to help people cope with the distinct situation in Israel, explained Roni Lior, ITC resilience centers program coordinator. Normally, people working in the trauma field treat victims of post-traumatic events, she said, but in parts of Israel, especially in the south where there is constant fear of rockets falling, people experience ongoing trauma.
“So, for example, we’ll use board and card games, but modify them to reflect the local situation,” she said. “A popular trauma treatment that reintroduces the traumatizing event to a victim is not effective in Israel. You can’t revisit a trauma if you are living it every day.”
Egozi noted that ITC has created an infrastructure and resources that can be called on when emergencies arise, which allows the coalition to be responsive in a crisis.
Yet as firefighter Abras has come to recognize, the training from ITC is also useful for the stressful work first responders often face. “It’s helpful for situations like car accidents and house fires, as well,” he said.