TORONTO — When Lior Ben Porat stepped off the plane from Israel to Canada at the end of October, he had no idea what to expect.
Ben Porat, 28, is a former Israel Defence Forces (IDF) commander who served in the Second Lebanon War. He and his unit in the Golani 51 Battalion spent a week in Toronto as part of a three-month therapy program for combat soldiers called Peace of Mind (POM).
The program, run through the Israel Centre for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP) at the Herzog Hospital Latner Institute in Jerusalem, helps treat released soldiers who have experienced traumatic events during their mandatory army service. It was established by the ICTP’s director Danny Brom.
For one week, each group of soldiers travels to a city in Europe or North America, where they are hosted by the local Jewish community. For this group of 15 Golani soldiers in Toronto, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda was the host synagogue.
“It’s still hard to believe that something like this exists. I mean, people and families and the community are treating us so well and embracing us and giving us so much love. The atmosphere here makes it possible to deal with and to speak about things that, otherwise, we would have carried with us as burdens for many more years,” said Ben Porat.
Ben Porat’s unit fought in one of the main battles in the war, the battle of Bint Jbeil, in southern Lebanon, where his battalion lost eight men. He said the hardest time for him is each year during the memorials for his friends’ deaths and during his reserve service.
Like Ben Porat, another soldier from the unit Ohad Dayag, 26, has trouble dealing with the memories of his fallen friends. As civilians, they have had to ignore their pain in order to keep living their daily lives. “When we’re released from the army, we put it on the side,” said Dayag.
Their unit is the 11th to go through the program and the third group to come to Canada. Linoy Hazan, the co-ordinating director of POM in Canada, hopes to bring another group in April. “If I could give this project to every single soldier, it would be my dream,” she said.
During their weeklong stay, the soldiers visit tourist attractions such as Niagara Falls, attend events with the community and at their host synagogue and visit Hebrew day schools. This group was also treated to a hockey game by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chair Larry Tanenbaum and his wife, Judy.
For many of the soldiers, visiting the children at school was extremely emotional. “Entire schools prepared presentations and songs – it really surprised me. It shows you that you’re really appreciated,” said Ben Porat.
According to Sason Rahabi, the program’s manager in Israel and one of the social workers who accompanied the group to Toronto, it’s the feelings of love and appreciation that are the most significant for the soldiers. “It is very important that the Jewish community values them and allows them to feel that what they are doing for the good of the country is actually for the good of all Jews,” he said.
For Ben Porat, learning just that was eye-opening. He said that in Israel, where political opinions are extremely polarized, it can be difficult to feel any kind of unified support as a soldier. “When you come here and you see the entire Jewish community behind you, it’s really surprising to me,” he said, adding that it made him realize how important Israeli soldiers are to Diaspora Jews.
For each unit selected to participate in the program, it costs about $55,000. The funds are raised through private donations and sponsoring Jewish institutions. “The more it grows, the more people know about it and want to support it,” said Hazan. She added that there are about 5,000 combat units who need a program like this to process their experiences during their service.
Hazan said that she sees the difference the program has made for each group, something that is tracked through long-term research at the ICTP. For her, the Peace of Mind program promises much more than just a name. “When you pick up the soldiers at the airport, they’re very reserved. When they’re done, they’re completely different people that you bring back.”