Rabbis offer pastoral care for those traumatized by Oct. 7 Hamas attack The Oct. 7 attacks on Israel displaced tens of thousands of Israelis from their kibbutzim near Gaza. Since then, rabbis have been crisscrossing the country offering trauma-informed care to victims.

Rabbis offer pastoral care for those traumatized by Oct. 7 Hamas attack

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The October 7 attacks on Israel displaced tens of thousands of Israeli Jews from their kibbutzim near Gaza. Since then, they've been living away from home and rabbis have been visiting them to talk. NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose spoke with those offering and receiving care.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Imitating baby crying).

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: The entrance to the Shefayim beachside hotel just north of Tel Aviv has a grim reminder of the Hamas attacks.

YAEL VURGAN: There is a huge board here with names of two dozen people who were taken hostages to Gaza.

DEROSE: Rabbi Yael Vurgan points to the ceiling-high sign in the lobby. She is thankful some of the hostages have been returned.

VURGAN: The red dots are the five hostages from Kfar Aza that are still in Gaza. And it's really unbearable that there are still people, young people, hostages in Gaza.

DEROSE: Kfar Aza is a kibbutz where Hamas militants killed scores of residents. Survivors have been evacuated to this resort. It's one of the 10 kibbutzim that Rabbi Vurgan has served for the last five years, leading Shabbat services, preparing kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs and, more recently, attending funerals - since October, more than 60, funerals with multiple coffins because militants killed entire families.

VURGAN: People who are so traumatized have a need to talk about what happened to them, although we might think that they don't want to talk about it. But people really, really need to tell their story again and again.

DEROSE: And they want to hear what their tradition has to offer during these painful days.

VURGAN: We ask, so what is shalem (ph)? What is whole still in our lives and didn't break, and what is broken? And we need to acknowledge both of them.

DEROSE: And, she says, something beyond acknowledge.

VURGAN: Prayer is also an opportunity to cry out, to ask to be protected, to ask for help, saying, God, help us. See how miserable we are. Help us.

DEROSE: Those who've been displaced have ended up all over the country, some, like those from Kfar Aza, at seaside hotels, others in big cities.

TECHELET GRABOWSKY: Now we will see the little kindergartens.

DEROSE: Techelet Grabowsky is showing off the makeshift kindergarten she helped set up in the conference rooms of the five-star Orient Hotel in downtown Jerusalem.

GRABOWSKY: Hi, guys. These are the little ones. They're 1 year old until 3 year old.

DEROSE: Grabowsky fled from her home on the kibbutz Or HaNer near Gaza on October 7. That day is still very present in her mind.

GRABOWSKY: I have the, like, five-minute choice. Understand the picture - my husband with a knife from the kitchen, I'm with a machete from the backyard.

DEROSE: Defending themselves as they packed their 4-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son into the car and sped away. Eventually, the family ended up here, sharing one hotel room.

GRABOWSKY: To say it's a miracle we're alive, grateful every day, but with a lot of hard questions also to God. Why us? Why now?

DEROSE: Grabowsky describes herself as more spiritual than religious, but these questions of faith have become more pressing the longer she's in exile from her home. She feels betrayed by her own government, her own long-held belief that peace was possible, and by the Gazans she'd worked alongside for years.

GRABOWSKY: We talk about the big rupture in believing in humanity, in the good of person. Who's the other party we want to do so badly peace with? They don't want peace. They want to murder us all.

DEROSE: Still, with help from rabbis, she's reformulating a way of talking about her spirituality.

GRABOWSKY: I believe in good and bad. I believe in the Ten Commandments. I believe that (speaking Hebrew). I think it's the base of the Torah. It's like, do for the other what you want the world to do for you.

DEROSE: Among those doing for others, offering pastoral care at hotels filled with displaced people, is Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.

TAMAR ELAD-APPELBAUM: And I saw just as I entered one of the hotels a child hiding himself underneath a table and holding onto the leg of the table. And I remember seeing his mother going down underneath the table and sitting next to him. And in many ways, this is what rabbis do, sit underneath a table and hand the tools that are closest to their hearts.

DEROSE: Tools like prayers and liturgies. She's been a rabbi for more than two decades and helps direct Jerusalem's educational Shalom Hartman Institute.

ELAD-APPELBAUM: One of the first things that trauma creates is the loss of language. You have no language for what your eyes witnessed, for what your heart trembled from.

DEROSE: But when one's own language fails, Elad-Appelbaum says that is when scripture and tradition can lend words.

ELAD-APPELBAUM: At the beginning of the Torah, of the Hebrew Bible, it says that God saw that there is an abyss. And only then, sending His spirit onto it, He created light. So light is something you plant only on the abyss.

DEROSE: During the more than 100 days Elad-Appelbaum has been visiting the displaced victims of the Hamas attacks, she's kept these words of scripture, as she says, close to her heart.

ELAD-APPELBAUM: As Psalm 1 says, (speaking Hebrew). Blessed is the person who does not go in the ways of the cruel, does not stop where cruelty sits. And he would be like a tree that is planted deep, deep on the rivers of water of life. And his leaves will not fall, and everything he does will become life again.

DEROSE: The lesson, says Elad-Appelbaum, is this - despite the cruelty of October 7, the blessing is to continue living.

Jason DeRose, NPR News, Jerusalem.


INSKEEP: We have so many stories on the Israel-Hamas war, and you can find more of them by going to npr.org and searching there for Middle East crisis - explained.


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