(June 14, 2018 / JNS) A few of the 100 middle-schoolers in the room had probably heard the term PTSD before. Hardly any of them had ever met anyone, however, who had suffered the trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, much less encountered 10 of them at once.
But earlier this month, middle-schoolers at the Rashi School in Dedham, Mass., did just that.
The Israelis who came to speak to them were all combat soldiers injured in the line of duty. As such, they are also members of a remarkable organization (some 830 strong) called “Brothers for Life” (Achim L’Chayim), a group that for the last 11 years has been bringing the wounded together with American Jews, along with injured U.S. soldiers and, perhaps most importantly, with each other.
Take Ohad Poraz, 33, a healthy-looking father of 4-month-old twins who told the students, “I’m at a point in my life when I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
But this friendly young man in a baseball cap gives no sign of the bullet still lodged in his abdomen or the nights he has flashbacks of a three-terrorist ambush near Hebron. Nor can you guess how often he’s glanced over his shoulder when eating out with his wife to check in case a gunman or bomber is poised to barge into the restaurant.
Still, when he learned of Brothers for Life, Poraz held back. “I thought it would be a bunch of handicapped men feeling sorry for themselves,” he acknowledges.
When he finally did connect in 2014, Poraz found that it was anything but a pity party. “As combat soldiers, we think we’re not supposed to show fear or weakness, or admit we need help. And if you’re not in a wheelchair, people look at you like ‘what’s the problem?’ Our group encourages the guys to take off the Superman mask and face their feelings.”
But despite everything he’s been through, when one of the kids asked if army service was optional in Israel, would he still do it, Poraz answered without a moment’s hesitation.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We need to protect our citizens and defend our borders; everyone does what they can, and everyone counts. We have a strong front because we have a strong back.”
Of his own children, he says: “I don’t want them to be in the army, but if by that time we still have to fight for our existence, they will be.”
As for the youngsters, they took the group’s message to heart. “It’s very important that we learn from them,” said seventh-grader Isaac Zelermyer. “To hear about their experiences and how there is a healing that happens by being together.”
Those experiences include what happened to Brother for Life member Shalom Asayag in the spring of 2007 near Nablus. All these years later, he can still see the cat crossing the road, followed by a terrorist with a rifle; he can still hear the gunfire and exploding grenades, and feel the searing pain in his right elbow where a bullet passed through, and then in his leg. And he recalls the sensation of being loaded on a stretcher and carried a long way.
A year-and-a-half later, Asayag had learned to use his arm and leg again. “But you get shaken up from your normal life. Your family and friendships all change, and the PTSD can return any time. Today, I know the ‘Brothers’ are there for me. It’s a safety net at all times.”
In fact, “Brothers” reach out to the newly injured, and there’s even help to be had for such needs as securing a mortgage and legal services, says Asayag, who’s now an engineer and father of two.
‘They teach such an important lesson’
“They’re inspiring,” says Sean Wilder, a Rashi School dad who helps organize the program that welcomes 10 men every year to the Boston area to spend a week visiting day schools and meeting with injured American soldiers, in addition to Holocaust survivors. “People see Israel on TV or on the news, but few see the reality of what these soldiers go through. Now our kids can see that they’re just like everyone else and can take that understanding into the future.”
The Wilder family has grown close to many of the soldiers whom they’ve hosted in Boston. So when it was time to hold their son Ben’s bar mitzvah, one “Brother” convinced Wilder and his wife, Sonya, to switch the location from Boston to the Western Wall. One of them offered to lead the ceremony, and others traveled to Jerusalem from all over Israel for the occasion.
“When you think of how brave they are and fought for our people, and they are just the same as us, and nice and kind,” says younger daughter Julia, a Rashi seventh-grader, “it makes me feel good that we can show them how much we care about them and thank them for all they do.”
According to head of school Mallory Rome, this kind of moral resolve is a valuable lesson for her young charges. “Not only is learning and caring about Israel an important part of Rashi,” she says, but meeting the wounded Israelis “demonstrates what it’s like to be reflective about the monumental challenges they’ve faced and the powerful way they live their values. They teach such an important lesson for our students.”
Here in the United States, Asayag says he was particularly moved by meeting a group of 22 Holocaust survivors. “My family is from Morocco and Afghanistan, so we didn’t have the Holocaust experience,” he says. “But the survivors’ love of life made me see there is a very good reason I served. And why I would do it again: to protect all of us, all the Jewish people wherever we are, and have a country to call our own where we can always find safety.”
One of the students asked: “What did you have in common with the survivors?”
Yossi Kremer replied: “It’s the day-to-day choice to choose life.”
In fact, on the doorway of their office in Israel is a sign: B’chur b’chaim—“As we are commanded in Deuteronomy 30:19, choose life.”
At the end of the day, that’s what “Brothers for Life” is all about. Even years after they were injured, they note that they “sometimes have our dark times,” says Poraz. “But we don’t have to go through the dark days by ourselves.”
To learn more about “Brothers for Life,” visit https://www.brothersforlife.com/home/.