Restoring safety and trust: How educational specialists are supporting traumatized students in Israel

Royi Yablochnik emphasizes talking with them, and being open and honest in an age-appropriate way.

Kids at a World ORT Kadima Mada class aimed at relieving stress and anxiety. Credit: World ORT.
Kids at a World ORT Kadima Mada class aimed at relieving stress and anxiety. Credit: World ORT.

By Joanne Newman

In normal times, Royi Yablochnik runs One Team Camp, a summer event bringing together Jewish and Bedouin Israeli teenage girls for cross-cultural sports activities organized by World ORT Kadima Mada. The camps foster a sense of belonging and promote values, including equality, inclusion and mutual respect.

But these are not normal times. Since Hamas’s devastating attacks on Oct. 7, the educational psychologist and sports consultant has been providing therapeutic support to World ORT Kadima Mada students aged between 12 and 16, as well as to staff, instructors and educators.

Over the past month, Kadima Mada—World ORT’s operational arm in Israel—has delivered hundreds of activities to more than 3,500 students, mainly covering psychological needs. From World ORT’s Kfar Silver Youth Village near Ashkelon alone, more than 100 children are receiving urgent mental health support.

Yablochnik has been displaced from southern Israel and is now based in Tel Aviv. His role is threefold: the first is to reduce the anxiety of his colleagues and students; the second is to equip teachers and parents with tools to support the children; and the third is to provide one-to-one or group therapy, either face-to-face or via Zoom.

A student in Dimona, Israel, takes part in a puppet-making class. Credit: World ORT.

“In Israel now, there is a lot of anxiety,” he says. “And in times of stress, we can lose the ability to control our thinking, so we need to find a way to calm the mind. I give the students and staff exercises on how to do this. If they need follow-up sessions, I can do that myself or refer them to psychologists near where they are.”

Students, teachers and other staff were evacuated from their base in Kfar Silver, which is only eight miles from Gaza. Many of them have friends or family members who lost their lives in the Hamas attacks and the proximity to Gaza means residents have very little time to find shelter in the event of rocket fire.

Yablochnik, who is also serving in the army reserves, describes how in stressful situations there are three responses: fight, flight or freeze. But now there is another response, he notes, and that is fear. “The sense of security in one’s home is damaged,” he says.

The psychological impact of Hamas’s barbaric attacks cannot be overestimated.

“As children, you are led to believe that there will always be an adult to take care of you,” he says. “In the beginning, it’s your mother and father, and when you grow up, it’s the commander or the army, police and government. But that idea was quashed on Oct. 7 because people’s first questions were ‘Where’s the army? Where is the government?’ because many were waiting almost eight hours in the shelter.”

He explains that “the first thing I’m dealing with is to restore the feeling of safety and trust. From a psychological point of view, if you don’t build your ‘story,’ your mind will keep questioning things and will suggest its own answer, which is not good because it will continue in survival mode and not let us move on.”

Royi Yablochnik, Credit: Courtesy.

‘Bring back a sense of control’

Part of his efforts are aimed at reconciling civilians with the fact their lives are not continuing as usual.

“They need to deal with a new situation; they must stop trying to go back to the routine they had on Oct. 6. What we tend to tell them is that we will try to keep as much of a schedule as we can, to keep things as similar as possible to what life was like before. For example, sleep, exercise—things we know will help to bring back a sense of control.

“I bring tools from the world of sports psychology because we know athletes deal with stress all the time. Obviously, the stress is different now and people are in survival mode, but there are things we can do that are very similar to what we can do in times of normal stress—for example, focus on how to breathe and take part in physical activity.”

Some Israeli schools are operational, but teachers understand that students will be distracted and unfocused. Additionally, parents fear their children may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their experiences, but he is reassuring. “Most of the people, almost 80%, will heal by themselves,” but he emphasizes that the way parents handle the situation will influence the way their children do.

“If you are very anxious and afraid, or you’re very mad all the time because you’re not sleeping, it will affect the children. Conversely, if you see your children laugh and be happy, it will make you stronger and reduce your anxiety.”

He emphasizes talking with them, and being open and honest in an age-appropriate way. “Children notice things. It’s hard to tell children about the situation, and many parents think it might be best to hide it from them, but children don’t live in isolation; they talk with friends.”

He praises World ORT, the Jewish education network working across more than 40 countries, and Kadima Mada for the support provided straight after the attacks. “It is very important to provide therapy straight away, as well as in the months afterwards, particularly to prevent PTSD. They encouraged us to contact people immediately to see whether they needed our help, rather than waiting for them to contact us.”

Students in Dimona, Israel, take part in a puppet-making class. Credit: World ORT.

He hopes to be able to provide more face-to-face therapy and physical activity sessions, especially as he foresees a rise in PTSD cases in the country given the unprecedented numbers of people who were involved in the terror attacks.

But, he adds, offering a note of optimism: “The solidarity in the country now means I don’t think it will be as bad as it could have been. As human beings, we love to be in groups, and groups make us strong. The [political] situation we had in Israel in the past year was very bad. People are now more united.”

ORT’s emergency global campaign is working to provide urgent educational and psychological support for students, teachers and their families across Israel.

To offer help, visit: https://ort.org/en/israel-emergency-campaign/.

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