Bereaved Israeli parents cope with loss by getting behind the camera

His own son murdered by Palestinian terrorists, Ofir Shaer plays dad struggling with raising surviving children while keeping memory of dead son alive as part of innovative program

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Ma'aleh video therapy bereaved fathers group. Back row (left to right): Asher Lemann (facilitator), David Cohen, Chanan Ariel, Ofir Shaer, Yosef Baruch Kalangel, Nachum Lemkus. Front row (left to right): Keren Hakak (facilitator), Menachem Assaraf, Shalom Sarel. (Courtesy of Ma'aleh)
Ma'aleh video therapy bereaved fathers group. Back row (left to right): Asher Lemann (facilitator), David Cohen, Chanan Ariel, Ofir Shaer, Yosef Baruch Kalangel, Nachum Lemkus. Front row (left to right): Keren Hakak (facilitator), Menachem Assaraf, Shalom Sarel. (Courtesy of Ma'aleh)

A year after his teenage son Gil-ad was kidnapped and murdered together with Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach by Palestinian terrorists in 2014, Ofir Shaer said the most important thing now was for him to focus on bringing up his five surviving daughters.

“We have five wonderful daughters who are living, and who want to live happily. We need to go forward for them,” he told the Times of Israel in May, 2015 as he prepared to mark the first anniversary of his son’s death.

However, the truth was that focusing on his daughters was easier said than done, especially when so much of his time was spent mourning in the public eye. The kidnapping of the three boys galvanized international Jewish solidarity and sparked what would become known as Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day war against Hamas in Gaza lasting throughout summer 2014. In the tense year following, Shaer worked tirelessly to establish Gil-ad’s legacy by encouraging ongoing national and Israel-Diaspora unity.

Ofir Shaer (left) with his son Gil-ad Shaer, who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in June 2014. (Courtesy)
Ofir Shaer (left) with his son Gil-ad Shaer, who was kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists in June 2014. (Courtesy)

Not surprisingly, Shaer ended up doing a lot of the emotional work around what it means to raise surviving children in front of the camera, whether by giving speeches to American Jewish communities or handing out the the Jerusalem Unity Prize.

Now, Shaer’s in front of the cameras in a different way: video cameras held by recently bereaved fellow fathers who participated with him in a video therapy program offered by the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & The Arts in Jerusalem.

The program’s innovative approach combines filmmaking with group therapy techniques. The group’s participants, guided by a therapist and a filmmaking professional, explore feelings, share experiences and support one another emotionally while gaining practical skills in filmmaking. During the eight-month course, the group’s members work toward creating a final project: A short film they write, produce and act in together.

It was in Ma’aleh’s weekly video therapy group that Shaer discovered that he was not alone in his struggles with how to balance being a bereaved father with the rest of his identity.

“I have two identities. I am Ofir and I am a bereaved father. I can be going about my day and then suddenly it hits me that I am Gil-ad’s dad and Gil-ad was murdered. I wasn’t sure where being a bereaved father fit within my overall identity. The video therapy helped me integrate it,” Shaer recently told The Times of Israel during an interview in downtown Jerusalem.

Ma’aleh is the only film school in Israel offering a video therapy program, according to the school’s director Neta Ariel. The program began after she and others at the school realized the therapeutic impact of community service filmmaking workshops Ma’aleh film students were doing with local at-risk youth. Ariel also noticed that some Ma’aleh students were themselves using filmmaking as a therapeutic tool for working through their own personal traumas.

“We discovered students were using their filmmaking to deal with issues they had not told therapists or even their parents about,” Ariel said.

The video therapy field is well developed in other countries. One example is Patton Veterans Project, Inc. in the US, a non-profit venture founded by Benjamin Patton, a grandson of WWII’s General George S. Patton, Jr. Ma’aleh has sought guidance from this project, which runs “I Was There” therapeutic filmmaking workshops for US veterans and military families, helping them cope with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, and to reconnect with their communities.

Six years ago, Ma’aleh launched a professional year-long course to train filmmakers, psychologists, social workers, school counselors and others in video therapy. The model has filmmakers and therapists working together as teams with groups of eight to 12 people from a similar demographic. Students in the video therapy program did their training with groups of at-risk youth, elderly, new immigrants, homeless individuals, and other populations. The initiative now has 50 graduates, most of whom run video therapy programs in various settings around the country, mainly through or in conjunction with non-profit organizations.

Aside from the practicums, Ma’aleh offers one additional video therapy group program per year. In 2016, it was the bereaved fathers group in which Ofir Shaer participated. In 2015, Ariel organized a video therapy group for bereaved mothers. Hopes to offer a group for bereaved grandparents in 2017 are contingent on fundraising. More funding would allow her to open more groups for more populations.

Tamar Ariel during the December 27, 2012 IAF Flight School graduation ceremony, (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
Tamar Ariel during the December 27, 2012 IAF Flight School graduation ceremony, (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

“There are so many groups that could benefit from this. We at Ma’aleh view this as an important way in which we can give back to Israeli society,” Ariel said.

In the wake of the 2014 Gaza War, Ariel scanned newspapers and websites for names of fallen soldiers and cold called their mothers, inviting them to join a video therapy group beginning in January 2015.

Seven of these mothers signed on, joined by Brenda Lemkus, mother of Dalia Lemkus, who was killed by terrorists outside the Alon Shvut settlement, and Anat Ariel, mother of Tamar Ariel, who died in a Himalayan blizzard in October 2014.

Anat Ariel was receptive when the Ma’aleh director (her sister-in-law) mentioned the course at the shiva for Tamar, who was the first female religious IAF pilot. It would be starting in just a couple of months

“My grief was very fresh. It was a way for me to work through it. I am an open person and I an willing to try new things. I was open to talking about Tamar and about my pain,” Anat Ariel said.

Her willingness to try video therapy paid off in a number of ways. In the group, she met other women who could truly understand what she was going through.

“I felt I wanted to go to bed early, around 4 pm, to escape the day. Another mom said she felt exactly the same way. I realized I was totally normal…at least under the circumstances,” she said.

Ariel embraced the filmmaking aspect of the program. She bought herself a high quality camera and started looking at the world through its lens. She devoted a lot of time to the various exercises and projects assigned for the course, and she ended up using the skills she gained to make 20-minute-long documentary films for each of the two annual memorial events since Tamar’s death.

“The camera keeps you alive and optimistic. I see everything as a subject for filming now,” said Anat Ariel, who encouraged her husband Chanan to join the bereaved father’s video therapy group, which he did.

After completing the course and making a film with the other mothers called “Shiva” about the challenges of dealing with bereaved grandparents while being a bereaved parent herself, Anat Ariel, who has a background in social work, decided to enroll in Ma’aleh’s professional video therapy program.

“I fell in love with video therapy and I want to use it to help others,” she said.

Both Anat Ariel and Ofir Shaer have done conventional psychotherapy as part of dealing with their loss, and both praise video therapy as providing an added dimension.

“It’s a working through grief in a really healthy way that is different from just talking to a psychologist. It’s a film, so you see if from the outside. But you also act in it, so you experience it from the inside,” said Shaer, who plays the father of a fallen soldier who unintentionally ignores his surviving son in the bereaved fathers’ group’s film, titled, “Where To?”

According to Ma’aleh’s video therapy program coordinator Miri Bocker, video therapy provides so much meaning because it allows people to take their stories and conflicts outside of themselves.

“You are writing a script, so you are putting more characters into your internal story. You can do wishful thinking. There is no judgement. And you are working in a group and not alone. As a group you can have disagreements and work together to overcome obstacles,” Bocker explained.

Therapeutic filmmaking can have an impact on the facilitators too. Filmmaker Keren Hakak, who worked with the fathers, noted that working as a video therapy facilitator is different from working as a director.

Ofir Shaer in 'Where To?' film made by Ma'aleh bereaved fathers video therapy group. (Courtesy of Ma'aleh)
Ofir Shaer in ‘Where To?’ film made by Ma’aleh bereaved fathers video therapy group. (Courtesy of Ma’aleh)

“When I make my own film, I do it according to my own vision, even if I get input and cooperation from others. I am very conscious when I am doing video therapy that the film is not my own. It belongs to the group. The film has an impact not only once it is finished, but while it is being made,” she said.

“I had to be in my own head as the director, but also in the participants’ heads. I was responsible to them on all levels. It was all for them. It’s their story and their experiences,” she added.

Shaer pointed out that the films made by the bereaved parents, while primarily aimed at helping the parents themselves, also affect the audiences that see them. Other bereaved families can see these films and identify with them, and families who have been fortunate to not have similar experiences can begin to understand what others have gone through.

It is powerful to watch Shaer play a bereaved father, knowing that he himself is one.

There is a pivotal scene at the end of the film in which Shaer’s character looks squarely at a photo of his dead son.

It’s a moving moment. It’s even more so knowing that it was only after shooting that scene two year’s after Gil-ad’s murder, that Shaer was finally able to put a photo of his son on his desk at work.

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