KIBBUTZ ALUMIM, southern Israel — For parents on the Gaza border who found themselves running for the bomb shelter over and over during the summer, there are issues beyond just getting to a safe place in time. What do you do with your kids once you’re there? How do you talk to your children about feeling safe and secure when you come back outside? What tools can help ease the fears of a 3-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 33-year-old?
That’s where calming therapy comes in.
“Studies show that in order to prevent PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], children need to receive therapy within three hours of the events and also before bed, because that’s when memories crystallize,” said Craig Dershowitz, the executive director of Artists 4 Israel, an art advocacy organization.
“When trauma happens, there are some physical changes in the body,” explained Esther Marcus, a resident of Kibbutz Alumim in the south and an art therapist who specializes in trauma. “Your throat closes up, making it hard to breathe. Also, the brain stops communicating between the left and right side of the brain. This is part of what leads to PTSD, this lack of communication and later a breakdown. When we get people to do art with their hands and the brain at the same time, it helps rebuild those connections quickly.”
‘People think of art therapy as this airy, non-scientific thing. But what we’re trying to say is that it’s as important as physical health’
For the past year, Artists 4 Israel, a pro-Israel art advocacy organization, has worked on an emergency “healing art kit” fashioned in the same shape and size as a first aid kit. The idea is to keep one in the shelter at all times, so that immediately after a siren goes off, parents have calming, therapeutic activities to do with their children while waiting a few minutes before they can leave. Or a kit can stay in the house, to help parents and children talk about their feelings after alert is over. In the future, Artists 4 Israel hopes to expand the healing art kit to ambulances and homes across Israel.
“People think of art therapy as this airy, non-scientific thing,” said Dershowitz. “But what we’re trying to say is that it’s as important as physical health.”
The organization planned to roll out the healing arts kit in October. But after the war in Gaza this summer, members worked intensively with volunteers to come out with an emergency version, with only part of the supplies and activities they planned. As soon as the kits were ready, they jumped on a plane, arriving in Israel as the country began a bout of on-again, off-again short ceasefires.
On Wednesday, Artists 4 Israel visited Kibbutz Alumim, in southern Israel near the Gaza border, to work with the kids and train the parents how to use the kits. The majority of residents of Kibbutz Alumim stayed on the kibbutz for the duration of the war, and the children spent their days inside because it was too dangerous to play outside, even right next to a protected building.
The emergency healing art kit includes things like soap bubbles, which promote deep breathing, and are fun for both kids and adults. There is also modeling clay, because molding soft material with one’s fingers is a tactile activity that feels good and promotes calmness. The clay was tough to get through customs, admitted Dershowitz, because airport security thought it looked like TNT; some of it had yet to be released five days later.
Are they scared? What makes the animals feel strong? It’s easier for children to talk about a toy’s emotions than their own
Another project included in the kit is animal finger puppets. In an explanation sheet, parents are encouraged to ask their children how the animals are feeling. Are they scared? What makes the animals feel strong? It’s easier for children to talk about a toy’s emotions than their own, Rena Grosser, an art therapist in Chicago who volunteers with Artists 4 Israel, explained to the parents. Also, identifying with characteristics of, say, lions and tigers can make them feel strong.
The project also asks the kids to make a home for the animal out of clay, which prompts the kids to think, what kind of home will I create for that animal? What makes the animal feel safe and secure?
Tal Van Der Horst, a mother of two, said the kit will help give her children, age two and four, something to focus on while they’re in the bomb shelter and immediately after they return to their house. “The kids know a lot more than we think they know,” said Van Der Horst. “In kindergartens, the teachers today said the kids were discussing the ceasefire. Four years old and they’re talking about this ceasefire!”
A4I has partnered with WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organization) to try to widely distribute the kits across Israel. This is A4I’s first foray into home projects and clinical art therapy, and the organization has a lot of growing pains, including disorganization and challenges making connections with existing Israeli art therapy organizations. However, Wednesday’s first test run at Kibbutz Alumim showed there is passionate interest in the kits.
Since the kit is still in the preparation stage, Dershowitz and Grosser asked the parents for their input. Van Der Horst suggested they add something that makes noise. For children on the kibbutzim and towns on the border, over the past month the scariest thing was hearing the IDF artillery because it was so loud and so close. Even though they knew the artillery was to protect them, explosions are explosions, and they all sound scary to children, she said.
The idea of art therapy is to engage all of the senses, so an item that the kids can manipulate to make noise, like a clicker, can help them feel like they have control over that sense as well.
The “Code Red” alert noise is also a source of fear. Marcus, the local art therapist, said that many children refuse to wear red and don’t use red in their art projects because “red is the color of fear,” she said. Marcus is the author of a children’s book called “Color [Code] Red,” which tells the story of all of the other colors comforting the color red because no one likes her, insisting that red can be the color of safety rather than fear.
This is the sixth trip Artists 4 Israel, which is based in New York, has made to Israel since the group was founded in 2009. The organization’s goal is to use art to promote a balanced view of Israel abroad, and to bring artists who are well-known in their creative circles to share their art in Israel. They have also hosted plays and indie rock concerts, though their best-known work is inviting respected graffiti artists to paint bomb shelters around the country, including dozens in Sderot and the Golan Heights. Just before arriving in Israel this week, A4I held an art vigil in New York City, and there is currently an interactive bomb shelter museum traveling in the United States to help people understand what being in a bomb shelter entails.
On Wednesday for the first time, A4I decided to paint a bomb shelter with the help of local children rather than solely by graffiti artists. At first parents worried if it was a good idea – not for artistic reasons, but because if a rocket alarm went off, it would be difficult to fit all of the painters inside a single bomb shelter. But the ceasefire was still holding on Wednesday afternoon, so A4I handed out dozens of cans of spray paint, told the kids to go crazy. They ended up with a kaleidoscope of colors on the bottom half of a nondescript bomb shelter.
New York graffiti artist “Broker,” who refused to be photographed or give his real name because he frequently does illegal graffiti in New York, then turned the riot of color into a cohesive mural featuring the words “safe” and “love” inside the shelter. The mural broadcast a message of security while simultaneously, and perhaps inadvertently, acting as an ad for safe sex.
Artists4Israel left the south just a half hour before Hamas shot rockets at Ashkelon and around Kibbutz Alumim on Wednesday evening, as the 72-ceasefire tottered toward a five-day extension with a number of violations around midnight. On Thursday morning, some sirens sounded in the region but were later determined to be false alarms.
Marcus said many of the children have regressed during the current conflict back to bedwetting or refusing to let their parents out of their sight, even when going to the bathroom. “Most of the rockets have been out in open fields, and there hasn’t been major damage here,” she said. “But to get back that sense of security is going to take a lot. Our answer to being in trauma is to be creative.” She noted that in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where she worked for a number of years, members plant a tree wherever a rocket falls, and the kids run around with butterfly nets pretending to catch rockets falling from the sky.
Dershowitz stressed the need for art and culture especially during times of conflict and trauma. “Look at ISIS in Iraq. The first thing that they go after are the cultural sites and they destroy museums. There’s a reason for that,” he said. “Creativity gives you control.”