MILIOU, Cyprus — On a furlough from his IDF reserve duty, young Israeli singer Omri Goren came straight from Gaza to Secret Forest, an upscale, holistic retreat center and spa high in the mountains of rural western Cyprus.
In Gaza, he was a member of a special unit tasked with the recovery of fallen soldiers’ bodies. He would usually know the names of the soldiers they recovered and often saw the mourning families on TV the next day.
That first evening in Cyprus, Goren was startled to recognize a few faces. “Suddenly, I saw some people, and I knew that I had brought out their sons’ bodies. Talking with them was like closing a circle. One father came and hugged me and thanked me,” he said.
Unbeknownst to him, among the guests at the center that weekend was a group of bereaved parents, Israelis from various walks of life in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Every member of the group had a son serving in the IDF who was recently killed fighting in the Israel-Hamas war.
That group of parents — 10 married couples — were invited to a fully subsidized retreat weekend, accompanied from Israel by two professional therapists and a volunteer from Yad Labanim and One Family, both bereaved families’ support organizations, which sponsor these journeys.
After that surprise encounter, Goren said he had to be alone for a moment. “I cried my eyes out. I felt like I was letting go of the entire war, it was a total release,” he recalled. The experience, he said, was “the healing that I needed.”
The bereaved parents’ group spent three intensive days of group therapy sessions, nature hikes, healthy kosher food and the use of spa amenities at Secret Forest. The weekend also included Shabbat meals and prayers, musical performances, a Torah writing ceremony and a great deal of informal conversations and interactions.
The facility, parts of which are several hundred years old, is built around a geothermal spring long thought to have healing properties. Surrounded by orange groves, a picturesque village and unspoiled mountainous terrain, the center is managed by an Israeli-owned hospitality group associated with the Chabad movement.
The Times of Israel was invited by Secret Forest to join the bereaved parents, who showed an unusual openness and willingness to tell their stories. By and large reluctant to make the journey initially, by the end of the weekend the group, almost all of whom hadn’t met each other previously, had forged close bonds and planned to continue the connections back in Israel.
Moving inward, moving on
The bereaved parents’ group, like all the guests, could avail themselves of the various spa facilities as they desired, and many did. Especially popular were morning Pilates classes, acupuncture treatments and dips in the heated indoor pool.
The locally sourced kosher dairy meals, served buffet style in the central dining hall, were a focal point for conversations and sharing. On Friday night, after open Shabbat services were held for all the guests who wished to attend in the center’s small basement synagogue, the parents found a long Shabbat table decked out in white, especially for them.
The natural setting and “total pampering,” as more than one participant put it, helped the group to release some of their tension. Twice a day they would break off into two groups for sessions led by the accompanying therapists, which this reporter did not attend.
“This a special group and I think they feel that. They are open, participatory people,” said Roni Lieberman-Wander, one of the therapists.
The participants shared in various ways how they now have to navigate “a different kind of life, which is not easy,” she said. She stressed that a major thrust of the therapy sessions was to facilitate the idea that there is “something in choosing life, in focusing on figuring out how to continue after this disaster.”
The October 7 Hamas onslaught into southern Israel saw terror operatives overrun military bases, communities and the Supernova dance music festival. They killed some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, amid widespread scenes of horrific abuse. The terrorists also took 253 hostages. Israel subsequently declared war and launched an offensive on Gaza which has continued unabated, except for a brief November truce in which Hamas released 105 civilians in exchange for security prisoners held by Israel.
When discussing these meetings afterward, the parents uniformly said that the sharing and bonding became one of the most meaningful parts of the weekend.
“There were a lot of ups and downs. I think that this kind of togetherness, a support group, has a great healing effect,” reported Shira Dishon, who came on the retreat with her husband Dore.
Their son Eytan, a commando in the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit and the oldest of five boys, was killed in Gaza on November 20.
“He was a real hero, he was so happy with the place he was in, with the role he had found in life,” she said. Eytan Dishon was known as a deep Torah scholar and after his IDF service had planned to live in Kiryat Shmona, where he had attended a pre-army yeshiva.
From the therapy sessions, “You receive tools on how to deal with mourning and your emotions. You can cry and laugh,” said participant Hagit Rosenzweig, who added that the informal “small talk between ourselves” also played a great role in “feeling free.”
Back in their community of Alon Shvut, the family now “feels a little different. Everyone looks at you, you go to speak with them and they don’t have words. It’s fine, but you have to talk and explain and that takes a lot of strength. Here, you receive strength,” Hagit’s husband Uzi said.
Their son Eitan Rosenzweig, of the Givati Brigade’s Shaked Battalion, was killed on November 22 in Gaza. He was an artistic, spiritual intellectual, the Rosenzweigs said, who consumed books on both religious and secular subjects. He had forged a rare and deep connection with the Gur Hasidic community in Jerusalem, which the family has continued. He was a prolific and unique illustrator, and the family is searching for a museum to house some of his artwork.
The glare of the media
Zvika Greenglick, an energetic man in his mid-60s, said the retreat was “a pleasant surprise, it’s so relaxed here. It’s unbelievable. You have everything you need.”
Recounting a series of exhausting radio interviews he had done in the days before coming to the island, he said the family had been overwhelmed with media attention since their son Shaul Greenglick was killed in Gaza on December 25, less than a month before.
Shaul Greenglick had made a powerful televised audition for the popular reality show “The Next Star” while in uniform, on temporary leave from reserve duty. After he was later killed in action the story went viral, and the family has been the subject of multiple articles and appearances in the Hebrew and international media.
His wife Ruti, a trauma therapist who specializes in dealing with loss, “is now a patient herself,” Zvika Greenglick said matter-of-factly.
The heroes of October 7
Some of the families at the retreat lost their sons during the initial Hamas incursion; two spoke to The Times of Israel. In both cases, the soldiers were killed while saving others in acts of extreme bravery.
For Ofer Peri and his wife Ronit, it was “very difficult to come [to Cyprus]. We don’t understand what we are doing here. We are trying anything that can give a little comfort or that will give us a way to deal with this thing.”
“It’s three months later but you are still in a nightmare,” he said.
A gentle, quiet man, Ofer Peri explained that his son, Roei Peri, a soldier in the Golani brigade’s 13th battalion, was stationed at the Faga outpost near Gaza on the morning of October 7.
Early that morning the outpost was overrun by a large group of Hamas gunmen, and Roei Peri and his commander were killed while laying down cover fire, which enabled the rest of the soldiers to take refuge in the mess hall, a protected structure.
Many of the soldiers later visited the family “to apologize, and ask for forgiveness,” he said.
“All the group here has lost their children, so it feels easy to speak, it’s easy to open up. You think: they understand the pain and sadness that you carry,” said Sara Schwartz, an English teacher from Beit She’an, who attended the retreat with her husband Ehud.
Their son, Segev “Segvi” Schwartz, a soldier in the Nahal Brigade’s 50th infantry battalion, was killed on October 7 during the battle for Kibbutz Sufa. Reflecting the chaos of those early days after the assault, the family at first heard he was wounded and searched hospital beds throughout the country for “three difficult days,” in vain.
Showing this reporter several images of a bullet-ridden concrete room, she said they were sent by soldiers to show where their son had been killed. It was explained to them that while a group was taking cover in the kibbutz mess hall, a live grenade was thrown inside and their son dived on it.
“His body absorbed a grenade… because of him, 30 soldiers survived. He saved them,” Schwartz said.
“It’s very sad,” said Udi, the father. “I myself am trying to continue but I break down sometimes. Once a week I go to his grave to speak with him. It’s a new life now.”
While at the center he went to have a massage every morning, “the best I’ve ever had. Here, it’s a real vacation. I love the quiet here, the view, the clean air, and we have met wonderful people.”
A healing vision
Secret Forest has taken an active hand in providing similar subsidized retreats since the Israel-Hamas war began.
Working with a team of trauma therapy specialists, Yoni Kahana, the self-proclaimed “total Chabadnik” owner of the hospitality group that manages the facility, began inviting batches of survivors from the Supernova party massacre soon after October 7.
Later, bereaved parents began to come for weekend visits, groups whose children were killed at the Supernova party initially, and then parents of soldiers killed in the line of duty. At first, this was all funded out of his own pocket, but Kahana later opened up a crowdfunding effort for donations and began receiving assistance from various aid organizations.
More than 1,200 people have received the fully subsidized therapeutic retreats so far. During these visits, the Secret Forest still has regular guests of different kinds. Concurrent with the bereaved parents’ retreat, a group of Israelis who study Tanya, the fundamental text of Chabad Hasidic thought, were a raucous presence who regularly stayed up late into the night, studying and singing together.
Stays at Secret Forest normally cost NIS 800-1,500 ($220-$400) per night depending upon accommodations, inclusive of all meals, facilities and various health treatments. Due to the nature of the resort, minors under 16 years of age are not permitted.
As the end of the retreat drew closer, the participants began to speak about what awaited them upon their return to regular life. This topic was intensely discussed during the therapy sessions, said Ilana Teicher, the other accompanying therapist.
“When they go back, they have to land from the ‘high’ of their experience here. They have to return to reality,” she said, noting that they are only at the beginning stages of figuring out their new lives without their sons. “It breaks your heart, so much loss in one place.”
The final night of the retreat was Saturday evening, as the group was due to return to Israel on an early morning flight. It was to be a busy night. After a private dinner party in the center’s wine cellar, which involved much toasting, drinking, eating and laughter, the parents were called to an upper hall. There, a Torah letter-writing ceremony had been organized, a ritual that has grown in popularity since October 7.
This proved to be a somber, emotional affair, as each pair of parents in turn were invited to come to a center table. There, with the help of scribe Moshe Gabriel, a staff member, each family found a letter corresponding to the name of their fallen son and participated in filling it in. Many wept during this dedication.
Afterward, in “The Old Bar,” one of the more ancient parts of the complex, the group was able to cut loose. A lively singalong session ensued as they moved through an impromptu series of classic Israeli songs, calling up lyrics on their phones and belting them out.
Laughing, and crying, with a few drinking a bit more, this went on for some time as the other guests drifted in and out. It was a display of celebratory normalcy, as for a moment, they were just another group on their last day of vacation.
The final song of the evening, chosen by unspoken consensus, was “Uf Gozal” (“Fly, Fledgling”), Arik Einstein’s classic melancholy ballad about children leaving their home. It was sung loudly, as tears flowed unabashedly.