Nonprofits brace for more trauma among most vulnerable displaced Israelis

In the weeks following Oct. 7, the government struggled to cope and asked NGOs working with people with disabilities to step in and help

MA’ALE HA’HAMISHA, Israel – Tali Goldsmith recalls with clarity the nonstop rocket sirens, sounds of heavy artillery filling the air and jeeploads of Hamas terrorists pulling up outside her home on Kibbutz Zikim in southern Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7. The mother of three, who has lived on the kibbutz bordering the northern edge of the Gaza Strip since childhood, sheltered with her husband, Ilan, and three daughters in the family’s safe room for nearly 17 hours.

Four months later, however, as most of the family, which was evacuated to Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha near Jerusalem, is working through the trauma of that day, and grappling with an uncertain future, Goldsmith’s eldest, Lior, won’t discuss even a single aspect of what happened on that dark day.

Lior, 21, whom Goldsmith explained is on the autism spectrum with some intellectual disabilities, shut out the world with headphones and listened to music for most of Oct. 7. Although she now wakes up screaming every night, “she refuses to share how she feels with us and does not want to talk about what happened at all,” Goldsmith told eJewishPhilanthropy.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ murderous rampage through southern Israel, roughly 30,000 residents of the kibbutzim, moshavim and towns near the Palestinian enclave were evacuated from their homes. An additional 100,000 people, including from the north, were evacuated by the government in the days that followed, and another estimated 100,000 people living in areas slightly beyond the government’s designated evacuation zone fled by themselves.

The sudden and brutal disruption to life for more than 200,000 Israelis — the majority of whom are still living in temporary accommodations such as hotels — has been enormous, with people struggling both emotionally and financially. But for people with physical and mental disabilities, such as Lior, and their families, the sudden disruption to their daily routine and to their familiar surroundings has been especially traumatic.

For Lior, the war that landed on her doorstep meant not only leaving behind the comfort of her family home, but also the shuttering of the special work program she attended daily in Sderot. In the weeks that followed Oct. 7, she had no daily framework, and the family had no assistance in caring for a frightened young woman struggling to communicate her thoughts and feelings.

“When we arrived here, we had no idea what had happened or what would happen,” Goldsmith said, adding, “It was awful. Lior was miserable, and emotionally, I was broken. I could not deal with anything.”

The family did receive offers of help from social workers and well-meaning volunteers but, Goldsmith said, the situation was so overwhelming — Lior needs 24-hour supervision — and “my whole belief system had been destroyed, I didn’t trust anyone.”

It took three weeks for the Goldsmith family, who were now crammed into two hotel rooms, to connect with representatives from Shekel, an Israeli nonprofit that provides a variety of services and integrative programs for people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In contrast to government agencies, Shekel, like many other nonprofits, almost immediately mobilized its staff and activities following Oct. 7, offering free specialized services to people with disabilities — and their families — who had been directly affected or displaced by the terrible events.

Along with setting up a 24-hour hotline, Shekel staff deployed to hotels and other evacuation centers to offer trauma treatment, as well as daily activities so that primary carers would have a break to concentrate on their own lives. In addition, the organization’s vocational rehabilitation day centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv opened their doors to more than a dozen evacuees from the north and the south, including Lior.

Inbal Milo David, the director of therapeutic centers at Shekel, explained to eJP that in times of war and national crisis, people with disabilities “are an especially vulnerable sector of the community.”

“Some are exposed to relentless sirens and rocket bombardments on a daily basis, without fully understanding what is happening or what they are feeling,” she said. “Others face massive changes to their routine and find it difficult to adjust.”

“We have seen a constant rise in stress, anxiety attacks, sleep disturbances, challenging behaviors, somatic symptoms and other mental health issues,” Milo David said, adding that there is a massive shortage of “psychotherapists experienced at working with people with disabilities and with trauma.”

Evacuating people with disabilities is extremely complicated, Ofer Dahari, Shekel’s CEO, continued.

He described the days following Oct. 7 as “chaotic” and said that in certain locations, the government’s welfare system collapsed entirely.

“Many people turned to nongovernmental organizations,” said Dahari, pointing out that it took the government several weeks to begin functioning again. “While some people were evacuated to hotels, others needed help finding accessible apartments – the difficulties people with disabilities faced were huge.”

“We know this situation is hard for everyone but for the people we work with, we need to think about how they will adapt to a new staff, to new work placements, to new educational frameworks, new neighborhoods, new bus lines and more,” he said.

At Access Israel, a nonprofit that promotes inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities, founder and chairman Yuval Wagner said his staff has also been working nonstop since Oct. 7. From physically helping to evacuate people with disabilities to helping evacuees find accessible accommodation, Wagner said the organization was now working on processing what it had learned from the current crisis and was already preparing for the next emergency.

“One factor we need to focus on is preparedness,” he stated, noting that a possible war in the north with the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah would likely be worse than the war now raging in Gaza.

“Even though the war in the south was intense, there were breaks when we could evacuate people with special needs,” Wagner said. “Now we need to think outside the box because when we talk about a war with Lebanon, it will be much more intense, and we don’t know if it will even be possible to move all those in need.”

“Unfortunately, the government is not doing much in this regard,” he said, highlighting Access Israel’s “Protected as Possible” project that is working on finding solutions for those who do not have quick access to shelters or safe rooms.

Tali Marcus, the executive director of Bizchut, an organization that works to promote the rights of people with disabilities, said she was also working to understand the legacy of the current emergency in order to help society’s most vulnerable in the future.

Marcus said that while nonprofits such as Shekel and Access Israel quickly adapted their activities following Oct. 7, “the government was in shock. They were not doing anything and civil society, like in every other sphere of life, stepped in and began working to help.”

She said that certain regulations such as prioritizing the evacuation of people with disabilities and the elderly or providing accessible and appropriate accommodation were not properly enacted by the government.

“There was a lot of confusion,” Marcus continued, describing how there were many stories of the authorities “sending text messages to religiously observant people on Shabbat or sending people to places that were not accessible.”

While most of those logistical problems were eventually solved, Marcus said one of the biggest problems was the lack of a comprehensive national database for people with disabilities, which is partly due to Israel’s privacy laws preventing personal information from being shared between different agencies.

“We are working on this now,” she said, describing a pilot program that will allow municipalities access to a master list of people with disabilities in their area and dictate when and where those people would be evacuated to in future emergencies.

Marcus also said that there needed to be a better mechanism in place to help those whose disability prevented them from being evacuated, pointing out that some people opted to stay in their homes because it was too hard to move them.

For Tali Goldsmith and her daughter, Lior, however, the biggest challenge now is what comes next.

The events of Oct. 7 and subsequent war have scuttled well-laid plans for Lior to begin living more independently in a young adult group home, which was slated to open on neighboring Kibbutz Yad Mordechai.

“We can’t even think about that now,” said Goldsmith, who prior to Oct. 7 had been working with the local municipality and Shekel to open the new group home. “Who knows when we will go back and if that will even happen now.”

Asked about the future of the project, and similar ones already operating in the south and the north, Shekel’s Dahari said that the Yad Mordechai home and another one being planned on Kibbutz Kfar Aza were now on hold.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “The whole idea of these projects is that while we operate the home, the community adopts the people who live there. At this stage, we don’t even know when and if those communities will function again in the future – and if they do, will they have the energy to accept among them a group of people who have greater needs?”