Can Artists Heal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Originally published on the Times of Israel on 12/12/2015

To cut it short: I work for Artists 4 Israel, or rather work with them. But it’s not why I write about them. I write because they are on a mission, and I can’t be there. I write because what they do needs to be acknowledged. I write because you need to know they exist.

It is exactly a year ago when I was searching for volunteering opportunities in New York, and for some unexplainable and odd reason, I wanted this opportunity to be related to Israel. I came across this group of artists, called Artists 4 Israel, who find their creative outlet in graffiti – something that I did not necessarily think high of until I visited Tel Aviv and then got hooked on it in the up-and-coming Bushwick, NYC.

I looked them up, checked their projects and reached out to the Executive Director, Craig Dershowitz. A young guy from Brooklyn, whose body – as far as I could tell from the pictures – is filled with tattoos. He represented something I never felt cool enough to belong to.

“But is it OK that I am not Jewish?” – I asked him.

We talked for an hour, and I was bought. He suddenly represented everything that I value. I will spare you my intellectual crush on him – you can reach out to him and be challenged on the spot (I am sure he wouldn’t mind, would you, Craig?) – but I signed up to help him and Artists 4 Israel a good few months ago and my drive is unbroken. (Just think, how cool someone has to be for me to work after my full time job and wanting to spend my free hours helping his projects to come true? You got the point, right?)

Today, Craig and his team are in Israel. It’s not the first time and safe to assume that it’s not the last either. They were born under the Hamas rockets, back in 2009. Since then, they have been to Israel for quite many times with a rich pool of ideas as to how to support the cultural freedoms of Israel through direct social service actions. This is how they ended up beautifying Netanya’s crumbling shuk or rebuilding the communities affected by Hamas’ attacks in Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Kerem Shalom, and Dolev.

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Netanya shuk by A4I

The set up is always the same: bring together the world’s greatest artists and without a political agenda take them to Israel and create something for the local community. This apolitical but firm stand for the freedom of art, creativity, and expression creates an extremely strong and bonding community. Artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, get the chance to visit Israel (and no, not only the smoothened tourist paths) and learn more about the real Middle East. After all, they say, you should only believe in what you see.

So these guys come, see and leave with a giant hole in the convenient misconception bubble that we all learn from here and there (yes, I refer to the media).

But there is the other side of this group: the one that puts its efforts to fight PTSD and let me type it out to get the heaviness of it: post-traumatic stress disorder. In children.

I know that if you live in Israel, these words don’t carry the weights anymore as they should, but I never forget the first time I heard: ‘Azaka.’

Today Artists 4 Israel is in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, and as I can’t be there, I asked Craig to tell me more about what they do.

“‘Qassam’ ‘Tzeva Adom (Red Alert)’ those were the first two guesses while playing a warm-up game of Pictionary with children in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom on the border of Gaza. There is very little else to say about the fear and suffering of these youth when those are the words of our children.”

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Healing Art Kits prepared by A4I supporters in London

Last week Craig and the team called for some enthusiastic manpower in New York to help to pack their Healing Arts Kits, a groundbreaking therapeutic system that helps kids to overcome their fear and reduce stress when things happen. And we all know: they do happen.

“Delivering Healing Arts Kits to every single child in Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Zeelim was our greatest investment. Not only did our art therapy on this trip lift their spirits now but the protective and preventive nature of our Kits will protect them in the future,” continues Craig.

Healing Arts Kits are the result of years of cross-professional work: psychiatrists, emergency first responders, art therapists, artists, teachers, and parents left their experience, know-how, and personal mark on the kits. This time, A4I went to Israel to distribute more of these Kits, and to work with children. The seemingly simple kits are extremely powerful, and I am aware of the messages we get from the United Hatzalah and others saying how the kits work by distracting and calming the kids.

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Healing Art Kits in action

If you look at some hard-core facts, you understand that these kits are not for nothing: Over 40% of Israeli children are believed to suffer from some form of PTSD. This number reaches 80% in children living in Israel’s south areas.

“Watching graffiti artists from Tel Aviv join with art therapists from Jerusalem all to help their brothers and sisters on the border of Gaza reminded us that the Israeli people are one; that they are diverse and that they are unconquerable when united.”

As Craig continues, I am reminded once again why I reached out to them and why I wanted to share with you something about this bunch of extravagant artists, who, as I was once told, only look rough on the edges.

Over the years, Artists 4 Israel delivered over 300 kits into schools, homes, and bomb shelters. And while the outpouring love towards and within the A4I community is exceptional, here is why it works: because everything is reciprocal. When I asked Craig what is the one thing he really wants to tell here, he said: “my thank you”.

“Special thanks to Ram, Or and Sol of Tarbut, Spankism and Sunny Souza and our team of art therapists who came out on short notice to assist us led by the passion and expertise of Ariela Robinson. Thank you to Jeff Aeder, his daughter Sadie, Team Daniel and United Hatzalah for having the generosity and vision to make this program a reality.”

This is Craig. This is Artists 4 Israel. A group that actually walks the talk and stands for something we all cherish: Israel.