WATERTOWN, Mass. – “There’s been an explosion on a bus with children returning home from camp,” read the “scenario” slide posted by Israeli trauma experts at a training seminar for school principals, administrators and teachers from Watertown, the usually sleepy town that was the scene of a shoot-out and manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.
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The room breaks into smaller groups to work out how they would respond to the information: Who will take the lead? Who will handle getting the latest information from the police and hospitals? Who will handle the parents?
About five minutes pass and another slide flashes with an update: “Nine children dead, 15 wounded and one counselor who was a teacher also dead. … Worried parents are running to the police station and the hospitals. ... Word leaks out that one of the dead was a child of a teacher.”
“Oh jeez,” says one of the educators, her eyes fixed on the screen. A middle school principal rubs his face.
Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, sits at the end of the long table observing one of the groups and leans in to whisper to a reporter: “Did you hear that quiet? I have tears in my eyes.”
Levanon and a team from the ITC spent last week in the Boston area sharing their expertise in training sessions about recovery, resilience and crisis planning with educators, first-responders, parents, community leaders, health professionals. They have taken their knowledge abroad in the past, including to Japan after the 2011 tsunami and to hospitals in India. Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, sponsored their trip and work here.
“In Israel, in places like Sderot, even young children are used to the fact that any minute an alarm can go off and a rocket can fall. But here, in a very sheltered community like Boston where everything seems so peaceful and beautiful, one cannot imagine things like this taking place. The first time it does shatters a sense of things being safe,” Levanon said.
“We meet people where they are and acknowledge what they’ve been through. We ask where they were when the event happened. It connects people to their story and to their own resources,” she said. “We bring with us methods developed in Israel of a community approach, as opposed to only an individual approach, as we view this as something that impacted an entire community, and in doing so hopefully help the individual cope better as well.”
'Time to think'
In a sunny meeting room at the Watertown police department, the group of educators from the city was focused Friday morning on the task at hand.
One of the break-out groups is led by Jason Del Porto, an assistant principal at the town’s middle school and the chairman of the school district’s Critical Intervention team. He jotted down notes on a yellow legal pad. Once the scenario included deaths and casualties he tried to keep the others as focused as possible.
“We need to think about our role,” he told the others. “We know we will have to create a counseling station to receive family members.” He also noted they needed to contact relevant professionals.
“Do you have a list of these professionals?” asked Ohad Aviram, director of the ITC’s Emergency Preparedness Centers, a psychologist who used to work for Israel’s Home Front Command.
“They are in my head, but we are going to get them down on paper,” Del Porto said.
Aviram encouraged the group to make detailed plans for an emergency, including contact lists, in advance.
“It’s harder during the event because everyone is running around, demanding answers. You have parents calling and your own families to think of. You need to be able to sit quietly and gather as much information and have your plan on hand. It’s a crucial phase of disaster management, this time to sit and think,” he advised. “Because once you go out that door you won’t come back for a while, so you need that first hour to communicate, to know who your partners are.”
After the two-day session with the ITC team ended, Del Porto, who has been through other training seminars for emergency preparedness, said the Israelis were especially helpful.
“Unfortunately they bring a lot of experience to the table. Other trainings can feel rather academic because they don’t have that same human quality,” he said.
Barry Shrage, CJP president, said his organization felt it was important to bring the ITC trainers here. “We’re doing this because we feel responsible and committed to the greater Boston community,” he said. “Something is fundamentally different about the world, Boston included. … Everyone has to get used to becoming more careful.”
Representatives from OneFamily Together, another group from Israel with experience in helping people cope with trauma following terror incidents, were also in Boston this week. They met with some of the injured at Boston hospitals and started a plan for bringing their model of victim outreach here.
“We’ve learned that what victims really need is someone who goes to their hospital bed and visits the house of mourning and then becomes a real friend,” said Marc Belzberg, chairman of the organization. That volunteer-friend stays with them over the months and years and becomes a source of steady emotional support, he said.
OneFamily Together hired a Harvard student to recruit volunteers for such a system here in the Boston area. The volunteers will be trained by the organization and then fanned out to assist those affected personally by the bombing.
Levanon, before flying back to Israel, spoke of the role of Israelis as a bridge at times like this. “We bring with us the understanding that we’ve been through this and continue to hold our values professionally and as individuals. We also remind people: You will survive this. Ours is a message of resiliency and hope that needs to be fostered in people,” she said.