KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel — Fifteen young men and women, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings and to each other, dance around a bucolic field, twisting their bodies to trance music blasting through their headphones.
Beyond their earphones is silence, except for the constant rumble of fighter jets taking off from Ramat David air base in the nearby Jezreel Valley.
Yet the aircraft and the dancers are connected.
Some of these jets are heading south toward Gaza, to bomb the hideouts and munitions storehouses of Hamas terrorists who on Oct. 7 killed 1,200 Israelis — including some 360 attendees of the Nova music festival that took place that morning in a field near Gaza. In recent weeks, survivors of the massacre at the Nova rave have been coming to this retreat center at Kibbutz Hazorea to try to overcome their trauma.
“This is the first time I’ve danced since that day,” said Noa Maman, 21, of Yokneam. “It’s been very hard for me.”
About 60 people have participated so far in the trauma recovery program being run by Free Spirit Experience, a nonprofit group that in normal times uses its facilities at Hazorea (and another one in Cyprus) for treatment programs for young Jewish adults from Israel and abroad suffering from anxiety, depression, or drug or alcohol problems.
Free Spirit repurposed its trauma treatment program within two weeks of Oct. 7, launching the first of its three-day therapeutic workshops for Nova survivors on Oct. 23. Since then it has held six more, each with five to 15 participants and at no cost to attendees.
“We had a staff member whose cousin was injured in the festival; Each of us knew somebody who was there,” said Free Spirit’s managing director, Rami Bader. “We talked about the trauma these people might have and decided to use our resources to help them.”
Using yoga, pottery making, dancing, acupuncture, carpentry and even ice baths, survivors of the massacre gradually come out of their shells and begin to talk. The idea is to give participants a sense of safety and community to share and talk about their emotions. Some are able to open up in group therapy sessions; for others it happens over communal activities like preparing meals.
“When we have our first group meeting, some have been waiting for the opportunity to tell their stories, but not all of them,” Bader said. “By the end all of them share, but not because we pushed them. Many times, it’s not even us. We just sit there and they share among themselves.”
Trauma survivors who seek help early on have a chance to build resilience rather than develop PTSD, experts say.
“We know that post-traumatic stress disorder can develop a few months after the trauma, or years after,” Bader said.
Omer Ovadia, 24, lost three of his best friends in the Nova attack. He has memorialized them with a tattoo on his right forearm bearing their names: Dvir, Lia and Sahar.
“It was about 6:30 a.m. when Hamas started to shoot rockets,” Ovadia recalled. “Immediately, they stopped the music and everybody ran to their cars. We started driving, but after seven minutes terrorists came running after us with RPGs and grenades, running after everybody. We quickly left the car and started running east, toward Patish. I remembered my army survival skills, so we zigzagged left and right, kicking up dust so they couldn’t see or shoot at us.”
By 3 p.m, over eight hours after the attack began, Ovadia and 20 others — all hungry, thirsty and filthy — arrived at Patish. Dozens of others in their group, including his three friends, didn’t make it. Some of his friends were taken captive to Gaza.
The trauma starting to hit him that evening.
“I was sitting in a car and started to cry, realizing what we had been through,” Ovadia said. “Even now I still don’t know the depth of the trauma.”
Tamir Rotman, a psychologist and Free Spirit’s clinical director, said survivors of massacres often feel extremely agitated, tortured by flashbacks and unable to leave home. He tries to help them find stability and a sense of normalcy.
“The huge factor is alleviating guilt and self-criticism,” Rotman said. “It’s very typical for people who go through extreme situations to feel survivor’s guilt. For example, some will say, ‘I pushed my friends to come, but I survived and they didn’t.’ Or ‘Why didn’t I fight back?’ These are normal mechanisms that our brain uses to try to gain some control over the situation.”
Many participants in Free Spirit’s program say that being in the sheltered environment at Hazorea has helped them find some relief. Maman said it took her two months just to gather the strength to spend a night away from home and come to Hazorea. She still hasn’t been able to return to her job.
“I’m not working at all now. I can’t focus my attention on anything specific for more than a few hours because it takes too much energy,” Maman said. “I’m exhausted. My head is always taking me back to that day.”
She added, “After what happened, it was really hard to trust other people and open up like this. But this experience has given me hope. There are good people with good intentions, and there’s a future for humanity.”
After several sessions, Bader is trying to raise the funds necessary to keep the program going. Each three-day workshop costs $40,000, and Bader says Free Spirit needs to raise $200,000 because its other revenue-generating programs are on hold due to the war. (Supporters can contribute online to support the program at freespiritexperience.org/donate.)
Free Spirit has moved its regular therapy programs treating anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug issues to its site in Cyprus. That program, which caters to Jews from around the world and includes Jewish components, aims at fostering wellbeing and a sense of purpose through communal activities and therapeutic care. A similar philosophy guides Free Spirit’s unique Oct. 7 trauma program.
Ido Cohen of Yokneam decided to try Free Spirit after struggling to recover from his Nova experience on his own.
When the attack began on Oct. 7, Cohen, 21, a project manager at a human resources firm who makes trance music in his spare time, thought the booms he was hearing were coming from the show stage. Then he saw rockets exploding in the air and everyone rush for the exits. Sleep-deprived and high on ecstasy, Cohen said, he and his friends had trouble finding their car. As soon as they began driving they heard gunshots and saw other cars with bullet holes and shattered glass littering the road.
They started running through the fields, hiding in trenches and inside bushes amid explosions and gunfire. Six and a half hours would pass before they reached a dirt road where a vehicle took them to safety at Patish.
Cohen said his life hasn’t been the same since.
“I was a heavy weed smoker before this attack,” he said. “After Oct. 7, I stopped smoking. I stopped eating. I stopped living. I didn’t leave my house for two weeks. It was pure hell. I don’t think it’s a question of time. This will be a part of my life forever. I just need to accept it.”
Recovery can take a long time. Ovadia has come back to Free Spirit for three rounds of therapy, finding each time a greater degree of confidence and optimism about the future. He says he believes it will take him a year or two to recover emotionally.
“I have no doubt that in the end I’m going to be fine,” Ovadia said. “And I’m sure I’ll be stronger.”
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Major Israeli Tech Entrepreneur Gil Shwed Retires
Gil Shwed, one of Israel’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, announced his retirement on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 30-year tenure as CEO of Check Point, an Israeli software firm.
“This year Check Point celebrated 30 years since its establishment, in which we managed to generate growth and reached a peak in almost every parameter. I feel that this is the right time for me to focus on Check Point’s next leap,” Shwed, 56, said. “We are now looking for a replacement for the position of CEO. It’s a process that will take time and even when it ends I will remain involved. I want to focus less on the daily work, and more on the future of the company.”
Check Point was founded in 1993 by Shwed, Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht. Shwed and Kramer were friends from their time together in Israel’s elite cyber unit 8200.
The company provides AI-powered advanced software and hardware for cyber security to more than 100,000 customers globally, bringing in more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv and publicly traded on the NASDAQ, Check Point has a market cap of more than $19 billion dollars, making it Israel’s second most valuable company, $2 billion less than automobile giant Mobileye Eye. Shwed’s role as CEO has allowed him to amass a fortune of $4.4 billion due to his 20% share ownership in the company.
Shwed is also a recipient of the Israel Prize, an annual award given to Israelis who have shown a high level of excellence in their specific fields. Shwed was given the first award in the technology field when it was introduced in 2018.
Israel’s Leading Hotel Chain Expands Internationally
Israel’s leading hotel chain Isrotel has announced the opening of their first hotel outside of the country.
The brand, under a new division called ALUMA, meaning “ray of light” in Hebrew, will open its Skylark Hotel in Athens, Greece next month.
“We succeeded in doing the best in Israel, creating a culture that people love, so if you know Isrotel you will want to visit,” Benny Levy, the VP of sales and marketing at Isrotel, told The Algemeiner.
Levy says just because they are expanding outside of the Jewish state, “We aren’t stopping opening in Israel … Outside of Israel the potential is endless, it is a significant opportunity.”
Lior Raviv, CEO of Isrotel, added, “ALUMA is an international chain of hotels that will benefit from Isrotel’s longstanding experience and uncompromising standards of excellence, offering global travelers a wide range of city hotels and leisure resorts to choose from, and providing unique hospitality experiences. As a sister company of Isrotel, ALUMA is guided by our approach to hospitality as a way of life.”
They said most of the workers will be Israelis, ensuring the culture of the brand remains. “Israeli tourists, and especially loyal guests of Isrotel, who return to us time and again due to our hospitality experience and high standard of service, will find those same qualities and sense of a ‘home away from home’ at ALUMA, backed by the international standards of perfection and excellence,” added Raviv.
According to Isrotel, the Skylark hotel will be followed by the Anise Hotel, also in Athens, a month later. An additional hotel in Athens and one in Thessaloniki will open by the end of 2024. They said the total investment in the project is 70 million euros, with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe in the future.
Isrotel has 23 hotels across Israel, including eight in the resort town of Eilat in the south of Israel. Their international move comes as Israel’s National Planning and Construction Council announced this week the changes to the city’s height limitations for hotels, allowing up to 20 floors from the previously permitted eight floors.
Tourism Minister Haim Katz praised the move, saying, “We are bringing good news to Eilat. Hundreds and even thousands of rooms will be added in the city. The move will encourage competition, remove excess bureaucracy for a hotel that wants to renew itself, and allow entrepreneurs who have not yet built to increase supply.”
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Investment Firm Announces Recommendations for Preventing Corporate Anti-Israel Bias
Morningstar, Inc., a Chicago based investment firm managing over $250 billion in assets, has issued a report including several recommendations for reducing anti-Israel bias in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings its Sustainalytics subsidiary assigns to corporations.
For several years, Sustainalytics gave poor ESG ratings to Israel affiliated companies, a practice that led Jewish civil rights groups and lawmakers to suspect that the company was violating state laws against engaging in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and weaken the Jewish state.
The firm denied the allegations, but a review of the its ratings by JLens, a leading Jewish investor network, found that Sustainalytics created “BDS blacklists” and used in its internal reports “politicized anti-Israel language” to describe Israel. JLens’ work, which was the first to raise alarms about the issue, led to Morningstar’s cracking down on the practices and adopting policies for ensuring that Sustainalytics does not become a BDS collaborator.
Released on Jan. 31, Morningstar’s new report builds on that commitment, outlining several policy changes, including: eliminating a designation which identified companies as being involved in “occupied territories/disputed region,” quashing reliance on disinformative media reports aimed at distorting a company’s ESG rating, and appointing legal experts to examine matters relevant to international human rights law.
“We welcome Morningstar’s commitment to eliminate anti-Israel bias in Sustainalytics research products,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on Wednesday. “We look forward to ongoing engagement with Morningstar to ensure the expert recommendations are fully and effectively implemented.”
The ADL took a leading role in combating anti-Israel bias in ESG ratings, incorporating JLens in Nov. 2022. ADL noted at the time that BDS activists target firms managing ESG rated funds, which attracted over $500 billion in investments in 2021, a 55% increase from the previous year, according to JP Morgan. During 2022’s proxy season, a time when publicly traded companies hold annual meetings to assess performance and weigh suggestions from shareholders, Israel was named in eight of 20 resolutions targeting foreign governments, “making the country only second to China.”
Morningstar’s recommendations will shield ESG from political bias and increase its reliability, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus explained in a statement applauding the report.
“Anti-Israel external forces are doing everything they can to infiltrate campuses, boardrooms, the [United Nations]., sports leagues, and the securities industry,” he said. “We commend Morningstar for engaging with us, examining their ESG product, and committing to make the changes necessary to ensure that their rating system is apolitical, objective, and honest. We believe that implementing the experts’ report is critical to achieving this goal.”
Ari Hoffnung, managing director of JLens, added that “investor are entitled to research that is both objective and devoid of any anti-Israel bias.”
Last July, Morningstar removed 109 negative “controversy ratings” that Sustainalytics subsidiary had given to companies operating in Israel. The firm has also stopped referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ or ‘occupied territory” and committed to educating its employees about antisemitism and amassing information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “independent, recognized experts.”
Morningstar, however, has repeatedly denied that it ever supported BDS. In June 2022, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor issued a statement arguing that an external review of Sustainalytics found no evidence that it “encouraged divestment from Israel” but acknowledged that at least one of its departments singled out businesses “linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “sometimes used inflammatory language and failed to provide sourcing attribution clearly and consistently.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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