Ex-Berkeley resident forms rehab center in Jerusalem

Still Yona knew many of the riders by name, familiar faces on the Jerusalem route.

It was only a few stops into the route when a suicide bomber stepped onto the bus, killing himself and 18 people.

Yona, a husband and father of five, survived the 1996 blast. But to this day his balance is severely damaged. Suffering from horrible nightmares, he rarely sleeps through the night.

"My deaths keep bothering me," he once said to Esther Kolani, who retold his story during a recent interview with the Bulletin. "They ask me, 'Why didn't you look out for us?'"

Kolani — founder of Beit Amir, a comprehensive rehabilitation center in Jerusalem for those suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome and other disorders — was in the Bay Area on a personal visit and to raise money for the Jerusalem center, which serves about 30 people at a time.

She first met Yona soon after he awoke from the three-month coma that followed the bombing. At Beit Amir he has been steadily improving — but he still has a long way to go.

"He tells me if it weren't for Beit Amir, he would have no life," said Kolani, who lived in Berkeley in the 1970s and 1980s. "When he goes home he stays in bed. His wife said it's now like she has six children."

There are countless stories like Yona's at Beit Amir, which caters to victims of terrorism, seriously disabled Israel Defense Force members, individuals in mourning, those injured in car accidents and the families of those in all those categories. "They come in like zombies," said Kolani. "Then little by little, like drops of water on a flower, they start coming back to life."

The center itself came to life out of tragedy. It is named for Kolani's late son, Amir, who died of cancer of the brain stem in 1993 while the family was living in Berkeley. A medical student, Amir died at age 27, and his death caused interminable suffering for Kolani.

She buried her only son in their hometown of Jerusalem, where she decided to return. While sitting shiva she realized, "I have to commemorate Amir by helping others come back to life."

By the end of the 30 days of mourning, Beit Amir was essentially formed.

At the nonprofit center, which operates in a small, homelike setting, Kolani and her eight-person staff utilize a body-mind method combining traditional Western medicine with alternative techniques like yoga, meditation, art and dance therapy.

Since Beit Amir opened in 1994, Kolani has watched patients (70 percent of whom are between the ages of 20 and 30) make dramatic improvements — re-evaluating their strength and capabilities, accepting and learning to live with their losses and developing realistic goals.

One 21-year-old patient, whom Kolani declined to name, was a professional basketball player in the National League of Israel when an IDF training accident permanently ruined his knee. He was depressed for more than a year, could barely walk and had endured more than six surgeries, said Kolani.

"He came to us on crutches, and he wouldn't talk except to say, 'My life is over.'"

After about six months of progress at Beit Amir, the former basketball star agreed to work as a basketball coach at a childrens' camp for the summer. Afterward he ended up going to business school, where he is studying now.

"When [the accident or traumatic event] happens, people visit you in the hospital, bring chocolates and sympathies. Then they all go back to their lives. The injured can't go back," Kolani explained. "In Beit Amir they meet others in the same situation as them."

Another aim of Beit Amir is to bring some love and happiness into lives changed forever by tragedy, a goal inspired by Amir. When he was dying in his hospital room in Berkeley, surrounded by friends and family, a doctor said to Kolani: "There is more happiness in this room than any other in the hospital. It's hard to understand considering the devastating situation."

This was not a surprise to Kolani. At the age of 5, Amir was asked by his kindergarten teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up. His immediate reply was: "I want to be a happy person."