Israeli trauma center overwhelmed amid ongoing intifada

Jonathan Perlman's business is experiencing a horrifying rate of growth.

Perlman works for a Tel Aviv-based center for terror victims. Founded in 1998 when Oslo summit talks offered the possibility of Mideast peace, organizers of NATAL: Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War wanted to reach a population of people suffering from past psychological trauma.

"We were hoping there wouldn't be new clients," said Perlman, a Baltimore-reared rabbi who now serves as the agency's development director.

Instead, NATAL opened its doors and swung into full action just as the intifada broke out in the fall of 2000.

Calls and visits to the center have been all too brisk ever since, said Perlman on a recent Bay Area visit.

In the early stages, trained volunteers fielded 30 calls monthly on a hotline for Israelis experiencing violence-induced stress. The nonprofit center, which specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, now averages 300 such calls per month.

"The terror attacks have spurred things that happened years ago," he said, citing the example of a man in his 30s who was orphaned as a child and now is a client. "This is years later when just all this terror is erupting in him."

Despite a resilience that Perlman suspects may be part of the Israeli character, there is growing evidence that terror attacks and violent clashes are taking their emotional toll on the population.

"We're seeing policemen, police officers who have just been overexposed to terror incidents," he said. "It's just been unfortunately nonstop for the last two years."

As part of his Bay Area visit, the 49-year-old Perlman, who moved to Israel more than two decades ago, met with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Koret Foundation. Those organizations have provided his agency with $25,000 and $50,000 grants, respectively.

He also met with a Bridges to Israel group in Berkeley and members of Congregations Sherith Israel in San Francisco and Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Perlman estimated that 75 percent of the funding for the agency's $1.2 million yearly budget comes from organizations and private donors in the United States and Canada.

"We're dealing with probably the most crucial issue Israel is facing right now — trying to maintain its mental health in light of a very anxiety-producing situation."

Despite the strength of the Israeli people, Perlman said a recent survey of 500 people found that 57 percent were experiencing serious mood swings because of the terror situation and 37 percent were reliving incidents.

On the surface, "people are coping, life goes on," Perlman said. "Perhaps it's more inwardly that some of the dysfunction is expressing itself."

In addition to the hotline, NATAL operates an outpatient treatment center staffed by 20 therapists currently serving about 120 clients.

Many have called into the hotline and were referred for professional care.

A community outreach unit teaches professionals throughout the country how specifically to deal with trauma victims. And the Tel Aviv center offers a social club for trauma victims and relatives to help them readjust to the outside world.

Not surprisingly, there's a direct correlation between terror acts and calls to the center's toll-free hotline.

NATAL's busiest month was recorded last spring when it received 600 calls following the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya.

"We have quite a few clients from the Dolphinarium attack," he said, referring to the suicide bombing in June 2001 that killed 21 young people, mostly Russian immigrants, and injured 120 at a Tel Aviv disco.

A recent agreement with police agencies allows traumatized police officers to seek out NATAL's confidential services. A handful of officers have started therapy with the organization. Suffering from too much "front lines" exposure to terrorist attacks, the officers are experiencing nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms of stress, he said.

Operating on a sliding scale of fees, the center treats many patients not covered for trauma therapy by Israel's social security program. The government coverage is limited to victims and their immediate families. "They don't cover relatives of people wounded but not killed. They don't cover bystanders," Perlman said.

In addition, waiting lists often exist for patients wanting to use mental health services sponsored by the government, he said.

"We don't ask questions," he says. "We take people at face value and give help to people who need it."

NATAL also operates a Web site at