Cyprus retreat
Cyprus retreatOneFamily

"When you walk through a storm hold your head up high,

And don’t be afraid of the dark….

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone, you’ll never walk alone."

Who is not familiar with these haunting lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein? Their wise and moving message, however, is not an easy one to speak about in Israel today. After the Simchat Torah massacre, Israelis are not the same, and perhaps that is true of Jews the world over.

"Hope in your heart?" The hopes in the hearts of those whose children were murdered in the barbaric Hamas massacre on October 7th or who fell fighting in the resulting war, have been cruelly and irrevocably shattered. Can they find the strength to walk on?

Each bereaved family lives its own personal tragedy, Bereaved parents wake up every morning hoping it was just a dream, each time the front door opens they have to remind themselves that their loved ones will never again come through that door, every wedding invitation they get hurts because it could have been their child's, every young parent pushing a stroller could have had their grandchild inside it…there is no respite from a parent's grief for the loss of a child.

Still, although the emptiness, brokenness and loss will always be there, we can promise them one thing - that they'll never, ever walk through this storm alone, that friends, family, Jews the world over and warm, caring Israeli society, helped by organizations that reach out to every terror victim and wounded IDF soldier, will envelop them with empathy and understanding.

That has never been more evident than in an especially unique initiative that takes place every Thursday to Sunday since mid-November in the heart of a verdant forest in Cyprus, a pristine and welcoming area bounded by trees and flowing streams. There, in a high-end acclaimed resort called “The Secret Forest” opened by Israeli Chabadnik Yoni Cahane a year ago, and frequented by guests from all over the world, groups of 30-40 bereaved parents are flown the 45 minutes from Tel Aviv each weekend to a carefully planned retreat planned and funded by an organization called OneFamily. which has been standing at the side of all the Israeli bereaved and wounded for over 22 years.

Slowly, slowly, once the parents arrive, once the flight and the bus ride to the resort are over, the ice is broken. It is not simple to leave family and friends so soon after disaster has struck their lives, and at first each couple is locked within their own space, but then mothers begin talking to one another and the conversations take off from there. Hugs and tears are not far behind, friendships as well. They have not come for the resort's facilities, their coming is a way to take a small step towards coping and walking on.

Cyprus - new friends/Courtesy

Journalists who came to see for themselves, spoke to participants:

Rabbi Shmuel Slotki, there with his wife Tali, says. "What happened to us is part of the story of the Jewish people, of the battle for our land” says the rabbi, whose wife's father is Rabbi Eitan Eisman, well-known Religious Zionist public figure and a bereaved father himself, chairman of the board of trustees at Orot Yisrael Teacher's College and founding head of the Ulpenat Tzvia network of high schools for girls, often interviewed on the Arutz Sheva Hebrew site. Rabbi Slotki's mother was dedicated head of the social services department at Emunah Israel, the religious Zionist women's organization.

Two of the Slotki's sons, both young fathers and fighters in the elite Egoz and Golani Units, heard of the invasion on Simchat Torah, rushed down south to help push back the attackers and although "vastly outnumbered and insufficiently armed, fought and saved the lives of many civilians from Kibbutz Alumim, saved the kibbutz itself. To come to Cyprus and meet other parents who lost their most precious possessions is to join the strongest support circle there is. Leaving Israel for a short break from the personal and national grief did us good. This has also helped me decide to make an effort to strengthen the positive in Israel when I arrive home."

The Slotki's are a typical Religious Zionist Israeli family. They have three other sons in reserve units fighting since the start of the war, their daughter is a nurse in the ICU at Soroka Hospital, and Tali, the mother of the family, heads the pain clinic in Hadassah Hospital. Rabbi Shmuel himself is in the unit that helps identify victims at the pathology facilities set up within one day at the Shura Army Base, normally the chief IDF Rabbinate base, after the October 7th massacre.

We asked Chantal Belzberg, CEO of OneFamily, about the reasoning behind the retreats: “Few can understand one another the way bereaved parents can, whether they lost their beloved children now or years ago. The meeting between those who were fated to undergo a wrenching and painful experience, makes sharing and processing easier for each of them. The connection Is instant for the most part and I see this as our mission, to be the organization that can bring about this connection, this ability to grow from within their grief. From my years of experience, I have learned that one of the best ways to deal with the emotions generated by mourning is to do so together with others who understand it without words, who are undergoing the same earthshaking bereavement."

Cyprus retreat - in hotel library/Courtesy

Vered Moshe's son was murdered at the Re'em dance party where, on October 7th, Hamas terrorists, in a murderous frenzy, raped, killed, maimed and burned to death hundreds of young celebrants, enjoying a rave dedicated to peace. "When I came on the retreat," says Vered, "I thought perhaps it was too early. I am in a place of darkness. I am sad all the time, I cry all the time. But I am leaving here with the understanding that I must go on living. I have to pick up the pieces and learn how to walk with the pain."

Although there is no pressure to attend activities, the program offers hikes in the forest, massages, group singing, healthy and tasty meals, nourishment for both body and soul, all accompanied by a professional therapeutic program headed by holistic therapists, psychologists, social workers and alternative medicine practitioners.

One of the therapists, Maor Arieli, explains: “We created a weekend retreat especially for these parents, with opportunities for conversation and listening in small support groups, separate ones for those who sons and daughters were murdered at the dance party and for whose children fell in IDF service as their needs are not the same. We do not engage in individual therapy here, just provide an opportunity for the newly bereaved to be in a safe space filled with empathy and inclusion at this stormy time in their lives. The connection between the parents becomes tangible, it creates a powerful togetherness. There is no need to suffer this terrible loss on your own, if you can go through it together."

Cyprus retreat - taking a walk
Cyprus retreat - taking a walkCourtesy

Patrick and Tammy Cohen, from Kibbutz Nir Am, lost their son Ziv at the Re'im dance party. They have been evacuated to a Tel Aviv hotel from the kibbutz, "Ziv was a free spirit, an artist with an ever present smile," says Tammy. The couple knew he was at the dance party and the last message from him came at 8:33 saying that he had found a safe spot and was fine. At 2a.m. Patrick and Tammy left the safe room in which they had hidden and left the kibbutz. "The entire main road was filled with burnt out cars," they recall with pain. "For two days, Ziv was considered 'missing', but on Monday night at 2:28 a.m. the police called and told us that he had been identified. We buried him on the kibbutz, we insisted on bringing him home,' says Tammy, adding, "I wish I knew where he hid and why he didn't run away – and why he even went to this party. I didn't even give him a parting hug. Everyone tells me it is not my fault, but the bottom line is I did not protect him. My mind knows he is gone but my heart has not yet accepted it. I am just not there yet."

'Here, though, I allowed myself to smile, to be happy, something that has not happened in a long while. I met people like me who understand what I am going through – and I understand what they are going through. "

Cyprus retreat - at dinner Courtesy

Ofer Lior, whose son Matan was also murdered at the dance party, says "It was a warm, loving and empowering experience." Ofer is a former military officer, and searched for his son for five days at the site of the party, going from one burned car to another, from one charred body to another, but did not find him. They family hoped he had been taken hostage, until his body was found and identified. Two months later, Ofer still can sense the smell of death that permeated the area, and retreats into himself every time he remembers it. He was unsure about coming, but now he says "This is the first time I felt it was all right to be happy... My soul was smiling here. I haven't felt that in a long time. "

Matan, the sound man at the party, had been a Golani fighter and kept coming back to rescue more and more people instead of saving himself. After saving close to 100 of the party goers, he was murdered while protecting a young woman. "Survivors keep coming to us to tell us they owe him their lives," says his mother Sarale proudly, pushing back the tears.

Cyprus retreat - workshop/ Courtesy

Accompanying the groups are Dina Kit, active in helping the bereaved for many years, and her husband Omer. The couple lost a son to cancer and another in the IDF during service in the south several decades ago. "The respite is very meaningful for the parents, it helps them and empowers them. It does the same for me. When I lost my two sons, Israel helped us, but there was nothing of this nature and no holistic help on this level that reached out to us. Here the parents find support and gain strength from one another as well. Distancing themselves from their regular environment to come to this pleasant and neutral site allows them to breathe for a while. And back in Israel, OneFamily will continue to provide psychological, financial and whatever help they need, as they always have. My feelings are mixed – on the one hand the past suddenly engulfs me here, on the other hand the parents ask me how I have managed to cope, and somehow, in helping them, I get back my own strength. There are lots of hugs here, lots of connections made."

Perhaps the retreat's power can be summed up best in the words of one mother, who called Chantal Belzberg when she arrived back home to say: "Suddenly I realized I am not alone. I have found new friends who understand what I am going through."

May God console all those who mourn in Zion.

Note: This film appeared on Israel's Kan 11 Channel. Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky.