The Art of Healing IDF Veterans

Bonnie didn’t know that her decision to move to Israel would lead her on a path to greatness. This is a story about an ordinary person leading an extraordinary life.

As a new olah, Bonnie Kranz Katzenstein, an artist and single mom of 3 grown children, hit the gleaming stone streets of Jerusalem where she currently resides, with a vivacious bounce. She established her own company, calling it Art Ba’Aretz (art in the land) and just weeks after her plane landed at Ben Gurion airport, she organized her first event inviting tour operators to Music Square in Jerusalem to introduce them to the concept of Art Ba’Aretz.

I had met Bonnie a couple of times in the previous two years while her plans for aliyah were still conceptual. Her dream was to move to Israel and somehow to utilize her art. She had the typical concerns that most soon-to-be immigrants have – financial, housing, language, and social.

The aha moment for her came when she directed an art course for members of the Jewish Women Renaissance Project that just returned to New York from a tour in Israel. Bonnie decided to have each of them paint the Kotel in a way that was meaningful to them as she recreated an ambiance of Israel with food and music, and discussed with them their feelings and impressions as they painted. The project was so well received by the members of JWRP that Bonnie thought how wonderful it would be to recreate this type of art experience in Israel, bringing the individual Israeli experience of tourists, native Israelis, and olim – old and new, to the canvas.

She had a plan. But what she didn’t expect was that her plan would also include something very near and dear to her heart, creating a treasured meaningful impact for IDF veterans. When she finally made the leap to Israel this past fall, within the week she had a gig set up for herself that answered her passion while serving a most important segment of Israeli society – wounded soldiers and soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Back in the U.S., Bonnie’s extensive volunteering for fundraisers on behalf of soldiers serving in the IDF led her to an event arranged by the organization, Belev Echad, founded in 2009 and whose mission is to “repay the enormous debt of gratitude we owe the brave warriors, through support and a whole lot of love.”

At this particular event that took place in New York just prior to her aliyah, the director, Rabbi Uriel Vigler, approached her asking if she would be interested in working on art projects in Israel with wounded soldiers including those who suffer from PTSD. Under her guidance, the soldiers, who never painted before, would create personal paintings meaningful to them. Bonnie jumped at the idea. In late September 2017, Bonnie landed in Israel. In October, the project was underway.

When asked how this project helps the soldiers, Bonnie passionately expressed how “art often conveys one’s emotions more effectively than words. As a powerful tool for self- expression, the soldiers are encouraged to delve into their deeper self in a relaxed, creative, and fun environment.”

Assaf Halevy, the Israeli point person for Belev Echad, reached out to soldiers warmly regarded as part of the Belev Echad family, to participate in this therapeutic project with Bonnie as their art instructor.

For the past three months, under Bonnie’s tutelage, Belev Echad’s soldiers come together at the Tel Aviv Art Studio to create paintings to express themselves in a profound way. Bonnie witnessed the positive and dramatic effects emerging for each soldier participating in the course. She conveys that as an experienced art instructor “this experience touched my heart unlike any previous art experience in which I have engaged. I am in love with each of these remarkable heroes!”

Once they finished their paintings, and upon seeing how amazing their artwork was, Belev Echad arranged for their paintings to be auctioned off at a gala fundraising event that would raise funds for the soldiers themselves as well as for Belev Echad. At the same time, Belev Echad arranged for the soldiers back in Israel to view live the auction that had their paintings sold at admirable prices ranging from $3000 to $7,500.

Bonnie glows as she recounts how she and “her soldiers” were on a group WhatsApp while watching the live auction and the indescribable feeling of the soldiers as they saw how their paintings sold for thousands of dollars. “The screams of jubilation over the WhatsApp group made my heart soar”.

For the soldiers though, it wasn’t about the money. They thanked Bonnie with all their heart for opening this meaningful path of expression for them. As one soldier conveyed to her “…the experience, the good atmosphere, and the amazing people here is enough for me,” while others said, “…we get to develop things we did not think we could do. It’s worth everything.”

After just a few short months here, Bonnie reflects on how “Israel is not only the land of milk and honey, but it is indeed a land of opportunity.” Making aliyah has its challenges, especially for a single mom, fresh out of a divorce. But, she loves what she does. “I did it!” she says with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. “I changed my life around.” She adds, “Most important of all, my work allows me to help our soldiers.” For her, she insists, “there is no greater reward.”

Bonnie has one married daughter living in Givat Shmuel and another daughter and son living with her in Jerusalem. In just a handful of months in Israel, in addition to establishing her Art Ba’Aretz company catering to individuals and groups, and working on therapeutic art projects through Belev Achad with wounded soldiers and those suffering from PTSD, Bonnie also serves on the steering committee for the Michael Levine Lone Soldiers Center in Jerusalem.

For all her achievements in such an amazingly short amount of time, Bonnie claims she’s just “an ordinary gal trying to do something meaningful.” Maybe so, but Bonnie is living proof that here in Israel, the ordinary can be extraordinary.

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Zahava Englard Shapiro

Originally from New York, Zahava was lost in New Jersey for several years until found over a decade ago roaming the hills of Judea in Gush Etzion. An author of two books, “The Gilboa Iris” published by Gefen and “Settling for More: From Jersey to Judea” published by Devora. Her favorite quote is: “If it’s not controversial, why bother?” (Yes, the quote is her own.) She is a mother of four, with two sons having proudly served in IDF combat. Zahava is presently residing in Jerusalem, continues to publish articles for various online publications and is currently working on "the great Israeli novel."