StoriesJudith Yovel Recanati ’89

Helping to heal a nation's trauma

A graduate of Lesley's Expressive Therapies program creates a center for healing in a country torn apart by war.

Judith Yovel Recanati, founder of NATAL

Judith Yovel Recanati speaks with a calmness and resolve rooted in a life spent dealing with conflict. Born in Israel to a prominent banking family, she was raised with a keen sense of both philanthropy and civic duty. Like most Israelis of her generation, Judith was deeply affected by the Yom Kippur War of 1973, losing friends and classmates and watching others struggle with the physical and emotional after-effects of the conflict. As a young woman she studied archaeology at Tel Aviv University and served as a Women’s Corps and Welfare Officer in the Israel Defense Forces. But it was years later after she had married and become a mother that she found herself searching for a new purpose. 

“I was a young mother with three daughters. My parents had passed away. I was in quite a difficult period of my life, thinking ‘what next?’ I had studied archaeology and photography. But I was wondering how I was going to restart my life. I knew I wanted to be helping people but I didn’t know in what capacity. By chance I met a friend who had just graduated from the Lesley program in Expressive Therapies. The minute I heard about it, I knew that it was going to be my future. The next September I started at Lesley.”

A new reality and a new idea

Through her studies in expressive therapies, Judith was able to learn to help others—and to discover new things about herself. She bought a Polaroid camera and met with a photography therapist in the U.S. For ten years she worked as a therapist in rehab centers and hospitals in Israel, learning to use photography as a tool for rehabilitation. “We were working primarily with people who had experienced traumatic injuries and illnesses, people who had lost limbs or lost their mobility, who were facing a new reality. I used to take the patients in their wheelchairs nearby to take pictures. The patients used the cameras and the photographs to express what they were going through...to connect with themselves, to separate from the person that they were before. It was very moving.” 

After years of working in long-term therapy, Judith felt that she needed a change and started working as a short-term art therapist. During that time, she met Dr. Yossi Hadar, a psychiatrist, a poet, and playwright who became a friend and mentor. A few years later, he called her and asked to meet. “He told me about a dream he’d had about an organization he wanted to establish. This was the seed of NATAL – Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center. The idea was to create a therapeutic center open to all Israelis to help them process the traumas they had experienced during the long years of conflict and violence. “I was very identified with the cause as it dealt with the trauma of the Arab-Israeli conflict and finding emotional help for people who needed it due to war and terrorism.”

They opened NATAL in June 1998 in Judith’s mother’s former home in Tel Aviv, with high hopes that the response would be enormous. “We thought that we would get so many calls but…no one called! We understood then that it’s hard for people to ask for help. Israel is a country that because of who we are, there are so many soldiers. There are a lot of people who were in the army, who get pensions, psychological help. The effect of receiving therapy or getting a variety of tools is not new, but it being a non-governmental organization, being open to everyone—civilians, children, Arabs, Bedouin—that was new.” Only weeks after the center opened, Dr. Hadar died suddenly, leaving the center leaderless and potentially adrift. Despite her grief and shock, Judith decided to carry on. “It took only a few days for me to realize that this was my life’s mission.” She restarted the center in August 1998 with a new energy and a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve.

Expanding and growing

In September 2000, the second Intifada started, bringing a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence and resulting in a high number of injured civilians and soldiers, many of who suffered from post-traumatic stress. The need for a center like NATAL became even more clear. In the years since, the center has moved and expanded, encompassing helplines and a network of therapists throughout the country. The center offers group therapy for wives and parents of wounded soldiers and video therapy, which involves telling a story of life before and after the event on video camera to gain a better understanding of how the traumatic event has influenced one’s life. 

NATAL also offers a social therapeutic club to help people with chronic post-trauma syndrome. For Israelis suffering from trauma, many of whom are lonely and socially isolated, the center offers a lifeline where they can participate in art activities, theater, art shows, as well as share meals. “For many people, just picking up the phone and telling their story is a very courageous process—sometimes it takes years. We are brought up in Israel with the message that we have to cope, we have to be tough. Israelis have also started to learn that it’s courageous to confront what has happened to you.”

In recent years, the organization has expanded its mission outward, developing tools and protocols to help other communities impacted by trauma. In the U.S., NATAL has worked with The Urban Resiliency Network in Bronzeville (TURN) to develop centers in Chicago to help people traumatized by violence and with the Patton Veterans’ Project to use film and video therapy to help veterans who are dealing with post-traumatic stress. The center is in its 12thyear of collaboration with Tel Aviv Medical School. And Lesley students come to Israel to get the tools to train people in the NATAL model to help people with trauma.

“In Israel so many therapists are dealing with the experience of trauma,” says Judith. “Unfortunately the trauma is there all the time.” And indeed, the conflict in Israel shows no signs of ending. Judith now has eight grandsons and a granddaughter. She continues her work with NATAL and with the Gandyr Family Foundation, a philanthropic group that she created with her late husband Dr. Israel Yovel and her three daughters. “The work is going on. I still enjoy revealing new communication tools through the use of art. Everything I do I see as art.” And she still holds a special place in her heart for Lesley. “I think for me the experience of Lesley was life-changing. I changed as a person. I got in touch with parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. I am really so grateful for the experience.”

Learn More

Lesley University offers five master's degree programs in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Expressive Therapies, including Art Therapy, Dance/Movement Therapy, Music Therapy, Drama Therapy, and Expressive Arts Therapy. We also have a PhD program and graduate certificate programs.

Explore about our Expressive Therapies programs.

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