Samantha Becker

Dark Matter: How I Realized I Have Post-Election-Stress-Disorder and What I Plan To Do About It


I admit it: I’m suffering from PESD.

Post-Election-Stress-Disorder.

And I’m not alone.

I’ve gone through the phases. Self-pity. Grieving. Reading Hillbilly Elegy. The anger to activism phase—that one I’m still in.

I can trace this anxiety back to the Women’s March, when I posted an open letter to Piers Morgan, confronting his declaration that women should “wait” for their rights to be taken away before protesting.

A family member said I was incorrect when I wrote that defunding international NGOs would mean loss of lives. He contended that if organizations would agree not to perform abortions, then they could have the funding needed for other women’s health issues.

Now I love him deeply, but questions kept gnawing at me: Did he believe his rights to his body mattered more than mine? Where was his compassion, if not for all women, at least for me—a woman that he knows and loves?

Since then, I’ve had all the hallmarks of PESD: depression, lack of sleep, addiction to Twitter, and too much cable news.

Reflecting back on the birther controversy, I was dizzy from the thought running through my mind: Our President is a racist…

Surely I wasn’t seeing straight when I saw how he treated Jews. Did he just put an anti-Semite on the National Security Council? Did he just issue a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that does not mention Jewish people?

And to add insult to illness, did he really announce a Muslim Ban on that same Holocaust Remembrance Day? As a Jew, I had this image of the St. Louis coming to the U.S. with victims fleeing the Holocaust. The headaches set in. Thinking about that ship being refused entry, and having 250 of its passengers murdered upon returning to Europe made me want to vomit. How could he repeat the inhumanity of turning away those fleeing violence, genocide, and religious persecution, and on the very day that honors the phrase, “Never again”?

Then I asked, “He’s going to enforce ICE raids in this country?” Putting aside the horrific lack of compassion, I knew we couldn’t deport millions of people for logistical and economic reasons. If he went through with this, if he had ICE pull these people out of their homes and detained them, would we end up with camps? After everything we learned growing up in Sunday School and Hebrew School, we could be citizens of a country that allows concentration camps?

And that’s when it hit me. There’s more than one epidemic going on here. Conspiracy theories and complicity have become communicable diseases. It’s no longer enough to talk about the evils of Trump and his administration. We have to talk about the evils of collusion (purposeful or otherwise) as well.

The message behind Trump’s madness is infecting good people. I hear friends of mine rationalizing this new reality, saying things like, “Sure, he’s awful, but what he’s doing doesn’t affect me directly.”

That’s the same apathy that sent the St. Louis back to Hitler.

My response here: Not this time. With or without government, we need to shut this down.

While PESD may have no immediate cure, we can treat this illness by first looking at its cause. The reason those of us suffering from it are feeling worse now than four months ago is because we’re seeing that with every action Trump takes, there is an underlying narrative that we do not matter.

That’s what bothered me most about that Facebook debate and my friends’ seeming indifference. The people around us may not actually be saying, “You don’t matter.” But on some level, they are saying, “You don’t matter enough for me to do anything about it.”

So, what can the rest of us do?

For starters, we can all begin an active regimen of self-care. When Trump says we don’t matter, make a concerted effort to show others they do. When I write a letter to a congressman in support of refugees, I will send another one directly to an arriving refugee. People need to hear they are welcome here, not just from lawmakers, but especially from the rest of us.

Let’s take control of our media diet. For me, that means giving up on cable news panels wondering whether our president is capable of change, and instead, looking at what changes I can make in myself.

That goes for our own media output as well. When I see something inconsiderate stemming from this administration, I’ve vowed to share stories both in person and on social media about acts of kindness. Maybe I can’t change his narrative, but I can certainly change my own.

If Trump’s behavior is contagious, then the way we approach it should be preventative, like popping a Vitamin C packet when we feel chills coming on. We have to be vigilant. PESD is an information illness, so I imagine if we all start with some further introspection, we’ll find, like I did, that we’re overdue for a check-up.

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Samantha Becker is a Principal at Fenway Strategies where she focuses on written communications and speechwriting. 

Heroes to Heroes helps U.S. soldiers heal their psychic wounds


With his two kids out of the house, retired Army Sgt. Harrison Manyoma planned to commit suicide on Aug. 10, 2012. But a Jewish mother from New Jersey derailed his plans. 

Judy Schaffer started Heroes to Heroes after meeting wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland at a Christmas party she helped organize in 2009. The meeting haunted her. 

The soldiers Schaffer met had volunteered to serve so that American boys, like her two sons, did not have to go, did not have to risk their lives, did not have to return to the United States, as Manyoma did, with physical injuries from a roadside explosion in Iraq and psychic wounds that no one could see. When Schaffer, a radio sales representative, learned that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, she wondered how Americans could live with that statistic.

Shortly after the holiday party at Walter Reed, she happened to sit next to an Israeli soldier on a plane. She asked him how Israelis recuperate from the emotional pain of combat. Israel has a military culture, he told her, because service is compulsory. So everyone knows a wounded vet. Everyone understands post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Something clicked for Schaffer. Could it possibly help veterans to visit Israel?  Could linking Israeli soldiers with American vets be a healing experience? Could visiting the holiest place on Earth help restore their faith in life? Schaffer developed a business plan and started fundraising. 

Heroes to Heroes took its first group of veterans to Israel in 2011, attempting to restore a sense of peace to ex-soldiers who, in some cases, had been suffering from PTSD for years, had lost jobs, lost relationships or were as deeply depressed as Manyoma.   

On the day Manyoma planned to kill himself, he received a call at his home in Texas inviting him on a 10-day trip, along with nine other former soldiers whose lives had been upended by wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The trip transformed him.

Now the man who had sought to end his life serves as a coach for Heroes to Heroes. For the group’s sixth trip to Israel, in February, Manyoma helped select the vets who would most benefit from the experience, monitored each ex-soldier once on Israeli soil, and worked with his Israeli counterparts, who accompanied the Americans on their journey.

From his own experience, Manyoma knew that simply being in a country that honors its veterans every day would have an intense impact on the former soldiers. And it did. A veteran of the Vietnam War who hadn’t spoken about his experience in 45 years opened up to fellow vets after his first night in Jerusalem.


Heroes to Heroes team gathers at the Western Wall.

Manyoma had a similar experience on his initial trip to Israel. He felt a sensation coursing through his arm as he placed his hand on the Western Wall. He began sobbing, but at the same time, experienced a joy he had not known for some time. He opened up emotionally, talked about his feelings and slept better that night than he had since December 2004, when he was wounded in Iraq.

On each trip, the former soldiers are purposely asked to adhere to a tight schedule. Many have not followed a routine for years and arrive in Israel with little interest in life. Their attitude starts to change as they visit the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Yad Vashem. Some walk the Stations of the Cross or undergo a baptism in the Jordan River as a symbol of renewal. All plant a tree in the Lavi Forest in honor of people they have lost or for their children. According to Schaffer, planting a tree for their kids means they are choosing to live. 

During the second trip that Heroes to Heroes made, vets met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who listened to each soldier, shared his own wartime experience and related the heartbreak of losing his brother at the raid on Entebbe in 1976. On their most recent trip, vets met with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Along with the social and emotional aspects of the program, there is a physical element. Vets are asked to ride a bicycle. Most haven’t been on a bike in years, many haven’t been active at all, and some are in physical distress. They’ve taken painkillers or used drugs and alcohol. They’re scared to get on a bike. They worry they will fall. No one has.

The vets return to the United States changed. Manyoma said his son and daughter saw a different man when he came home. “Daddy’s back,” his daughter told him. “The trip opened my heart,” he said.

Heroes to Heroes, which is run by volunteers, has so far been limited to two trips a year because of the financial commitment each visit requires. Schaffer has solicited donors, applied for a grant and is now discussing the possibility that a film could be made about the organization. Her goal is to take four teams to Israel in 2015, to reach people who desperately need help, to throw them a lifeline before they crash, to help them heal. 

To learn more, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “Prescribed Grass,” the 2009 documentary that would open the eyes of Israeli politicians to the vast potential of medical cannabis, a group of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans, suffering from army wounds such as phantom pains and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are shown sitting around a table at the Cohens’ house. There, they help trim the harvest, smoke their medicine from a small glass bong and sing the miracles of cannabis.

Those were the farm’s whimsical beginnings. Today, up a country road from the Cohens’ house, at a guarded location hidden by trees but open to steady sunshine, sits the family’s now-massive operation. It’s an almost three-acre setup of greenhouses, high-tech “Twister” trimming machines and huts with labels such as “Flowering House” and “Mother House.”

The Cohens have named their farm Tikun Olam, the Hebrew phrase for “healing the world” — and they believe their marijuana-growing and -processing facilities to be among the most advanced on Earth.

“It was amazing, the professional quality of the guys up there,” said an Israeli psychiatrist who visited the farm and recommends the Tikun Olam product to his patients, but who wished to remain anonymous, as he was instructed by the Ministry of Health not to give press statements. “All the measurements and everything were so precise.”

Despite its impressive new digs, Tikun Olam’s industrial garden retains an air of spirituality. Farmhands play traditional Jewish music to the plants and believe that kabbalah legend Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, buried on a nearby hill, watches over the farm and protects it from harm. A creaky little synagogue on site is hot-boxed with the fragrance of marijuana. “People from the neighborhood come to pray here,” said Ma’ayan Weisberg, spokeswoman for Tikun Olam, on a recent tour of the property.

Israeli lawmakers continue to classify marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug. The national police force has waged a decades-long drug war against marijuana and hashish smuggled in from Lebanon and Egypt. But beginning in 1995 — when an Israeli government committee recommended that medical cannabis be legally distributed to the sick — a determined set of activists, scientists and politicians have nurtured a small, secure medical-cannabis program that might be just rigid enough to survive where other international efforts have unraveled.

Last November, Tikun Olam hosted a mob of international reporters from BBC, CNN, Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times and more at its homey plantation near Safed. Leading the pack was Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli government’s then-Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. He proudly announced that Tikun Olam had bred a special strain of cannabis that contained super-high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD — a non-psychoactive yet medically diverse component of the plant — but was almost entirely lacking in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient that makes users feel stoned. This new strain could offer patients relief from various physical ailments, including chronic pain and seizures, without cannabis’ infamous psychedelic high.

Tikun Olam also informed the media that the farm had grown a strain — named Eran Almog, after a patient — that contained 28 to 29 percent THC, which it claimed was the highest THC level ever recorded. (THC is known to prevent nausea in cancer patients and build appetites in people with AIDS, among other applications.)

“The new thing here is that what has always been thought of as just a drug, a negative thing, has become — through the good work of the growers here — a medicine which, in fact, is not a narcotic,” Edelstein told the reporters.

But after dozens of headlines equating “Israel” with “cannabis” hit global news outlets, the Ministry of Health, which runs Israel’s medical pot program, got cold feet and imposed a no-press policy on the farm, Weisberg said.

In tense committee meetings on how to handle the country’s expanding medical cannabis program, Israeli politicians and top brass at the Ministry of Public Security have expressed fears that Israel will earn a reputation as the Amsterdam of medical marijuana.

That fate may already be sealed. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta called Israel “the medical marijuana research capital” in his game-changing summer documentary “Weed,” and dedicated more than five minutes of the film to Israel’s remarkable advances in cannabis research and regulation.

Gupta was amazed to see how seamlessly Israel had integrated cannabis into its health-care system. He visited the Sheba Medical Center, where he was shocked to watch a cancer patient inhale cannabis from a vaporizer installed in his hospital room. He also spoke with Moshe Rute, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor whose nursing home provides him cannabis from Tikun Olam to ease his post-stroke symptoms, as well as his childhood memories. “The marijuana … took him out of the darkness,” CNN’s Gupta narrated as the old man lit up.

Although Tikun Olam is the most widely publicized brand available through Israel’s now world-famous cannabis program — the company calls itself “the flag bearer for the medical use of cannabis in Israel” on its Web site — seven more farms have grown simultaneously in its shadow. They are working within an infrastructure created by the Israeli government, testing the levels of CBD and THC in their product at federal or university labs and distributing it out of a cramped little room behind the high-security gates of Abarbanel, the country’s central mental institution.

To get access, Israeli cannabis patients — of which there are currently almost 13,000 — currently must wrangle a hard-to-get cannabis license from the Ministry of Health, then receive training from experts familiar with the farms’ different strains. Individuals pay a fixed price of about $100 per month, regardless of the amount of cannabis prescribed. With the exception of Tikun Olam customers, who pick up their weed at a closely guarded storefront with prison-like window bars on Ibn Gabirol Street in northern Tel Aviv, the nation’s cannabis patients pick up their monthly rations at Abarbanel Mental Health Center.

This tight-knit system of production and distribution, carried out under the paranoid thumb of the federal government, has positioned Israel to create what could become the world’s first successful, government-run pharmaceutical system for medical cannabis.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel.

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?<

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In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error.

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine.

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000.

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.”

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer.

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results.

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms.

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia.

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it.

“Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.”

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land.

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known.

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success.

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Jewish parent power tools can help kids cope with the tragedy at Sandy Hook and beyond


There’s been a lot of talk in the news about what to say to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook.  A steady stream of experts attempting to provide some sort of parental protocol for addressing this unimaginable tragedy with our kids: Find out what our child knows before divulging too many details. Limit our kids’ exposure to scary news reports. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives know how to keep them from harm’s way. But even the best advice seems to fall short in this case as it’s ultimately impossible for anyone – our children or ourselves – to make sense of that which doesn’t. 

Thankfully, our rich Jewish tradition offers a unique set of resources to help us find our way over this most daunting of parental hurdles.  The following Jewish Parent Power Tools – when embraced for all their worth – can help our children cope with the harsh realities of Sandy Hook while gearing them with strength, courage and compassion for the uncertain road ahead.

The Shema.  “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Shema is considered the most important prayer in the Jewish religion as it perfectly and succinctly reaffirms of our faith and connection with God twice a day. The news out of Newtown that our kids might have seen on the TV, Internet, and social media can make their world feel frightening and out of control.  By saying the Shema, this sense of powerless is replaced by spirituality and belief in a higher power that will help guide and sustain them through good times and bad.

The Haggadah.  The word haggadah means a storytelling.  Sharing tales of overcoming hardship is part of our religion by design.  The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University has shown this premise on a more scientific level.  A long-term study by MARIAL’s found that children whose parents told family stories at the dinner table had significantly better coping skills than those whose parents did not.  From Passover to Purim and everything in between, our Jewish narrative reassures our children of the power of perseverance and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).  Senseless acts of violence like that which occurred in Newtown confirm that our world is indeed in need of repair.  Joining forces with our children to pick up litter in a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or doing other acts of Tikkun Olam can feel like our own little triumph over evil – a tiny step toward restoring that which was broken and tilting the balance scales toward good.

Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).   There’s no doubt that the school shootings in Newtown shake us to the core.  But rather than focusing on the horror of what’s transpired, we should encourage our children (and ourselves) to channel our energies into feeling compassion for the families that were affected by this tragedies. Collecting Tzedakah or making cards for the students at Sandy Hook school can help facilitate this cognitive shift from fear to a much healthier compassion.

Jewish Courage.  There is a beautiful Hebrew song based on the sage words of Rav Nachman of Breslov. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’fahed klal.  The world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear,” writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.  This is not to suggest that we encourage our kids to throw caution to the wind altogether.  They should, of course, be sensible and vigilant. But then it’s time to move forward: Skipping into their classrooms, laughing with friends on the schoolyard, walking that inevitably narrow bridge with a zest for life and faith in the world’s ultimate goodness.  Enjoy the journey together.


Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” (Random House). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including Parents, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post. Her four children give her an endless supply of parenting fodder.

Israeli film ‘Waltz With Bashir’ has an anti-war beat


“Waltz With Bashir” is a startling hybrid of a movie vehicle which came from behind to become Israel’s entry for Oscar honors, announced last month, and may well pull another surprise when the Academy Award for best foreign-language film is announced.

The oddly titled film combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war documentary theme and a psychoanalytic approach to recover the memory of a traumatized Israeli soldier.

The mixture may sound odd, but it comes together as an integrated and haunting autobiographical movie, which will be screened for the first time locally on Nov. 1 at the American Film Institute Fest 2008.

Ari Folman, the film’s writer, director and producer, is also its central character as a 20-year-old infantryman, whose unit spearheaded the Israeli advance into Lebanon in June 1982 with the announced goal of stopping incursions and rocket attacks on northern Galilee towns by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Going beyond the original Israeli plan to establish a 25-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon, Folman’s Golani Brigade is ordered to the outskirts of Beirut, awaiting orders to take the city.

In confusing night actions and bitter street fighting, the young soldiers encounter fear and death. Their sometime allies are the Christian Phalangist militia, led by the young, charismatic Bashir Gemayel. (The film takes its title from a scene in which an Israeli soldier, dodging bullets while crossing a Beirut street, goes through strange, waltz-like motions, while huge posters of Gemayel look down.)

When Gemayel is killed in an explosion, the revered leader’s militia takes over the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, while Israeli soldiers, including Folman, are positioned around the camps’ perimeters.


The trailer

After three nights of killings, shell-shocked civilians stumble out of the camps, leaving behind murdered corpses, whose estimated numbers range from 700 to 3,000.

The years pass, and one day Folman meets a former army buddy who talks about a strange, recurring dream, rooted in his battlefield experiences, and Folman realizes that he remembers nothing of his own actions in the war.

He decides to seek out six veterans from his old unit, a TV journalist who covered the war, and an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, to help him restore old memories.

To create his script, Folman said in an interview that he recorded the witnesses’ stories on video and cut the recollections down to 90 minutes. Next, his team created a storyboard and 2,300 illustrations, which were turned into animation through a combination of Flash, classical animation and 3D.

Speaking by phone from his Haifa home, Folman said that his production costs were $2 million, mostly underwritten by Israeli, French and German film funds. When he exhausted the grants, he mortgaged his home and took out a large loan.

During the four years that went into the making of “Waltz,” the psychological and financial strains were unrelenting, Folman recalled, not made easier by the birth of his three children during that period.

Folman said that there was never any question in his mind that the film would be animated, noting, “If you look at all the elements, the dreams, the hallucinations, the surrealism of war itself, that’s the only way I could make it work.”

Only in the last 50 seconds of the 87-minute film does Folman switch to newsreel footage to show the bloody toll of the Phalangists’ massacre.

“I didn’t want the people in the audience to come out feeling that they had seen a film with some really cool animation and great music,” Folman explained.

The film is infused with Folman’s conviction that war is senseless and his visceral dislike of Israel’s leadership during the Lebanon War, particularly of Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense.

So intense is Folman’s feeling that he sees his film as a kind of legacy for his young sons, so when the time comes, “They will make the right decision, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever.”

On questioning, he qualified the statement by saying that it referred to Israel’s two Lebanon wars and America’s invasion of Iraq, but not to such “defensive” battles as the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

“Waltz With Bashir” won high praise at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals, and, perhaps more surprisingly, in its home country.

The Israeli government’s film fund subsidized the movie, there was no criticism from the political right, and only some on the left objected that the film’s anti-war message wasn’t strong enough.

“Israelis are very tolerant toward their artists,” Folman said.

AFI will screen “Waltz With Bashir” on Nov. 1 at 3:45 p.m. and again Nov. 7 at 7 p.m., both at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood. The film will be released in general theaters on Dec. 25.

Other titles at the AFI Fest (Oct. 30 – Nov. 9) on Jewish themes or by Jewish filmmakers include “Acne,” “Adam Resurrected,” “Defiance” and “Of All the Things.”

For ticket and other information, visit http://www.afi.com/afifest or phone (886) AFI-FEST.

Can magnets help relieve Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?


The emotional toll of war and terrorism weigh heavily on many Israelis, but researchers at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem are studying ways to help patients deal with traumatic events through a novel technique — magnetic stimulation of the brain.

The study involves patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, an emotionally wrenching condition caused by exposure to traumatic events. PTSD affects about 8 percent of Israelis who have been exposed to combat, while residents in areas under fire, like Sderot, are diagnosed with the disorder in far greater numbers.

Patients with PTSD often suffer flashbacks to the traumatic event that they experienced in their lives, and the disorder can stop patients from sleeping soundly. A patient may experience a cavalcade of fear and anxiety when something triggers the memory of a traumatic event.

Treatment for PTSD frequently relies on a combination of psychotherapy and psychiatric medications. American soldiers traumatized by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have even been prescribed MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy, as part of the therapy to help them deal with the flashbacks. But the use of magnetic stimulation, which has been shown to offer moderate help with depression, could also offer hope to those suffering with PTSD who haven’t responded as well to drug therapies.

The study at Hadassah Medical Center involves only nine patients, and seven of them have already finished treatment. A few of the patients are from Sderot, a city subjected to ongoing rocket attacks, where 33 percent of the children suffer from PTSD, according to a study by Tel Hai College.

“Usually, we treat PTSD when the trauma was in the past, but they still live there under the same risk, and they still have the sirens going on every now and then, and they still feel that the bombs will fall on their house,” said Dr. Moshe Isserles, lead study researcher. “It’s crazy that so many people in Israel are living under stress and for continued periods of time.”

In the study, patients are treated for PTSD with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which the Food and Drug Administration recently cleared as a method to treat depression in the United States. With the TMS technique, doctors use a coil held near the patient’s head to produce an alternating magnetic field and stimulate regions of the brain that are crucial to the management of PTSD.

The coil uses a frequency of no more than 20 hertz, which is far lower than the level that can do harm, said Dr. Abraham Zangen, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Jerusalem, who helped developed the coil used in the Hadassah study.

The use of TMS is meant to alter the way patients’ brains handle memories of traumatic events, the doctors said. Research shows that when patients with PTSD are reminded of traumatic events, they experience activation of a structure in the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing deep emotions such as fear and anxiety, Zangen said.

Patients with PTSD who are reminded of traumatic events also suffer from inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls logic and decreases the severity of emotional responses that originate in the amygdala, he said.

Through TMS, the technique of using alternating magnetic fields, doctors working on the Hadassah study are able to stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the patients.

The treatment could blunt the effects of PTSD by strengthening the synaptic connectivity between patients’ prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain responsible for more logical thinking — and their amygdala — the region of the brain that processes the deep emotions associated with PTSD, Zangen said.

“In most cases, we have very nice response, very good response; not always lasting forever, not always long lasting, but a good response,” he said.

One of the patients in the study has suffered from PTSD since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when friends died at his side, Zangen said. The disorder and the flashbacks made remaining asleep difficult for the patient.

“He was really having a very severe traumatic experience with PTSD,” Zangen said.

He added that the patient could sleep soundly after a couple treatments with TMS, but his condition deteriorated slightly once the treatment ended altogether. He may need further treatment, Zangen said.

The Hadassah study will end within the next six months, but the team may publish preliminary results even before then, Isserles said.

While the device has an effect on the brain, a placebo effect has been difficult to rule out in cases of depression. A study of the TMS technique by the National Institutes of Health in the United States is currently under way, and initial results could be released by early 2009.

Isserles pointed to past studies that have shown some positive results from TMS for patients suffering from depression, and he believes that the technique could be particularly beneficial to patients with PTSD who don’t respond as well to existing methods for treating the disorder.

Drugs, usually anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, do not treat the core symptoms of the disease, Isserles said. Psychotherapy is more effective, but he says it has proven both costly and time consuming.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t any treatment that’s working on PTSD,” Isserles said. “Some treatments are pretty successful, but still there are many, many patients who fail with the treatments that there are right now.”

Both Zangen and Isserles said that if TMS proves successful in their study, it could eventually be used to help U.S. Iraq War veterans who suffer from PTSD.

“There are many, many people with PTSD that are almost not functioning,” Isserles said. “This syndrome can be very bad.”