Far From Sderot‚ Just Kids Again
For more than 100 youngsters‚ a summer camp idyll with bug juice instead of bombs.
Carolyn Slutsky from the jewish week
More than 100 children from Sderot enjoyed a summer of exploring cities‚ amusement parks and the joys of camp life in Manalapan N.J.‚ above‚ and Collegeville‚ Pa.‚ left. Photos courtesy of Chabad
Manalapan, N.J. — An act as simple as riding a bicycle barefoot around a covered pavilion, the sun beating down on the grassy fields surrounding her, is something Lior Azaran could not have dreamed of doing this summer back home in Sderot.
But this has been a summer of firsts for Lior and more than 100 other children from Sderot, the embattled city near the Gaza border where instead of swimming, bug juice and summer showers, children endure the weekly rains of Kassam rockets and a constant sense of terror.
The children have spent a month in American camps this summer through a Chabad program started by Rabbi Dan Rodkin last year. Rabbi Rodkin grew up in Soviet Russia attending an underground
yeshiva, and remembers being buoyed by the support of Jews halfway around the world. Last summer he brought 10 children from Sderot to his camp in the Boston area, and this summer he contacted colleagues at Chabad camps throughout the country, securing spots for 120 children at camps on the East and West coasts. The program was funded by George and Pamela Rohr and Morris and Lillian Tabacinic.
Lior and her friends at Camp Gan Israel in Manalapan, N.J., spent the past month acting the part of teenage girls instead of being confined to their homes during the day and sleeping together with other children in bomb shelters at night.
At camp they enjoyed swimming, fishing, biking and horseback riding. On their off days they visited amusement parks and toured Manhattan and Washington, D.C., taking in sites like the Empire State building and the White House and Israeli embassy. They went to 770, the Chabad headquarters on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and to the Lubavitcher rebbe’s gravesite in Montefiore cemetery in Queens.
And, because they are teenage girls, they shopped.
“Even though we’re here, we’re still thinking about our family over there,” says Lior, a quiet girl with big eyes and light hair, as Rabbi Boruch Chazanow, the Manalapan Chabad director, interprets from Hebrew. “Here we were shown strength and support and we’re going to use that to strengthen our families and friends when we go back.”
“Here you can go out of your house without being scared,” says Ofir Biton, and the others gathered round a picnic table, making matzah after a lesson on the holiday of Passover in the early afternoon, nod in agreement.
“You’re able to walk in the street without looking for the nearest shelter,” says Noa Amselem. “Here you have an actual vacation in the summer.”
Rabbi Chazanow says that giving the children a break from home, where some of their houses have been destroyed or they or their families physically hurt, is a paramount goal. But he also adds that having the children at camp, housing them with local families, recruiting some women to do art projects with them and others to serve as chaperones on their many trips, leads to a greater awareness in the Jewish community about the reality of what is going on near the Gaza border every day.
At one time there were some 24,000 Jews in Sderot, but now that population has dwindled by 25 percent or more, according to estimates. Those families who can afford to leave their homes have, while others saddled with mortgages and no way to sell must remain.
“Hundreds of American Jewish children are becoming more aware of Israel,” says Rabbi Chazanow. “We also wanted to show the kids and their families how much the American Jewish community cares. This gives them strength.”
In Collegeville, Pa., the children from Sderot are younger than the girls in New Jersey but no less eager to be away from their beleaguered lives for a blessed summer break.
Here the girls gather in a circle to play a game where each jumps on the others’ foot; the last girl standing wins. To watch them play in the shady grove, wet children running from the pool past white wood bunks with green trim, frogs in their hands and flip-flops clopping, you would never know what they have been through.
You would not know that Eve, a pretty, intense 10-year-old wearing a camouflage jumper, was in a mall in Sderot when a rocket hit, throwing her down a flight of stairs and sending her to the hospital for weeks. You would not know that when a routine test siren went off in the first week of camp, the American children ignored it while the Sderot girls ran to the nearest doorway, reminded of home where the tzeva adom, or code red alert, means they have 15-20 seconds to race to a bomb shelter.
Chani Popack, an Israeli counselor who helps the girls communicate with their American counterparts, says that bringing them to the United States for the summer is not meant to make the children question their home city, but rather to give them a rest from the constant stress and reinforce them for when they return.
“Our goal is that they will go home to Israel stronger, we don’t want them to stay [here] but to realize how good Israel is,” she says. “We talk a lot about how Israel is the Promised Land and by us staying there, that’s how we’re saving it.”
Rochie Pink, the program director at Gan Israel in Collegeville, agrees. “We wanted the kids to re-energize, to go back to Sderot after they’ve been in a safe environment.”
Rabbi Moishe Brennan, the rabbi at Chabad of the Main Line outside Philadelphia, who has helped coordinate the children’s stay with local families, says that bringing them to camp gives them a level of freedom they could never experience back home.
“They’re able to run around not being scared of anything,” he says. “The concept is to give them a boost, it’s not a relocating project, we wouldn’t want to relocate them forever because they serve an important role where they are back home and we want them to continue to serve that vital role of Jewish people living in Israel and holding onto the land.”
For the American campers, the chance to meet the Israelis has been an eye-opening learning experience.
“I thought Sderot was a normal place just like everywhere else. I’ve learned it’s hard for them to live in Sderot. They’re learning from us and we’re learning from them,” says Avigail, a 10-year-old who lives in the Philadelphia area, sitting on a bench and watching while the girls from Sderot make thank you cards for their host families. “They learn life doesn’t always have to be hard.”
For Miriam Gerber, who with her husband Rabbi Zalman directs Gan Israel Collegeville, the chance to welcome the children from Sderot has been an extension of what she has always gleaned from the Lubavitcher rebbe.
“The rebbe always said Israel was the safest place, even in times of war,” said Rebbetzin Gerber. “The eyes of God are on it from the beginning of the year to the end. Israel has a special eye and people are encouraged to stay there and not run away.”
In addition to the Chabad program, another group of children from Sderot is spending a month at the Central Queens YM-YWHA’s Camp Edward Isaacs in upstate Holmes, N.Y.
Thanks to UJA-Federation’s Israel Emergency Fund, the kids enjoyed typical American activities like sports, swimming, arts and crafts, barbecues, as well as a trip to Manhattan where they toured the United Nations, Madame Tussauds, enjoyed lunch at the pricey Le Marais steakhouse, and shopped.
While she was relaxed and happy at lunch, Maya Fink, 13, has had to face a lot back home.
“It was kind of scary when all the bombs start falling,” she said. “We were really freaking out because we didn’t have safe places and we have to build everything so quickly.”
Though she’s grown used to the attacks, “we still live in fear,” she explained.
Roni Yasini, 15, another participant, said he definitely felt “a little bit more free,” here, as opposed to at home in Sderot. “It’s hard with the Kassam rockets falling all the time,” he said.
All the children head back to Israel this week, but they and the counselors, rabbis and new friends they met during their July respite hope they are fortified for the coming challenges.
In Sderot, if it is silent you know to anticipate a shower of Kassam rockets. On a farm in New Jersey, with goats and horses grazing and the smell of manure in the air, with children laughing and splashing in the pool, a rare moment of silence is, simply, silence.