Camp Provides Needed Refuge for War-Weary Kids

All year, kids who attend overnight camps in North America look forward to a much-beloved, end-of-the-season tradition: "Color War," that mix of athletic and creative activities that splits the camp in two until one team ends up victorious. Why the competition never changed its name to something more politically correct remains one of those mysteries of summers past and present.

In Israel, such an event seems wryly ironic, especially this year, when its children have been colored by something else entirely: real war.

On July 12, Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid near Lebanon, claiming it wanted to trade them for Arab prisoners held in Israel. Just two weeks earlier, the terror group Hamas from Gaza had taken another soldier, Army Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The combined kidnappings were seen as an act of war by the Jewish state, whose leaders promptly initiated targeted air strikes inside southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah was ingrained.

Hezbollah immediately fired back, with Katyushas that rained down on Israel's northernmost cities and towns. After two days of bombing, the salad days of summer turned serious.

According to Chagit Shvarzman, once the first missile hit Haifa, the Ministry of Education decided it could not keep kids in camps up north, and needed an alternative for their safe relocation. "The kids were sleeping; we had to move them overnight to a new place. We didn't say it was dangerous; we said it was a special surprise. But the kids were smart; they knew.

"It took a lot of planning. But once the kids were in camp, they knew nothing of the situation up north.

"Some parents [in the north] wanted to take their kids home, but the kids said no. They fought with their parents to stay," explained the 24-year-old lead counselor at a makeshift emergency camp in central Israel, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

"There was nothing here," she said, pointing to her immediate surroundings, "except grass and trees, and some buildings."

The area was still sparse, a dusty plot of land that now offered bathrooms, picnic tables for meals, and large expanses of shaded ground that played host to sports-related and other activities. There was no pool, no lake, no tennis courts — none of the amenities an American facility would offer. It was early August in the Middle East, and it was hot.

Sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and operated by the youth organization No'ar Ha'oved Ve'halomed, the camp accommodated Jewish, Druze and Arab children from the north of Israel within the framework of JAFI's "Moving Our Children to Safety" campaign.

Shvarzman reported that more than 6,000 kids had been there in four- to five-day cycles, after which they returned to their parents, many of whom wound up living in shelters for the entire stretch of the month-plus war.

"A great partnership was made to save these kids," she said.

A significant number of Israeli youth attend educational and recreational camps during their chofesh, or "vacation" — the months of June, July and August — though for much shorter periods than American kids, who tend to go anywhere from four to eight weeks. But unlike camps in the United States, which finish up in mid-August, the ones in Israel tend to run all the way to early September, and the beginning of school.

Indeed, the boys and girls seemed to enjoy themselves, engaging in organized games and congregating in groups, and doing that favorite of all things: eating lunch, in this case, one of hummus, hot dogs, fresh fruit and that ubiquitous camp drink — bug juice.

'They Come Out of Their Shells'
It's good for them, this place, explained Gil Ogen, a 25-year-old counselor from Kibbutz Eshbal, near Carmiel in the Galilee. "In camp, the children are separated from the computer, the TV," he said, alluding to the same problem Westernized children have of being addicted to technology and thus the indoors. "At camp, they use their muscles and their thinking; they use their social skills. They come out of their shells.

"A lot of kids come from urban places, like all of the modern world. They have no air. Here, for four or five days, they meet nature."

And yet, he continued, "many of them find it hard. They can't stand it; they miss their parents. One kid said, 'I miss my four walls.' They find it hard to live in a wild place."

Dafi Ben-Tzvi, 23, from Holon — just outside Tel Aviv in central Israel — acknowledged that certain youngsters found being away from home very difficult, in times of relative quietude and, most especially, in the midst of war. "The kids know we care, but it can be very hard for them — they're very worried, but they feel they must hide their emotions from the others."

She mentioned various forms of therapy, such as arts-and-crafts projects, painting and private discussions. The counselors also made it a point to take calls from parents round the clock, both to let them know how the children were coping, and to learn of parents' new whereabouts due to the matzav, or "situation" — a word sprung from the recent intifada that's now taken on all forms of violence against Israel and the Jews.

As Ben-Tzvi talked, a breeze picked up; on it came the laughter of little ones, who despite everything found time to drink in the company of one another.

Still, Shvarzman, in a voice touched by sentiment far beyond her years, admitted that "this was the first camp I've ever wanted to end. Because I want the kids to go home." 



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