The local chapter of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces helps bring Israeli children who have lost a loved one serving in the IDF to enjoy camp in the Poconos.
MILFORD, Pa. — Dealing with the death of a loved one is always a challenge, but for a child without the sense of perspective afforded by adulthood, the sense of loss and difficulty in coping is even more acute. The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) has come up with one way to help children who have lost siblings serving in the Israel Defense Forces deal with the sudden void in their lives.
The FIDF’s Legacy program brings 120 Bar/Bat Mitzvah-age children every summer to enjoy camp activities, meet American peers, tour famous sites and form lifelong friendships. While the youngsters may be mourning the loss of a loved one, this is a celebration of their upcoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah and, for many, their first time in the United States.
As part of the program, the FIDF brought 18 Israeli kids to Cedar Lake sleepaway camp in Milford, Pa., from Aug. 7 to 14. Cedar Lake is part of the New Jersey Y camps. The camp, which is located three hours north of Philadelphia in the Poconos, features sailing and jet skiing, a high ropes course, archery, tennis, basketball, arts and crafts, and many kids simply lounging around and forming friendships.
“It gives you a feeling you aren’t at home,” said Rotem Rahav, a 12-year-old camper from northern Israel, whose brother Bar died July 28, 2014, at the age of 21.
Rahav, who has an impressive command of English, said camp in Israel doesn’t compare to America, explaining that in his homeland, they sleep in tents and are only away for five days, while here they have “everything.” He played, gaga, baseball and football for the first time and liked all of them.
“I like American football,” he said. “You can kick someone and it’s all right.”
In addition to playing sports, he did arts and crafts, dance, met other campers and loved the high ropes course. He said it was pretty scary climbing a 75-foot tree and ziplining across the camp, but it was worth it.
“I like the challenge; it was fun,” he said.
One of his friends and neighbors in northern Israel, Harel Noach, 13, whose brother Oren died recently, was with him at the camp.
He did the high ropes, made candles, played sports, and did archery. Like Rahav, he prefers camp in the United States.
“Camps in Israel are walking and walking,” Noach said. “I don’t like walking.”
He said the counselors were nice and his only complaint was the food on the first day, which featured broccoli and potatoes that were not as exotic as he would have liked. “It was a joke. I know it, right, it was a joke,” Rahav jokingly said. “You need to do a lot with the food!”
Hannah Bates and Sarah Hosiassohn, counselors at Cedar Lake, said it was their goal to make the kids comfortable. “There is a language barrier, but we all high fived each other,” Hosiassohn said. “We found other ways to make connections.”
Five Israeli counselors and two army commanders joined the children. Koby, a major in the Air Force, led the program for the second consecutive year. (According to Cara Chernin of the FIDF, IDF policy does not allow publication of Koby’s last name.)
Prior to coming to America, he and his staff met with the families and learned about the tragedies they each went through. They found out which kids liked to talk about what happened and which didn’t.
“I’m very glad to be here,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. We must know their story. The kids are excited because it’s their first time coming to America.”
The children enjoy the camp and the counselors post hundreds of pictures to Facebook, so the parents know they are safe and having fun.
“It makes them happy just for a few weeks and they forget all the pain and bad stuff,” Koby said. “I believe when they come back to Israel, they remember all these experiences and the fun.”
Meir Rosenfeld, 21, one of the Israeli counselors, was very emotional when talking about the program because his brother Malachi died June 30 in a terror attack. His 12-year-old brother, Aviya, joined him.
Koby spoke on behalf of Rosenfeld, who had trouble talking about his brother. Koby said Rosenfeld seemed upset in the beginning of camp, but as he played sports and bonded with the kids, his spirits picked up.
“Sometimes he feels very sad because he is so far from his brother in Israel, but he knows that his brother is always with us,” Koby said.
While the Legacy program has been around for a decade, this is the first time it has taken place at the NJY camps, and the FIDF has “Jewish geography” to thank for it. Howard Gases,
director of the New Jersey Tri-State Region of the FIDF, knew Janet Fliegelman, the chief operating officer of the camp, from their synagogue, the East Brunswick Jewish Center in East Brunswick, N.J. and they realized it would be a perfect match for the children.
“It’s really our Bar Mitzvah gift to these children,” Gases said.
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