It was five years ago that Tehila Shiloni, 12, lost her brother.
Sgt. Almog Shiloni was a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces who was stabbed to death in a November 2014 terror attack at a train station in Tel Aviv after a Palestinian grabbed his rifle. And because of that unfortunate incident, Tehila was one of 26 Israeli teens who recently got the chance to attend summer camp in the United States.
The annual trip is arranged by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces for children or siblings of fallen soldiers. All expenses were paid for by the nonprofit for the children, ages 12 to 14, as they visited Capital Camps and Retreat Center in Waynesboro, toured Washington, D.C., and, for the first time in the program’s history, visited Philadelphia.
The trip gave Tehila and the other teens an opportunity to make friends and experience a new culture. She said her favorite camp activities were swimming in the lake and the zipline.
Michelle Maydam Yamco, one of two active duty commanders from the IDF Casualty and Wounded Department who accompanied the delegation, said the trip gives kids a chance to be with others who have experienced similar trauma.
“These kids, being around their natural habitat, they’re different because they went through something that the others didn’t. And when here, they’re all the same,” Maydam Yamco said. “Somebody walks outside to cry because he’s reminded of his father or his parents, they all understand each other. They all can hug each other.”
Accompanying the kids were six Israeli counselors who also lost loved ones who served in the IDF.
Counselor Abas Abo Agena was 7 when his father, a Bedouin who worked as a tracker along the border, was killed in an incident involving smugglers. Today, the 24-year-old has taken after his father and also works as a tracker in the IDF. During the trip to the U.S., he spent a lot of time with three Bedouin siblings, acting as an Arabic translator for the children who lost their brother in a terror attack in Gaza.
“This delegation is the face of all of Israel. We have Druze, we have Bedouin, all kinds of Jewish, Orthodox, non-Orthodox — all of the team beside [the two commanders] are siblings or orphans who lost their loved ones during their service in the army,” Maydam Yamco said. “The most important thing: that they’re going to feel happy and loved. They deserve it.”
The other commander with the group, Kobi Masa, said the trip was an opportunity for the kids to have fun and not think about the losses that occurred back home. In Philadelphia, they got the chance to sightsee and learn about American history. They even got to visit Hersheypark.
“These children live in a sad house, during a time they see their parents cry every day,” Masa said. ”And this time, they forget everything, go to enjoy a new atmosphere.”
Tzvia Wexler, who serves as executive director of FIDF’s Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey chapter, which formed in 2011, said the trip’s impact on the children’s lives is noticeable.
“I can tell you, 100%, they walk away with a different perspective for life,” Wexler said. “They come here with this horrible feeling, and then they get to meet other kids their age and adults that give them a different way of life, show them [things] they did not expect to see, a new place to see, a new culture.”
On July 17, the children got to enjoy a ceremonial Bar and Bat Mitzvah party at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in Bala Cynwyd. The party was an opportunity for program supporters to meet face-to-face with LEGACY Summer Camp program participants. These donors included Bobbi Brodsky, Margie Brodsky and Israel Roizman, who pledged to donate $36,000 to FIDF while speaking to the crowd.
FIDF National President Bobby Cohen, who spoke at the event, said there was no greater joy than receiving a hug from a child the program has helped.
“The only thing I care about is I get a hug from every one of these kids,” Cohen said. “So your job tonight is to hug 10 kids. You don’t hug 10 kids, you’re not doing your job. It’s not a job, it’s a blessing.”
The celebration ended with a candle-lighting ceremony. The kids gathered around a cake at the front of the room and lit candles in memory of family members who died during military service.
Tears rolled down the faces of several children as the names were said aloud. At the end, the kids blew out the candles and took part in music and dance.
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