On a sunny New Jersey summer day, a group of Israeli children splashed, laughed, and snacked on pizza and other goodies. They got to touch snakes, reptiles, and other small animals brought in by trained experts. All the while, their hosts and counselors watched.
The 16 children, each of whom had lost parents or siblings in their country’s never-ending wars and fights against terrorism, were enjoying a welcome respite in the United States, including a weekend in Deal with pool parties, games, and activities.
The July 28-30 weekend was the culmination of a 10-day trip arranged by the Legacy program of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). The youngsters, all around 12 or 13, spent the previous Shabbat on Long Island and had joined their peers at Camp Ramah, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, in the Berkshire Mountains in upstate New York. There they participated in swimming, archery, rock climbing, arts and crafts, Israeli dancing, and Jewish learning.
Because of family trauma and financial hardships, many of the children would not enjoy a typical bar or bat mitzvah celebration, said FIDF New Jersey director Howard Gases. Bringing them to America, he explained, is the FIDF’s gift to them upon reaching this important milestone.
“This is what the FIDF does,” said Gases during the July 28 pool party at the home of Daniel and Paula Marcos. “We support not only the soldiers, but the families of the soldiers, bereaved spouses, and their children.”
The FIDF brings 120-150 such youngsters to different parts of the United States each summer, according to Gases.
In addition to that pool party, the children were treated to another the next day, and attended Shabbat services at the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. That evening they were invited to a gathering of FIDF supporters.
In addition to the children, this group included four counselors, who have themselves served in the military and lost family in defense of Israel, as well as two IDF commanders.
As the children were unable to converse with NJJN — they didn’t speak English — and “did not feel up to it,” Gases said, several of the counselors shared their feelings while their charges played in the pool.
One counselor, Inbal, an IDF major from Hod HaSharon — for security reasons, the IDF does not allow the last names of active soldiers to appear in print — has been in the military 23 years. She said there had been “a lot of fun, but there are moments where they are collapsing.”
Inbal’s husband is also career military, serving as a brigadier commander for a communications and cyber unit. She has been a casualty officer for 18 years, and said it is her job to deal with families of fallen soldiers, including assisting with funeral arrangements. Having worked extensively with grief-stricken families, she has seen firsthand what these children go through.
“They are just children, but some moments they are talking like adults, acting like adults,” she said. “One of the girls told me it sometimes is hard to breathe. But they all have a lot of strength inside.”
Besides meeting their American peers, the members of the group also have a chance to interact with others who have faced similar tragedies and challenges.
“The goal of the program is to change the environment and change the scenery,” said Inbal. “They are so far way, but the death comes up, especially at night, and they are able to share with each other. They understand because they all lost a loved one.”
Even though there was a language barrier, Inbal watched the children hike, kayak, and play sports with American children at Ramah.
“They accepted us very nice,” she said. “It is important we get to know each other.”
Inbal said it was gratifying to see how strongly the American-Jewish community supports Israel, noting that in Israel, “We don’t see how strong the support is.”
Mashi, a sergeant in the elite Givati division from Rishon Letzion, lost her father in a military training accident when she was nine. Having experienced her own heartbreak, she understands better than most how the youngsters feel. In fact, she previously had visited the United States as a participant in the same program. Now eight years later, she is returning as a counselor.
“This is a very meaningful trip,” Mashi said. “Everyone is expressing their feelings. It is very hard for them to open up, but they were able to share.”
Mashi, who will be discharged in about six months — though, like all Israelis, she will remain in the reserves — plans to take the “typical Israel track” and travel overseas, to places such as South America, and then attend college to become a teacher.
Paula Marcos said her family decided to host the pool party because “These children are living such a hard life…They’ve had to grow up before their time. They’ve had to live with death, terrorism, missiles. It’s very emotional to me,” said Marcos. “We’re really honored just to be a part of it.”
Her friend, Shelly Dayan of Oakhurst, who was helping out, added, “There are no words. It’s just beautiful. Sad, happy, but just beautiful.”