JERUSALEM — This summer 14 special-needs youth from southern Israel were provided a weeklong respite from the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza.
Through a special program funded by Jewish Federation of Monmouth County’s Israel Emergency Campaign, the students, ranging in age from six to 15, were bused each day to Camp Shutaf, a specialized program in Jerusalem for youth with disabilities.
The campers, who had spent most of the summer indoors watching TV and running to shelters, were overjoyed each day they arrived at the camp, said Beth Steinberg, Shutaf’s executive director and cofounder.
“Our program includes a lot of fun activities like arts and crafts, music, and swimming, but on the first day we noted that many of the kids just wanted to be outside and kick a soccer ball around. They could finally relax, have fun, and be themselves,” she said.
The Monmouth federation has supported Shutaf for three years with an annual grant of about $20,000. This was the first year that the federation provided extra funding of $10,000 to include youth from battered southern Israel, said executive director Keith Krivitzky.
The idea was initiated by Krivitzky after he visited Shutaf during a federation family mission to Israel last year, Steinberg said. The federation’s overseas partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency for Israel, have been bringing kids from southern Israel away from the front lines for respite from the trauma. Krivitzky had inquired whether there were any programs specifically for kids with special needs.
When he found out there was a gap, he reached out to Steinberg, who immediately sat down with her staff to plan the program. Because of logistics, the camp decided to include kids from two communities in the South, but less than an hour and a half away from Jerusalem, Kiryat Gat and Be’er Sheva.
“Camp Shutaf is an amazing program addressing a need that has become more prominent in both Israel and the United States — special needs,” Krivitzky told NJJN. “The Jewish Federation of Monmouth County is proud to be an ongoing supporter of Shutaf, and to have stepped up through our Israel Emergency Campaign to help them provide a very fast turn-around program for special-needs kids from the South. We were pleased and honored to provide some matching funds to get this off the ground.”
The program provided a much-needed respite to campers’ parents, said Elizabeth Corlin, Shutaf’s director of outreach and education. “Because of the dangerous situation in the South, many local camps there had canceled their programming, which was really frustrating for kids and their parents. When the cease-fires broke and rockets were landing in their hometowns, the parents were really happy their kids were safe at camp in Jerusalem,” she said.
Once, when Hamas aimed missiles at Jerusalem, Shutaf staff had to shuttle youngsters to the camp’s shelter. “There was a little eight-year-old girl who always carried a doll that was almost as big as she was. And a boy with Down’s syndrome who moved slowly and nearly fainted in the shelter,” Steinberg said. “It made me reflect on what the kids’ families went through this summer. If I had a minute and a half to bring this boy down four flights of stairs to a safe room, there is no way I could have managed.”
Another child was particularly overwhelmed on his first day at camp and refused to participate. “A counselor stayed with him the entire day until he was comfortable. He arrived the next morning happy as can be, and we couldn’t get him out of the pool,” the camp director said. “We are so grateful to the caring and generous people of Monmouth federation for enabling us to give these children a little bit of ease and fun.”