Six local teens arrived in Israel on June 20 just as rockets were raining down on the south of Israel. And that’s where they were headed.
What happened next was an improvisational display of the goals of their summer stay, which is to create a “living bridge” between their New Jersey community and the people of Israel.
The teens had been selected to travel to Israel this summer as madrichim, or counselors, at Kefiada, an English language immersion camp for Israeli kids in Ofakim. The southern town is partnered with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ under Partnership 2Gether, a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The counselors — Ben Stern, Sam Iosiovich, Stacey Cohenson, Jordyn Barry, Jordan Bronshtein, and Shannon Landau — were to spend four weeks working at the camp and living in volunteer apartments in Ofakim.
With the South under alert following rocket attacks from Gaza, the six counselors were whisked instead to nearby Mabouim by project coordinator and former MetroWest Israel emissary Michal Zur. There home hospitality was provided by locals who had met with and visited New Jersey counterparts in another “living bridge” program, the two-year long Peoplehood Project.
In an e-mail to parents of the Kefiada counselors, Zur wrote, “As you know, we had an eventful night and morning in the south, so we had to make some adjustments in the program, and the madrichim will spend the night in Mabouim in home hospitality with Ille, Ronit, and Gali (Peoplehood 1). Despite the very short notice, many members of our group volunteered to host.”
She added, “We hope for a quiet night and quick return to (Israeli) normality.”
Later, Zur told NJJN, “Unfortunately the situation in Israel requires us to make adjustments to programs once in a while, so we are used to it. The good news is that we are fortunate to have partner communities all around Israel that can help.”
The hosts even held a barbecue for the counselors.
“We had more host families than we needed,” said Zur.
A host identified as Dani B sent his own note to parents in New Jersey. “Hi friends,” it read. “Don’t worry, your children are in a good hands. We are here for them.”
At least some of the parents expressed no worry at all.
“We feel that our Peoplehood cohorts really are our brothers and sisters in Israel,” Hal Stern, parent of Ben Stern and himself a former Peoplehood Project participant, told NJJN via email. “We worry about them when there are rocket launches; we check in on each other’s children and our homes are open to each other’s families.”
He added, “Israelis deal with situations like this precisely and calmly; things continue as quickly and as normally as possible. I believe that the overall level of safety and security in Israel is the best in the world — the most dangerous thing Ben will do this summer is drive to the beach on the Garden State Parkway.”
Ben told his parents that his hosts planned an impromptu pool party and dinner for the kids at one of the families’ homes in Mabouim.
“The three families who are hosting our kids from MetroWest are going way above and beyond to make the Kefiada madrichim feel at home,” said his mother, Toby.
Amir Shacham, UJC MetroWest’s Israel director, joked in an e-mail, “I am just afraid that [the madrichim] will get used to this pampering and will wish for more rockets to save them from their volunteers apartment.”
On June 22, the madrichim moved into their apartments in Ofakim.
The counselors themselves seemed unfazed.
“The first few days have already been a great learning experience,” wrote Stacey Cohenson in an e-mail to organizers in MetroWest. “I have been especially happy about how genuinely kind and welcoming the families in Mabouim were to us. They were eager to offer us any and everything they had and it was much appreciated! I’m looking forward to meeting more people and finally, the kids.”