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Visit aids young relatives of fallen soldiers
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Visit aids young relatives of fallen soldiers

Camp program provides ‘few days of joy’ to those struggling with loss

Members of the Sutton family, left, who hosted the kids in Deal, pose poolside with campers and counselors.     
Members of the Sutton family, left, who hosted the kids in Deal, pose poolside with campers and counselors.     

Nothing will ever bring back Meir Rosenfeld’s two older brothers who lost their lives while serving in the Israeli military — one 12 years ago, when Meir was just 10, and the other just over a month ago. 

Two years after the first tragedy, when his oldest brother died in an accident, Rosenfeld came to America for a week of summer camp sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a national organization dedicated to providing educational, social, cultural, and recreational support to IDF soldiers and their families.

At the time, Rosenfeld was close to bar mitzva age and participated in a program called Legacy Bar/Bat Mitzva. Each year, FIDF brings about 120 youngsters between 12 and 14 years old to experience summer camp activities, meet Americans their age, and visit popular tourist sites.

Within the group itself, they also get to bond with other Israeli youngsters who have suffered similar losses, and to share their personal stories.

On Aug. 9, Rosenfeld was back in the United States as part of the 2015 Legacy group. Now a member of the IDF, he was one of several bilingual counselors accompanying the Legacy campers — including his younger brother Aviya.

“FIDF recognizes that when a soldier falls, he or she is not the only victim. All family members are stricken, and a major part of our organization’s mission is to help them through the major milestones of their lives,” said Howard Gasses, director of FIDF’s New Jersey chapter. Quoting an FIDF brochure, he said, “Their loss is a constant struggle. A few days of joy can make a difference.”

This year’s overall Legacy cohort was sponsored by FIDF chapters in New Jersey, the Washington, DC, area, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The Garden State contingent included 18 campers (nine boys and nine girls), five counselors, and two commanders. The group spent about five days at Cedar Lake Camp, one of the New Jersey Y camps, in Milford, Pa., and then traveled via chartered bus to Deal on Friday morning, Aug. 14.

Arriving early in the afternoon at the home of FIDF supporters Rachel and Jeff Sutton, the youngsters were greeted by the Suttons’ son Joseph and his wife Rosie. “Our family has been active in Jewish causes for generations,” said Joseph, indicating that the visit was dedicated to the memory of his uncle, Jack Gindi, who died in May 2013.

The campers swam in the Sutton pool and were entertained by a traveling petting zoo that included two pythons, an alligator, a fox, and a tarantula, plus about 20 other species.

The group split up for Shabbat, and members were lodged at various homes throughout the Deal area. On Saturday night, Toby and Sheila Cohen had everyone over for a barbecue dinner and party.

“These children have shown us firsthand what it means to sacrifice in defense of the State of Israel,” said FIDF supporter Raquel Dabah, who hosted some of the Israeli teens with her husband, Victor, at their home in Deal. “Seeing them appreciating everything they’re given despite the awful pain they’ve been through is the best feeling in the world.”

Before flying home Sunday evening, the Legacy youngsters and their chaperones enjoyed a “Fun Day in New York.” They walked around the Times Square area, including Madame Tussauds wax museum, where they posed alongside figures of movie and sports stars and historical notables — including Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Daniel Asraf, a 20-year-old counselor whose army assignment is instructing soldiers in the use of heavy weapons, praised FIDF and the host families for making the trip possible. “For many of the campers,” she said, “the loss of a parent or sibling was very recent, including some who fell in last year’s Operation Protective Edge.” 

All the Israelis had a wonderful time at the camp and in Deal, Asraf said, and marveled at how “happy and full of energy” their American counterparts are. “At home, we always have to be concerned about safety,” she explained. 

Lauren Rabner, development associate for community engagement for Tri-State FIDF, who is originally from West Caldwell, accompanied the Legacy teens throughout their entire stay. “Both as an FIDF professional who is passionate about supporting the well-being of Israel’s soldiers and as a proud member of the NJ Jewish community, spending the 10 days with b’nei mitzva has been an incredible and fulfilling experience. 

“Seeing these kids — who have experienced so much loss and are still mourning their loved ones — bonding with American and Israeli campers, being embraced by our wonderful FIDF supporters, and just generally enjoying themselves was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.”

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