Children From Sderot Arrive in U.S. To Summer With Chabad

Children From Sderot Arrive in U.S. To Summer With Chabad

A group photo at JFK, of the children of Sderot, shortly after their arrival Wednesday. Rabbi Y. Lipsker of Swampscott, center.

by Dvora Lakein - JFK Airport, New York

July 2, 2008

( Jetlagged but happy, 70 children from Sderot, Israel, were given a heroes' welcome Wednesday, as they arrived at JFK International Airport for a summer in the U.S. 

Donning Camp Gan Israel t-shirts, the children were greeted like long lost relatives by the directors of the respective Chabad Gan Israel summer camps that will be hosting them for the month of July.

Months in the planning, it’s been a grassroots effort by Chabad Shluchim who wanted to give Sderot’s children a reprieve from the terror and trauma that has come to define life in Sderot. It’s also a way of allowing these children, who’ve had to grow up all too fast, to enjoy being children for a summer in the U.S. instead of worrying about life and death, and carrying the weight of existential matters on their small shoulders. 

“If the terrorists will see us run, there won’t be an Israel left.” These weighty words are not those of an experienced politician. These are the words of 13-year old Chanan Yaakobov of Sderot, whose father was killed by a Qassam rocket last year.

When Rabbi Dan Rodkin, headmaster of Shaloh House Jewish Day School, heard this on a radio interview in his Boston home last year, he thought, “I must do something for that child.”

So in collaboration with the local community, Rodkin arranged for Chanan and others from Sderot children to join the 200 children of Camp Gan Israel of Shaloh House last summer.

A year later, Shluchim around the world call him “the father of the program,” and have worked together to iron out a web of logistics to bring their own quorums of children.

Through the generosity of the Rohr and Tabicinic families, Chabad Shluchim have arranged for some 110 children in all—40 of them going to Gan Israel camps on the West Coast, to enjoy four weeks of relaxation, sports and fun in a secure environment.

The Israelis will summer in 11 camps across Canada and throughout the United States, including one in Arizona, and three in California.

Rabbi Zev Pizem, executive director of Chabad of Sderot, was the Israeli liaison for this mass effort. In collaboration with the mayor and the public school system, he helped choose the lucky campers based on health and need. Unfortunately, in this western Negev town, there are far too many in need.

Sderot residents have been assaulted by 4,000 Qassam rockets from Gaza, since the disengagement in 2005. Eleven civilians have died from these attacks. Approximately 90 percent of local children suffer from PTSD. They don’t play outside. Many are too afraid to shower, lest they fail to hear the “tzeva adom” (red alert) heralding an imminent attack. 

“I was in Sderot a few weeks ago,” recounts Rabbi Sholom Deitsch. “I met the parents [of the children coming] and the mayor. I saw the anxiety written clearly on their faces. I want to show them that the whole world is not their enemy. There are people who care for them.”

Deitsch warmly greeted the 10 “heroes from the front lines” who will be joining Gan Israel in Northern Virginia. In anticipation, he and the other camp directors across the nation have fundraised, arranged visas and purchased tickets, hired Hebrew-speaking staff to complement the American counselors, and lined up teams of professionals to help the children adjust.

It is not only the camp directors who are busy with preparations. “Everyone has been knocking on our door,” recounts Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Swampscott, MA, whose camp, Gan Israel of the North Shore, will welcome ten girls. “Everyone wants to be part of this wonderful thing. It has brought the community closer together.”

Liz Donnenfeld is the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore. She proudly states that, “major donors have responded really well,” giving over $16,000 to date. Donnenfeld herself looks forward to the girls’ arrival. She and her husband plan to take them on a Sunday outing to Rockport for a day of hiking, swimming, and touring. 

Community involvement is one of the many facets of this venture. Barbecues, concerts, Shabbat dinners, and social events are planned in each of the host cities. Weekend trips for the children stationed on the East Coast will include a visit to Washington D.C. The Israeli youth will meet with elected officials and the media “providing a firsthand awareness of the situation,” says Lipsker. Shepard Remis, a Boston lawyer, spearheaded the Federation’s quest for donations. He hopes that the Sderot children will “inspire a whole generation of people.”

The impact on their peers will be just as profound.

In Running Springs, California, Rabbi Chaim Nachum Cunin is gearing up for a hectic summer at sleep-away camp. Over seventy percent of his campers come from public school. He hopes that the Israeli children will give the Americans “a taste of the Holy Land’s people and culture.” Gan Israel of Long Beach, CA, and of LA, as well as Chabad of Arizona, will be hosting campers as well.

In Virginia, Deitsch is counting on budding friendships despite the language barrier. “There is a language between children that adults can interfere with. Hopefully they will connect and their friendships will last far beyond the month of July.”

Rodkin, who is preparing for his second year as a host, knows that these expectations, and more, are realistic. By the end of the summer, Rodkin remembers, “they were totally different children. One boy was so excited because he had played soccer for the first time in two years.” Boston campers still keep in touch with their Israeli friends from last summer. In fact, they were the ones who begged for their return this year—they even promised to raise the necessary funds to make it happen.

Despite the mass enthusiasm, Rodkin has mixed feelings about the whole project. “I wish we didn’t have to take these children from their homes in Israel: I wish they would be safe there.”

“Next year," he says, "my goal is to bring 110 American kids to Sderot for a summer of fun.” 

To donate, or learn more about helping the children of Sderot, click here.

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