|Jenny and Rabbi Uzi Rivlin flank the visitors from Sderot, from left, Ronen, Maoz, Roee, Daniel, Eli, Yuri, and Ariel. Moshe Chaim, the bar mitzvah boy, is in front.|
When Moshe Chaim stood on the bimah and recited the blessings over the haftarah, he was not in his hometown of Sderot but in a synagogue 7,000 miles away from the daily Kassam rocket attacks and red alerts that he and his friends must endure.
Cong. Ahavat Achim, led by Rabbi Uri Goldstein and Jack Bickel, the head of its tzedakah committee, had arranged the Shabbat of Aug. 22 and 23 for the bar mitzvah boy and his friends, who came to the United States as summer guests of Keren Milgot, an organization dedicated to helping children from Sderot and other poor border towns in Israel. (The boys’ last names are being withheld for security reasons.)
Ahavat Achim has a special relationship with Moshe and his friends. Last year, the synagogue’s Cheryl Wigod Tzedakah Fund provided tefillin for Moshe and several other boys approaching bar mitzvah age through Keren Milgot. This group, which began with 11 boys (three left early in the summer, afraid to be separated from their parents in case of another attack), also spent time with families in Cong. Beit Avrohom in Westchester.
“We sent 15 pairs of tefillin for bar mitzvah boys. These children and their families live in poverty that we can’t imagine, and tefillin were beyond their parents’ abilities,” Bickel explained.
While Moshe Chaim won’t be 13 until October, health reasons forced the date to be moved ahead three months. Moshe Chaim is suffering from brain cancer, and his condition is deteriorating precipitously.
Still, the bar mitzvah was celebrated with gusto. After Moshe Chaim finished doing his part, candy was thrown, and the entire congregation said “mazal tov” at a gala kiddush. Afterwards, several members of the congregation joined the boys and Rabbi Uzi Rivlin, the founder and president of Keren Milgot, his wife, Jenny, and the Goldstein family for lunch.
The weekend was the dÃ©nouement of a summer that children in Sderot and other economically deprived towns could only dream about. They had spent a month at Camp Moshava, where, for the first time, they could enjoy being children without worrying about when the next bombs would fall.
“Moshava was wonderful to the children, and they made Moshe Chaim feel very special,” said Rivlin. “The entire experience has been great for him. This is a child from a very needy family, and his illness has crushed him. The tumor has affected every part of his body, and it is very difficult for him. Before he left Sderot, he was a patient at Schneider Children’s Hospital, and he will go back as soon as he returns.
“But the bar mitzvah was something Moshe Chaim will never forget.”
The entire Shabbat was devoted to the bar mitzvah boy and his friends. Goldstein dedicated his Torah commentary to the children, saying: “The Midrash tells us that Moshe had a bit of each member of the Jewish people in his heart, and they had a bit of Moshe in theirs.
“We at Ahavat Achim feel that each of us has a little of Moshe Chaim in our hearts, and we hope that you have a bit of us in yours.”
Despite the brightness of the day, the smiles of the boys were hesitant, as if they knew the fun was only temporary.
Rivlin said he could feel the sorrow in their hearts. “These children are suffering from traumatic stress syndrome, not post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he insisted. “They have no childhood. They have become cynical. They have no faith in tomorrow, because they know that a rocket could hit them at any time.”
Three of the boys spoke of their lives during Ahavat Achim’s Seudah Shlisheet. One child told of his family’s experiences during Passover. They had been invited to spend the holiday with relatives in Netanya. After the holiday, they received a call from the police. Something had happened to their home.
They arrived back in Sderot to find all the windows in their apartment blown in. Shrapnel from a Kassam littered the kitchen, landing on the seats usually occupied by the boy and his father. Had they been at home for Passover, they might have been killed.
“We live on the fourth floor of a building that has no security rooms. If the alarm sounds, you only have 15 seconds [to take shelter]. Where would we go? My father can’t walk down the stairs, so we stay in our apartment,” the boy told the group.
There was not a sound in the room as another teen relayed the constant fear and dread of life in Sderot. “I will tell you about what it is really like to live in Sderot,” he said, “not what you read in the newspaper. People are afraid to wait for the bus, because what will they do if the alarm sounds? You can’t know where the bomb is going to fall.”
He told of his mother, who had been wounded in a Kassam attack on her factory. She spent four months in the hospital, only to return to an inpatient psychiatric hospital for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. His father spends all his time at the hospital; the boy lives alone.
“No one cooks for me. No one does anything for me. This is not a life. I do not have a life,” he said.
Keren Milgot works year-round to improve the lives of families in poverty-stricken border towns. The fund pays school fees, buys shoes and distributes clothing, sends regular food deliveries to families, and provides medical assistance and tutoring for approximately 1,000 children living on the northern and southern borders.
“We hope that bringing the children to the United States will help their spirits, but it is very difficult,” Rivlin said. “It will take much more. The children feel very isolated. One told me that he has no intention of joining the Israeli army after high school. ‘The State [of Israel] does nothing to protect us. Why should I protect the state?’ he asks. It is very hard for me. I have a son in the army. But these children feel that they have been abandoned by the government.
“They sometimes remind me of Holocaust survivors. Their souls are dying.”
The Shabbat was vital not only for Moshe Chaim and his friends but for the members of Ahavat Achim and the greater Jewish community.
“This Shabbat was an important opportunity for our members to experience the human side of the news,” Goldstein said. “The American Jewish community is aware of Sderot, but unless we encounter people on the ground, it remains an abstraction. This Shabbat was both a chance to see firsthand how lives are affected by the constant attacks in Sderot, and to reassure these kids and their families that they are not alone.”
“The last thing the boys said was, ‘Don’t forget us.’ Maybe if the Jewish community would be more familiar with the situation and the impact that living in Sderot has on these young lives, they would put pressure on the government and something would happen.”