Bergen County hearts, homes open a bit longer than usual
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Bergen County hearts, homes open a bit longer than usual

YJCC extends its program of summer respite for Israeli teens

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The first group of Israeli teenagers arrived at the end of June.

While Israeli teens affected by terrorism can use a time-out every year, this summer – with the hostilities in Gaza – the need is especially great.

With that as a guiding principle, the Bergen County YJCC has extended its Open Hearts, Open Homes program not once but twice, keeping the 12 youngsters from its first session for five weeks instead of the usual three.

Gary Lipman, the YJCC’s chief executive officer, acknowledged that the extension has undoubtedly meant extra work, but, he said, “If I’m a little exhausted, that feeling is nothing compared to the mitzvah we’re doing.”

Mr. Lipman said that in past summers, program staff worked three weeks during the first session, took a week off, and then spent the next three weeks with a second group of Israeli teens. “Now we’re going straight through the seven weeks, 24/7.”

Begun 13 years ago, Open Hearts has brought more than 300 Israeli teens between the ages of 12 and 14 to Bergen County for “a summer respite,” Mr. Lipman said. “We bring over teens directly impacted by terrorism, whether a family member is killed or wounded, property is lost, or their neighborhood is particularly victimized by bombs.

“They come here and spend three weeks with host families from the community. During the day they go to the 92nd St. Y travel camp. At night, they enjoy pool parties or barbecues with local families. We want to give those kids at least a semblance of a few weeks of childhood.”

All expenses, from transportation to visas, are covered by the YJCC. “The children don’t pay a nickel,” its CEO said. The YJCC selects seven host families, each of whom either takes in two teens or houses the counselor.

YJCC staffers select the Israeli teenagers who will participate in the program during the spring. After conducting hundreds of interviews in Israel – in cooperation with a local contact who works closely with the schools there – the staff selects two groups of 12 students each, and two counselors of post-army age.

Today will see the second group of 12 and its counselor arrive. So, given the two extensions offered to the first group, the community is likely to be hosting 26 Israelis next week.

“We’re talking to parents in Israel to make sure they’re comfortable about the kids spending another week here,” Mr. Lipman said. “They were thrilled the first time. My feeling is that they probably miss their kids but are happy to have them in a safe environment.”

The extensions have been made possible because “we reached out to donors and host families,” he added.

The teens are all from southern Israel – from Beersheva, Sderot, and Netivot. Those chosen “have reasonable language skills and a certain level of maturity. All have some level of post traumatic stress,” but the feeling is that they have to have an ability to cope with being away from home and outside of Israel, Mr. Lipman said. “They have to have personalities [enabling them] to interact in a strange land with new hosts.” Mr. Lipman pointed out that “bonding has to happen quickly. This group jelled in three to four days. It was amazing.”

He said that this year’s program has been “really challenging. The kids arrived on Sunday and on Monday word came in about the three Israelis being found dead. We had a discussion with [the teens], watching their faces for distress and telling them we were there for them, with counselors and social workers. We encourage them to talk regularly with their families, which is both good and not so good. Some are a wee bit homesick, but none are ready to go home. They miss their families but feel that this is good for them.”

The session’s counselor, who is 24, was called up for military service with the reserves. This also was challenging. But, Mr. Lipman said, then his commander told the counselor that he should finish his work here and call in when he returns to Israel.

“They told him not to worry,” Mr. Lipman said. “But we went through 24 hours where we thought we’d have to put him on a plane back to Israel.”

The funds supporting the One Heart program come from specially targeted YJCC fundraising efforts, Mr. Lipman said, and the program usually draws 80 or 90 donors. To extend this year’s summer respite, “we got donations from 40 donors in less than 48 hours,” he said. That raised another $35,000, and more came from the YJCC’s recent golf outing. “I explained the need to keep the kids longer,” Mr. Lipman said. “It’s amazing how many people stepped forward with their checkbooks on the spot.”

Mr. Lipman said that while the Israeli teens are displaying some anxiety, “I wouldn’t use the word ‘worry.'” On Saturday night, what was meant to be a farewell pool party turned into a conversation with the kids, “because everything had blown up and we wanted to get a feel for how they were doing. Much of the media coverage is one-sided, so they hear the anti-Israel side on the TV and Internet.”

Many of the kids have downloaded the smartphone app called “Red Alert,” which beeps when a rocket is launched from Gaza and indicates where it has landed. “I don’t think the kids need that level of moment to moment concern,” Mr. Lipman said, and he has suggested that they might consider putting it aside for now.

As for the extra time offered to first-session attendees, the YJCC head said that since their activities at the 92nd St. Y soon will end – since the second group will be beginning its stint there – the YJCC is now busy planning a week’s worth of activities for the 12 teens.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “What’s happening this year has made the program all the more important. No one is complaining. Everyone has willingly jumped on board.”

Among those on board are Barbara and Michael Starr of Oradell, who have participated in the program for three years and served as co-chairs of Open Hearts, Open Homes for two, together with Leslie and David Smith.

“We have hosted a total of six young ladies,” said Barbara Starr, who has opened her home to two teens from Beersheva this year.

The Starrs have two daughters, 18 and 15. “The first two years my older daughter was home during the time we hosted,” she continued. “The first year, she was about the same age as the two girls we hosted, and they formed an incredible bond. This is the first year that my younger daughter is able to meet any of the teens. It was only supposed to be for a weekend, but the extension has given them more time to bond.”

Ms. Starr said she is pleased that the program has been extended, crediting “the generosity of our donors, the amazing YJCC staff, those who open up their homes for parties, and of course our host families” for its success.

“These young men and women are all from southern Israel and the thought of sending them back to the current situation is heartbreaking,” she said. “We try not to bring up the situation in Israel but are, of course, there to listen and discuss any concerns that they have.”

She pointed out that with the “tzeva adom” alerts – that’s the Red Alerts app – activated on their phones, the kids are very much aware of what is happening at home. Still, she said, while they are naturally concerned about their families and friends, “They love that they have the opportunity to stay here longer.”

After all, she said, “They are teenagers.”

Ms. Starr said her own “transformative” moment came when she noticed that one of the girls was spending “an incredibly long time in the shower. A few days later, I learned that in Sderot, where she lives, you have only 15 seconds to get to your safe room when you hear the air raid sirens. Several years ago, she was showering and the siren went off. She had to run to the safe room all wet from the shower. She slipped and broke her ankle, and since then was afraid and always took quick showers.”

She said that as co-chairs, she and her husband were able to recruit two other families in her area to help with transportation. “We have been carpooling back and forth to the YJCC, and this way we have been able to work around all of our schedules,” she said. “This session has had an incredible group of host families that have opened their homes to the entire group with pool parties, barbecues, and dessert parties and helping out when any timing conflicts arise.”

One of her favorite activities with the teens was ice-skating. “There are very few ice skating rinks in Israel, so this was something truly unique that they don’t have the opportunity to do at home,” she said.

She and her husband were in Israel last fall, and they were able to visit with many of the teens they had hosted. “It was an amazing experience to meet their families and see their homes,” she said.

Wendy Zuckerberg of Woodcliff Lake said this was the first time her family had teens from the program living with them, “and we are happily hosting two girls.” Transportation arrangements for the two teens “is easy,” she said. “We simply drop off and pick up the kids at the YJCC. In addition, other host families are always willing to carpool. Because they are in camp all day, I am still able to work and get my errands done.

The Zuckerbergs have a 14-year-old daughter who has “become very close” with the visitors. “They share the same taste in music, books, TV, and movies,” Ms. Zuckerberg said. “In fact, thanks to Facebook, our daughter was friends with the Israeli girls before they even arrived. They are like siblings, without all the fighting!”

She is very pleased that the program has been extended. “I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t have to send ‘my girls’ back to Israel during this conflict,” she said. “I know that their families miss them very much, but it is important to all of us to spare them from the realities of war and keep them as safe and happy as possible.”

She noted that the girls are very aware of what is happening in Israel.

“Every evening they check their laptops and iPhones and connect with friends and family. Of course they are concerned about their families; one of my girls has a brother in the army and a brother-in-law in the reserves, but they are very confident and proud of the IDF.”

Ms. Zuckerberg said that “although we have given the girls a comfortable place to stay, food, and lots of chocolate, they have given us so much more. The real gift has been for our family to get to know such wonderful kids. Our girls speak English perfectly, they are kind and very smart. They are not afraid to ask questions and answer our questions.

“We have enjoyed looking at the world through their eyes. Most of the time they are awed by everything that we have here, the gigantic supermarkets, the enormous malls and the fancy cars, but occasionally they find something that is ‘better in Israel.’ When they do, they announce it, and we all feel the pride. And – in case you are wondering – the beaches, fireworks, and falafel are all ‘better in Israel.'”

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