The ravages of war are not always obvious. Many children who have witnessed acts of terror or have been affected directly by such violence have a great need to take a break from their daily lives, to find a place to relax, be with friends, and remember that, after all, they’re only children.
For the past five years, the YJCC in Washington Township has been reaching out to these children, bringing them from Israel to New Jersey for three-week sessions during the summer. Under the "Open Hearts, Open Homes" program, two groups of 16 children between the ages of 1′ and 15 have come to live with host families in Bergen County and participate in the YJCC s teen travel camp. This year, the program which is funded by donations is serving ‘0 Israeli youngsters.
Israeli and American teens enjoy a DJ’00;party at the YJCC.
YJCC Executive Director Harold Benus told The Jewish Standard that the venture grew out of the Y’s annual mission to Israel, at a time when the nation was experiencing a spate of terrorist attacks. "We visited hospitals to meet with victims of terror and their families and asked what we could do," he said. "They asked us to come up with something for their children."
The "Open Hearts" program provides children affected by terror to get the respite they need, he said, and also "helps to create stronger connections" between the local community and the people of Israel. The children receive mental health screenings before they leave Israel to ensure that they are able to benefit from the program, and psychological services are available during their stay in New Jersey and upon their return.
According to Anette McGarity, YJCC youth services director, not only are the Israeli youngsters full participants in the camp program, but the community center provides extra activities to give the visitors "a taste of life in Bergen County."
"A strong bond is formed between the host families and the Israeli children," she said, "and many of our local families stop in to visit the children when they are in Israel." Friendships also develop among the children themselves. Many of them continue their relationships when they go home, providing a support group for each other. In addition, since some of the Israeli visitors stay with host families that have children of the same age, friendships develop between the Israeli and American children.
This year, given the situation in Israel, the YJCC has offered 10 children an opportunity to extend their stay, enabling those in the first group to remain for another three weeks. Seven of the 10 children have chosen to take up that offer. Since more money will be needed to keep the children in camp one YJCC spokesperson placed the figure at $15,000, covering camp costs, spending money, reticketing costs, etc. the organization will appeal to program funders and others in the community, urging them to help these children enjoy a few more weeks away from the continuing tensions in the Middle East.
For more information about the program or to make a donation, call McGarity, (’01) 666-6610, ext. ’10, or e-mail email@example.com