|Dr. Kenneth Fried stands outside Sderot’s indoor playground that contributions helped to build.
When Demarest doctors Kenneth and Sharon Fried were approached to donate to the Jewish National Fund’s $5 million secure Indoor Recreational Center for the youth population of Sderot in southern Israel, they readily agreed.
After all, this is the same couple that provided outdoor recreation equipment to the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, where the bases on the three-year-old softball diamond are dedicated to each of the four Fried daughters.
Coming from a family of athlete/physicians, “We feel physical education is part of growing up along with academics,” said Kenny Fried, “not just for our daughters but for all those who choose a day-school education.”
On March 10, the festive holiday of Purim, Kenny Fried was in Sderot with a JNF contingent for the dedication and a public carnival.
“It was exhilarating and uplifting,” said the vascular surgeon, whose parents, Drs. Seymour and Sylvia Fried, live in Tenafly. “I felt attached already to what this play center was going to be, but to be there and see the great outpouring of joy, laughter, and tears all mixed together was a wonderful experience.”
Sderot, a city of about 24,000 residents situated 18 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, has been bombarded with missiles for the past eight years. The recent war in Gaza has slowed, but not stopped, the barrage. The severe effects of life under fire for the city’s 5,000 children have been shown to include stress symptoms such as bed-wetting and a fear of sleeping alone.
Fried predicts that the 21,000 square-foot JNF facility “will totally change the lives of these kids and help them feel normal again for the first time in eight years. Until now, there was no place of gathering indoors for groups of kids – or adults – that wasn’t a bomb shelter.”
Located in a secure industrial zone in an old textile warehouse, the 500-person-capacity rec center has reinforced areas housing a jungle gym, swing sets, merry-go-round, soccer field, volleyball court, rock-climbing wall, movie and television area, disco, snack area, and gift shop.
The play areas, plus three therapy rooms, are designed to provide protection from rocket attacks. An additional shelter was built outside so that if the 15-second warning siren sounds while people are on their way to or from the center, they can quickly run to safety as well.
When the playground officially opens this summer, it will operate under the supervision of the Israeli Army Engineers for Security Clearances. The educational arm of the Israel Defense Forces will provide after-school tutoring services. Psychologists and medical personnel will be on-site for the children and their families.
Joining Fried’s contingent was a group of college students on a JNF alternative spring break mission, including Boston University student Hadassa Levenson of Clifton and Sarah Drill, a Muhlenberg College freshman from West Caldwell.
Fried said that the adult leaders joined the college participants for a screening of “18 Kilometers,” which he described as “an intense movie about the emotional torture they’ve felt in Sderot for the last eight years.”
“We also dressed as clowns and ran the booths at the first outdoor Purim carnival the town has had in eight years. They held it just outside the facility so that if a raid came everyone could run inside.”
Drill said she did not know that the JNF trip was going to include Sderot until about a week before departure, but that this stop turned out to be the highlight of the mission.
“The smiles on the children’s faces as they explored the play center proved just how important this building truly is,” she told The Jewish Standard. “After the dedication ceremony, our group stayed to help set up for the next day’s carnival. About 10 of us went to work with Israeli youth groups who were building floats. Although the Israelis were far better at the work than we were, this ended up being one of the most meaningful experiences for me.”
Calling his trip “the most inspiring three and a half days I’ve ever had aside from the births of my daughters,” Fried said he’s hoping to return with the group next year to stage another carnival. “We’ll make sure that the good that was begun is continued,” he said.
He plans to spread the word about the center at his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Closter. “This would be a phenomenal thing for kids to be involved in for their bar or bat mitzvah project.”
For opportunities to donate to the indoor playground, call (888) JNF-0099 or see jnf.org.