Helping October 7 survivors have fun

Helping October 7 survivors have fun

JFNNJ brings teens from Gaza Envelope moshav to Tenafly

Netiv HaAsara high school seniors during their visit to North Jersey; Dekel Sasson is on the right.
Netiv HaAsara high school seniors during their visit to North Jersey; Dekel Sasson is on the right.

Early on October 7, 35 Hamas terrorists used paragliders and cars to invade Netiv HaAsara, the Israeli community closest to the Gaza Strip. The terrorists slaughtered 20 of the approximately 900 residents of the agricultural moshav and injured many others in their 12-hour rampage of destruction and death.

This was the opening act in a brutal scenario that replayed itself throughout the Gaza border communities that day.

Frisch students wait to greet Netiv HaAsara students as soon as they get through customs.

“Netiv HaAsara” means “Path of the Ten,” named at its 1982 founding in memory of 10 soldiers killed in a helicopter accident in Gaza in 1971. The 70 founding families originally lived in a settlement of the same name in the Sinai Peninsula until Israel ceded that region to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords.

Rockets, mortars, and attempted infiltrations from Gaza over the past decades already took the lives of an Israeli woman, an Israeli child, and a Thai worker, and often sent the population running for shelter. Yet Netiv HaAsara is perhaps best known for its “Path to Peace” mosaic, which was created by residents and visitors on the anti-sniper concrete wall hugging its border with Gaza.

In 2014, the CEO and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jason Shames, visited Netiv HaAsara with three JFNNJ past presidents. That was the year of Operation Protective Edge.

Franci Steinberg of Temple Sinai, right, with two Netiv HaAsara girls in Central Park.

“Last December, eight years later, I came back with seven people from our community,” Mr. Shames said. “We spent three hours at Netiv HaAsara, seeing what terrorists had done there.

“We also went to one of two hotels where the surviving residents were evacuated. We spoke with five boys in 12th grade who will be going into the army after graduation. I asked them what they needed. And they said, ‘Space.’

“Life on the moshav was open and free, and now they were trapped in small Tel Aviv hotel rooms with their families, going to an infinitely bigger and more complex high school.

“We said, ‘How many of you are there?’ One boy said ‘24,’ and another boy jumped in and said, ‘No, 22.’

“It turns out, two of their classmates” — Tal Keren and Or Tasa — “had gotten up early that Saturday morning to go fishing and surfing.” Hamas terrorists came across the boys and murdered them both.

“When we heard that, I immediately said, ‘Would a vacation in northern New Jersey provide respite?’ All of a sudden, these sad boys perked up.”

Mr. Shames promised them “an experience to help get their minds off the situation.”

Through generous donations and in-kind contributions, a planning committee made up of members of Temple Sinai of Tenafly, which is Reform, and Congregation Ahavath Torah of Englewood, which is Orthodox, organized a week of rest, respite, and fun, free of charge, with input from the Israeli teens.

On April 7, 20 of the 22 high school seniors from Netiv HaAsara arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport, chaperoned by Tal Keren’s sister. They were greeted by a contingent from Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus.

Netiv HaAsara teens relax in Times Square.

Franci Steinberg of North Bergen, who is active in the JFNNJ and Temple Sinai, said that when she saw a Facebook post about the December mission (“including friends of mine and a fellow Temple Sinai member, Alan Silberstein”) and the decision to bring over the high school seniors, she immediately wanted to help.

Edan Alexander of Tenafly, she pointed out, is among the hostages in Gaza.

“There are so many Tenafly families and Temple Sinai members that just did not know how to help Israel or how to make a direct impact during this difficult time,” she said. “I knew that any family who would just be given the opportunity to play a part in making a difference in these teens’ lives and being able to connect directly with the war in Israel by meeting Israelis, would be greatly impactful … and help connect us all as a community.”

Ms. Steinberg and Jocelyn Inglis, who then was Sinai’s engagement director and now its executive director, worked with Ravit Steinmetz Shemla, director of JFNNJ’s Israel office, and other members of the joint planning committee to find 10 host families with high school-aged kids of their own.

Because Netiv HaAsara is a secular moshav — a cooperative agricultural village — the committee chose hosts from the Reform instead of the Orthodox community. Each host family was in touch with their guests’ Israeli families before, during, and after the visit.

The only host outside Tenafly was the Inglis family of Bergenfield.

“As soon as I knew the program was happening, and that Temple Sinai was hosting all of the teens, my husband and I immediately agreed to host,” Ms. Inglis said.

“My husband and I met when we were in Israel in 1994, and it has been very close to our hearts ever since. This was finally a tangible thing that we could do to help Israel and Israelis while also opening the door for our children to have a strong and meaningful connection.”

The Inglises hosted one of the girls and the chaperone whose brother had been killed. “We had discussions and many tears through the week,” Ms. Inglis said.

Dekel Sasson, one of the 20 participants, said that for him the highlight of the week was meeting the American families. He was hosted by Stacy and Darren Esser.

“We were shocked how nice and welcoming everyone we met in the Jewish community was,” he said.

“Since the idea of the trip came up, the first thing they wanted to stress for us is that it wasn’t a delegation to do explaining. It was just to have fun. And it was exactly like that. We went to an Olivia Rodrigo concert in Madison Square Garden, we went to Times Square and Central Park, we went to a football game, and to Six Flags. We all had the best time.”

Ms. Steinberg said the itinerary was planned by the committee and the details executed by Naomi Knopf, JFNNJ’s chief impact officer, and Sheryl Sarin, its senior director of community planning and allocations.

“Having been the lead chair for four years of the Partnership2Gether in which we brought students over from Nahariya, I was able to help identify what activities students would prefer,” she said. “The entire committee came up with amazing ideas, and Naomi was able to secure tickets and get the students to some incredible events.”

The committee also organized a Friday night dinner for the teens and their hosts at Temple Sinai. Many of them joined Ms. Steinberg in lighting Shabbat candles. “It was such an emotional experience that when I chanted the blessing, I got all choked up,” she said.

The locals wore necklaces and stickers the Israeli teens had brought to memorialize their murdered classmates.

“It’s very difficult for all of us, what happened to our friends,” Mr. Sasson said. “The whole trip we talked about it; they were in our minds, and we really tried to keep their memory alive.”

Despite coming to the area at a time when anti-Israel protests were taking place, the Israeli teens did not encounter any unpleasant incidents. “The trip was planned in a way that we would be the least exposed to antisemitism; we weren’t allowed to wear T-shirts with Hebrew writing, and we had security guards with us,” Mr. Sasson said. Nor was there publicity before or during their visit.

While they were at Six Flags on April 13, they learned about the Iranian attack on Israel.

“Our flight was a big question mark, and some of us thought maybe we should just stay here another few weeks,” Mr. Sasson said. “In the end, we came back on time the next day.”

When he returned, his family relocated from the hotel they’d been in for six months to an apartment in Tel Aviv. Although a few people have gone back home to Netiv HaAsara, he said, most are remaining in safer areas for the time being.

Ms. Inglis said that the week with the Israeli teens “filled the holes in my heart that October 7 created and continues to today. We continue to be in touch with the girls we hosted nearly daily and have regular video chats with them. I message both of their moms every Friday before Shabbat in Israel just to check in.”

Everything about the week was “amazing, hard and meaningful,” she added. “But the most amazing thing is the real-life connection that my 16-year-old now has to Israel and the ‘sisters’ for her and ‘daughters’ for us who we now have for life.”

Mr. Shames received a warm letter of thanks from the leaders of the Netiv HaAsara community, who reported that “Our 12th-graders came back with many experiences for a lifetime, feeling incredible that they could live every dream they had, and you made it come true.”

However, he said, the gratitude goes both ways.

“My 12th-grade daughter came along when we took four of the five boys we’d met originally out to dinner one night,” he said. “She is still in touch with them.

“Our community fell in love with the kids. It’s really us thanking them. There’s such a yearning here to connect to what is going on in Israel, so these kids — without knowing it — did something really spectacular for us.”

Ms. Steinberg summed up: “I hope that the teens gained the understanding that we are Jews living here who care about our fellow Jews in Israel and we support them. Hopefully, they gained American friends who they will forever remember.”

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