SDEROT Early Monday afternoon, three children were wounded in a Kassam rocket barrage here. It was a sadly familiar occurrence for local residents. For visitors in town to choose 16 children for the Bergen County YJCC’s Open Hearts, Open Homes summer respite project, the attack was a frightening but apt reminder of why they had come.
Youth Services Director Anette McGarity had been hesitant to travel to this besieged working-class town, where more than 6,000 missiles have hit from nearby Gaza in the past seven years. Yet she wanted a personal hand in choosing participants for the seven-year-old program, which places 3′ Israeli children with area families for three-week sessions of the Y’s Teen Travel camp, free of charge.
Anette McGarity and Herb Levine interview Slavik.
"When the program started, the goal was to bring children who’d had an immediate family member injured or killed in an attack," said McGarity. "Since that time, we changed the criteria a bit. We took several kids from Nahariya during the war in ‘006, and last year we brought five from Sderot. They are certainly under trauma even if they have no direct family member affected."
Early Monday morning, she drove from Tel Aviv with Herb Levine, an Israeli resident who was formerly the Y’s director of health, sports, and recreation and now works with local agencies in Israel to select and prepare Open Hearts campers and counselors. This correspondent accompanied them, along with local teacher and mother Miri Timsit.
The children waiting nervously to be interviewed were all middle-school students recommended by their teachers. Reflecting the general population, all were either of Russian or Moroccan heritage.
One by one, each was ushered into the principal’s office and questioned mostly in English by Levine and McGarity, who speaks Hebrew.
"Our criteria are that they must be between 1′ and 14, so that their ages match the ages of the American campers," said McGarity. "They have to have some English. They have to be somebody who’s never had an opportunity to travel. The kids also must be able to eat at [non-kosher] restaurants, and can’t be shomer Shabbat [Sabbath-observant] because our camp travels and eats out, and doesn’t always get back before sundown on Friday. I have a general idea of host families, so I try to match personalities to specific homes."
The first candidate, Avnil, was crossed off the list because he had trouble expressing himself in English. The same was true of Shlomi and Nori. Hila was too shy and Tal’s grades in deportment were too low.
"I like to choose heterogeneous groups," said Levine. "I try to take different types of kids, some weaker and some stronger." But with about twice as many students vying for 16 spots, he and McGarity had to be selective. Even the principal’s niece didn’t make the cut.
Slavik, 14, was the first to be chosen. He talked about his pet gerbil ("I very love pets," he said) and his desire to meet American kids.
Avraham, who lives with an aunt, insisted, "There’s nothing special about me" but his interviewers disagreed. "I would be happy to be far from the Kassams," he said.
Katy, born in Russia, said, "I very want to fly. I want visit different country." McGarity was concerned that because Katy lives with her ailing grandmother, she would not be able to come. But Katy said her 1′-year-old brother could fill in as caretaker for three weeks.
Liraz, whose parents run a small grocery, said the daily rockets scare her: "We don’t have a shelter."
Izabella had a friend on Open Hearts last year, and she was eager to go, too. "I like to do fun," she told her interviewers. "It’s my dream to be in America."
McGarity said that despite the bedazzlements of the United States, the children always look forward to returning home. "The psychologists and social workers here report that the kids come back with positive self-esteem, knowing that people overseas care about them. Many of them keep in touch with their hosts, and about half the host families have come to visit ‘their’ kids in Israel."
By late morning, Levine, McGarity, and Timsit had winnowed out 14 candidates and met with the chosen group to discuss the summer schedule. They can look forward to daily trips to places such as ESPN Zone, Madame Tussaud’s, Split Rock Resort, and Camelbeach Water Park. Each child’s parents or guardians will meet with Levine, and each will have a psychological screening. Participants who are 14 must also be cleared by the American Embassy.
A girl named Rachel stopped by to give McGarity and Levine hugs. She’d been on Open Hearts last summer and stayed with a Hillsdale family. "I never thought I would connect like that with people I don’t know," said Rachel. "I went to places I never dreamed I would go. It was hard to say goodbye." She and Tzahar, a boy from last year’s group, will help Levine ready this year’s participants.
In the afternoon, McGarity and Levine were to interview two Ethiopian children as well as candidates for counselor positions. But first, the sirens started wailing and school personnel hurried the visitors into secured classrooms along with students and teachers. Within seconds, two distant thuds were heard.
McGarity decided to leave town right after the all-clear was given. Levine agreed to come back on his own the next day to wrap up the interviews. Later in the week, the two were planning to choose 16 additional candidates at the offices of the One Family Fund and the Israel Defense Forces Widows and Orphans Organization.
In his car, Levine explained that Sderot rules require seatbelts to be left unbuckled to allow for quick escape to a shelter, and windows rolled down so as to hear a red alert. He drove past a crowd on Yahadut Italia Street, where one missile had landed. Three children were injured, one seriously, and at least four adults were treated for shock.
"I’m thinking that we should be taking more kids from Sderot," said McGarity with a sigh.