It’s not every program that can outlive its host institution.
But the Open Hearts, Open Homes program, which first brought Israeli kids to New Jersey for summer respite under the direction of the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, continued even as the YJCC sold its building and reestablished itself as the JCC of Northern New Jersey, a virtual community center.
The summer program that just ended was the fourth time that Elana Prezant of Haworth ran Open Hearts. It began in 2001, following a visit to Sderot, near the Gaza border, and the first participating children came from there. This year, Ms. Prezant interviewed 70 children from communities surrounding Gaza, and selected 19 for the three-week trip to America.
The children were entering ninth grade. “They were all 13 or 14 years old,” Ms. Prezant said. “This is the right age group. The kids can adjust better, can connect to their host families, and be okay with leaving their families for three weeks. Kids need a certain maturity to be personable and on all the time. Knowing conversational English is a criterion.”
“The kids were amazing,” she continued. “The host families are always amazing. They just give and do so much for these kids and with these kids. I’m always in awe of what the host families do. It’s not so easy opening your home to two teenage strangers.”
The point of the program is to give the teens a respite from the terror of their lives on the Gaza border. Interviewing them for the program, and spending time with them in New Jersey, Ms. Prezant got a sense of how tough it is to grow up under the constant threat of missile attacks.
“One girl lives on a moshav with her mother,” she said. “They don’t have a safe room in their house and they are often under alert. When a siren goes off, sometimes they go to the bathroom and hide in the shower. If there’s enough time they might run to their neighbor who has a safe room, but they don’t always have the time.
“This happened just last week — there were rockets launched from Gaza. I checked in on her. She said she and her mom were safe. When she shared the story with us, you could see the tears in her eyes, you could hear the shaking and trepidation in her voice.
“Another girl lived on a kibbutz near the border. When she was in kindergarten, a rocket hit her house. A couple of years later they moved to Sderot. They were there for five years. There was a siren and they went into their safe room, and again their house was hit. She has fears and trauma from this. Her older sister was diagnosed with PTSD and freaks out whenever there is an alarm. It’s just their reality.
“These kids are traumatized. One of them, Omri, his bedroom is the safe room. He told me how when they ran into the safe room during an attack and when they got out they saw their house was hit. Now his brother won’t sleep outside the safe room. Even when Omri was here over the summer, his little brother slept in the room.
“We had a pool party at a home in Englewood. The kids were relaxing. Seven or eight sat together in this big lounge chair. Suddenly, there was a siren from a fire engine going up the hill. The kids jumped. You saw the immediate reaction. The siren brought them back toe their homes. I said, ‘It’s a fire truck.’ You could see it calmed them down. It’s always there. They have this reaction, this instinct, to look where the safe room is.
“In the course of the three weeks of the program, you see they relax more, they get more comfortable, they unwind. With all the tears the morning of saying goodbye, they get on the bus and go home. Just seeing the joy on their faces, the appreciation and gratitude when you know what they live with, it’s a gift.”
The highlights for the host families is “the listening and talking and getting to know” the visiting Israelis, Ms. Prezant said. “One of my boys this year came here not really knowing how to swim and not really knowing how to ride a bike. My husband taught him how to ride a bike, and we arranged to get a bike for him in Israel. He also learned how to swim this summer. He’ll always remember that.”
After the trip ended and the boys returned home, “we’ve had weekly video chats with both of them every Sunday afternoon.”
In an indication of the way the program creates lasting connections between the New Jersey host families and the visiting Israeli children, this year the two counselors on the program were two Israelis who had taken part as kids 11 years ago. Dana Dahan and Naor Mor both had stayed in touch with their host families over the years.
“We had a great group of kids,” Ms. Dahan said.
What was the best experience for the kids?
“They are so different from each other,” she said. “For one kid the best day was Six Flags. For another it was the ‘Frozen’ show. They all really liked to be in New York, to see Times Square, which they had only seen in the movies.”
The most surprising thing for the children, she said, was the host families.
“They didn’t expect to really become part of the family and to feel all the warmth and the love the families gave them,” Ms. Dahan said. “On the last day they really cried on the bus. They didn’t want to leave.
Ms. Dahan stayed with the same family she had stayed 11 years before — Amy and Rob Wexler. “It was my sixth time in their house,” she said. “The tenth time we met — they were in Israel also. We kept a really good relationship over all these years. I came to their children’s wedding. The Wexlers are really my family.
“Today I got news from Israel that I’m getting a scholarship. I sent it to my sisters and to them.”
Looking back on her first visit to America, “I didn’t expect to have so much fun,” she said. “It was great. Everything was so big. I felt they really wanted us to have the best time ever, and that’s what we had.”
Open Hearts, Open Homes “is a great program,” Ms. Dahan said. “The New Jersey community lives so far from Israel, but still they are so close. They really care about us, about the kids.”
Mr. Mor, the other counselor, said it was an incredible experience helping the kids “do things they never did before, things they thought they would never do in their life, in a different country. Kids that have been afraid of heights tried to climb. Kids who never played soccer or basketball played soccer and basketball. It opened their mind to different ways to think, a different culture, a different language, a different way to live their lives.”
Returning to the same family where he had stayed 11 years before “was amazing. It was like it was eleven years ago, and it was so different, because I came back as a grown man.”
What was the best part of New Jersey?
“The Jewish community,” Mr. Mor said. “We met a lot of people who care about Israel and care about those kids. I just want to say to the Jewish community in New Jersey, that they’re really amazing people.”