|NCSY Kollel campers sing at the Western Wall. NCSY|
“It’s gorgeous up here,” said Alisa Neugroschl, one of 550 North American teens taking part in eight summer programs in Israel sponsored by NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union.
The Bergenfield 16-year-old was speaking from the Upper Galilee, far from the Hamas rockets raining down on Israel’s southern and central regions. “They’re keeping us up north for safety reasons, and we’ve been doing touring and hiking,” she said.
Operation Protective Edge officially started just one day before the campers arrived in Israel on July 9, but the missile fire had been intensifying over the previous week. David Cutler, NCSY’s director of summer programs, saw that a fast and major overhaul of the programs’ carefully planned six-week itineraries was necessary. Certainly the teens would not be able to run a day camp in Sderot, as students have done other years, now that the Code Red sirens were blaring constantly there.
The Sderot kids did, in fact, have their NCSY fun day, but it was in Jerusalem rather than in Sderot. In cooperation with a social-welfare organization in the Gaza border town, a full bus of children came for the day.
“We were able to turn the situation into an unbelievably positive experience,” said Mr. Cutler, who kept up daily contact with parents. “What we were able to accomplish under these conditions is because of our wonderful staff and the magic performed by our tour provider. It could have been a tough summer, and it was incredibly meaningful.”
Alisa was a participant in GIVE (Girls Israel Volunteer Experience), which had a packed schedule of good deeds that ran the gamut from running two carnivals for underprivileged children in Safed to clowning in several Jerusalem hospitals after a lesson from a professional medical clown.
“It’s amazing that we’re able to come to Israel and give back to the communities,” said Alisa, who is a student at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. “A lot of us have basic Hebrew, and there are also Israeli counselors on the program who help us communicate. As long as you’re having fun and smiling, you don’t have to talk much; the children and the elderly just enjoy your presence.”
Mr. Cutler said there were just eight cancellations between the eight different programs. A ninth program intended for Israel, targeted specifically to public-school teens, was canceled when half the 400 registrants backed out; the other half joined an NCSY program on the U.S. West Coast rather than going to Israel.
In all, more than 50 teenagers from North Jersey took part in Israel NCSY programs this summer.
Jonathan Schwartzman of Teaneck, a 16-year-old Torah Academy of Bergen County student, said one of the highlights of BILT – Boys Israel Leadership Training – was the Gadna military training camp where they did team-building activities and had the opportunity to be “commanders.”
“I think the situation in Israel this summer inspired me,” he said. “It made me happy that I could support Israel at such an amazing time.”
Shana Adler, 16, of Teaneck described on GIVE’s blog that on one Jerusalem day of the trip her group packed food at Ohr Meir & Bracha, an organization that supports victims of terror attacks; danced and sang with clients at Melabev, a day program for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and threw a carnival for children at Zichron Menachem, which supports youngsters with cancer.
“We did everything from face painting, to sand art, and basketball games. It was an amazing sight to see huge smiles appear on the faces of these children, as we hung out with them,” she reported.
For many of the campers, the fast of Tisha B’Av was especially meaningful. They went to the Western Wall as the fast day was ending, sitting on the ground in a large circle singing songs appropriate to the day.
Girls on the Michlelet program organized a wedding at a Beit Shemesh event hall for an indigent couple identified by Rivka Yudin, the program’s director – and also the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn – through a partner organization. The girls found sponsors, threw a bridal shower, made centerpieces, and even served as waitresses at the reception – and the guests were unaware of the tzedakah element of the affair.
Though the kids did not get to go south, they did not forget about the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Many troops are deployed in the Galilee and Golan, so GIVE participants drove up to a base with an ice cream truck to serve cold treats, while NCSY Kollel participants made and distributed tzitzit – ritual fringes.
And, of course, plenty of fun was built into every program’s itinerary – water parks, barbecues, sports, concerts, color war, scavenger hunts, chocolate-making, and even a flash mob – before they all ended on August 12.
“It’s the best experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Alisa said.