“People who live near the Gaza Strip are aware of the dangers of being so close to the border,” Ziv Rahamim said. Mr. Rahamim, 23, is from the small village of Mashen, a moshav 15 minutes outside of Ashkelon in the south of Israel. “Sadly, I’ve grown accustomed to people hating us,” he added.
Mr. Rahamim grew up amid inescapable daily tensions. “We are all trained to seek refuge in shelters or tunnels when the emergency alarms sound. Often, we have just seconds to get to a safe zone.”
While he acknowledges the realities of terrorism, Mr. Rahamim said that he’s used to it by now. “So are my parents and three younger siblings,” he added. “But some are more affected than others.” He said that anxiety, fear, panic, and posttraumatic stress disorder are common reactions to a constant stream of rocket and missile fire.
In 2014, the Northern New Jersey-based Open Hearts, Open Homes offered Mr. Rahamim an opportunity to travel to the United States to sightsee and decompress. “I was 14 years old when my English teacher approached me about a special program where ninth-graders from three local schools can travel to New Jersey, meet and live with Jewish American families, have a chance to improve English speaking skills, and relax, bond, and have fun,” he said.
Very interested in the chance to participate, Mr. Rahamim completed a questionnaire that led to a personal interview by a staff member of Open Hearts who traveled to Israel in February 2014. “I remember the interviewers being incredibly nice and polite,” Mr. Rahamim said. “What young kid wouldn’t want the chance to travel with a group of Israeli students who’ve never experienced life beyond the Gaza Strip?”
When Mr. Rahamim got word that he, nine other boys, and 10 girls from his community had been accepted and would be traveling to New Jersey in August 2014, he was ecstatic. He was matched with Stephanie and Rob Laub of Woodcliff Lake and their daughter, Jillian, and his experience with Open Hearts, Open Homes was unlike any he’d ever had. “I was unaccustomed to such warmth, kindness and generosity from strangers,” he said. “It was important to the Laubs that I have fun every day.”
While the Open Hearts program typically lasts 2 1/2 weeks, in 2014 the trip was extended when war broke out in Gaza. The local Jewish community, concerned about the students’ safety, organized a fundraiser and collected $48,000 to allow the group to stay with their host families for two additional weeks. “The emergency coincided with the period of time I was supposed to travel home to Israel,” Mr. Rahamim said. “But our host families insisted we stay.”
Open Hearts, Open Homes began 21 years ago at the former Y/JCC of Washington Township; now it’s run by the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey. Elana Prezant of Haworth, who has supervised the program for the last eight years, has been involved as a professional, lay leader, board member, and volunteer with the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, and now the JCC of Northern New Jersey. Inspired by her parents, Philip and Tania Horn, who have lived their lives supporting Jewish and Israeli causes, Ms. Prezant is fluent in Hebrew and is dedicated to the state of Israel and to Zionism.
“I am deeply committed to Open Hearts,” she said. “Two of my children, Jonathan and Jaqueline, live in Israel. I’ve lived in Israel. I watch the news and understand the trauma these kids on the border face every single day.”
Ms. Prezant and the families who host the teens who arrive in New Jersey each summer are committed to ensuring that there is a community of people who truly care about them. “Students in the ninth grade at Sha’ar Hanegev, Shikma, and Kfar Silver, all schools in communities that are on the border with Gaza, are considered for inclusion in the program,” Ms. Prezant said. Candidates for the program — students who haven’t traveled abroad but can speak conversational English — are encouraged to complete applications for Open Hearts, Open Homes
Their parents, teachers, and counselors also fill out applications. “I interview them individually and in groups,” Ms. Prezant said. “We start with almost 70 kids, dwindle it down to 30, then evaluate them in team building and social activities.” Each student must have recommendations. “These kids come with real stories,” Ms. Prezant said. “Many have experienced loss and faced horror while attempting to protect family members.”
The 20 students ultimately selected come from three different schools, but they connect with one another during activities in Israel overseen by counselors from Open Hearts, Open Homes in New Jersey. “From an orientation in Israel, many social gatherings, and phone conversations, the kids become acquainted with one another before they arrive in the States,” Ms. Prezant said.
“This program changes these kids’ lives,” she continued. “For many, it may be the first time they are on a plane. For some, it may be the first time they applied for a passport.” Often, the students are younger siblings of brothers or sisters of program alumni.
When it’s finally time to leave Israel for the program, “students are accompanied by the Open Hearts counselors for international travel to their host families in New Jersey,” Ms. Prezant said.
The JCCNNJ provides travel expenses through fundraising and private donations from the Jewish community, Ms. Prezant said. “We receive thousands of dollars every year. It costs about $7,000 per teen participant. We look to raise about $140,000 in total.”
Most of the host families — many of whom have participated for years — come from Bergen County.
“A month before the kids arrive, their host family shares photos of themselves, their kids, and even their pets,” Ms. Prezant said. “They schedule video chats to establish familiarity.” The host family is also responsible for picking the student up at JFK airport. “It’s a pleasure to see how our host families throughout the years have embraced the program and the kids,” she said.
Although local synagogues help publicize the program and its need for host families, most potential hosts learn about it through word of mouth. “Many of our hosts are empty nesters, but some have one child still living at home who is eager to connect with an Israeli student his or her age,” Ms. Prezant said.
The programming is similar to a summer teen travel trip. “The kids are busy every single day of the 2 1/2 weeks they’re here,” she said. “From ‘Blue Man Group’ to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to a two-night stay at Club Getaway with archery, swimming, boating, and trampolines to an annual trip to the beach in Long Branch, the teens bond with their host families and with each other.
“In an effort to show the teens what caring for the Jewish community looks like, we hold Mitzvah Day at Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. It’s a day of giving back.” The teens support the center’s programming in various departments, including seniors, special needs camp for the younger kids, and camp for the older kids, by learning to volunteer their services. “At the end of the day, the JCC offers their pool, tennis court, and gym facilities to the kids,” Ms. Prezant said. “The group is treated to a private Zumba class.”
“On the first Friday, we offer a community Shabbat dinner before services,” she continued. “Host families and donors join us. It is at these community events that the kids internalize how much we care about them.”
At the closing party, the teens reflect on their experiences and tell their host families and the Open Hearts staff about their favorite experiences. “Almost all of the kids remain close with their host families, who enjoy traveling to Israel to spend time with their students and their Israeli families.”
Reflecting on her eight years of experience as a supervisor of the program, as well as a host, and a mother, Ms. Prezant recalls a poignant statement from one of the teens: “People care about me and love me without even knowing me. I didn’t know those feelings existed because at home, people want to kill me.”
After serving in the army for four years, Ms. Prezant’s former student, Ziv Rahamim, traveled throughout South America for 16 months. “We are thrilled that he’ll be returning to Open Hearts this summer as a counselor,” she said. “And he is thrilled that in two weeks, he gets to give his students the same pure summer fun he experienced at 14.”
Mr. Rahamim couldn’t wait to tell his WhatsApp group of former program participants that he was returning as a madrich. “They are all jealous that I get to come back,” he said.
Mr. Rahamim describes his host family as his second family. “We share every happy and sad occasion with one another,” he said.
Join Ziv Rahamim and 20 Israeli teens participating in this year’s summer program at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge on July 14 at 8 p.m. for services and a discussion about this transformative summer experience. For more information, email Elana Prezant at email@example.com or call her at (201) 666-6610.