For 17 years, Jewish families in Bergen County hosted Israeli kids, whom they did not know before they met that summer, for three weeks of respite from the tensions of everyday life on the Gaza border.
The JCC of Northern New Jersey in Washington Township started Open Hearts Open Homes; it is one of the few programs the JCC has continued sponsoring since it closed its building six years ago.
Elana Prezant of Haworth has headed the program from that time. In early 2020, she went to southern Israel, as she always does, to choose 20 children to participate in the fully sponsored summer experience. But due to covid, the 18th year of OHOH was canceled.
“This year we hoped to invite 20 kids to New Jersey and have the typical summer of daily trips, activities, and home hospitality,” Ms. Prezant said.
“As we got closer to the summer, covid numbers were still bad and we realized we couldn’t do it. We thought about hosting them for Sukkot and realized that probably wouldn’t be possible either. Then the war happened in May, and we were extra motivated to do something; these kids were living in shelters and safe rooms – if they had them — for 12 days.”
And so program’s leaders decided to change course. Instead of welcoming participants to Bergen County, it would escort them around their own country for 12 days of discovery, fun, and fellowship in the summer of 2021.
“We put together a fabulous experience for 18 of the kids who had been interviewed for the summer of 2020 and never got to go. We had nine boys and nine girls, some going into ninth grade and some going into 10th,” Ms. Prezant said. All were from Gaza border kibbutzim and towns such as Sderot.
Children are recommended by their school principals based on several criteria; the three main ones are that they suffered trauma related to war or terrorism, that they can speak conversational English, and that they come from families that do not have the means to provide this type of vacation. This year, an additional requirement was vaccination against covid-19.
Ms. Prezant hired a counselor, Dana Rabinowitz, who lives in the south of Israel “and can connect and relate to what these kids go through.”
Before the first day of the program on August 8, the kids were invited to get-togethers and a formal orientation, which gave them the opportunity to get acquainted with each other and with Ms. Rabinowitz.
“I met them the Thursday before the program started and you could see their stress and how nervous they were,” Ms. Prezant said. “It turned into a warm group, but it didn’t start off that way.”
During the first six days, the Open Hearts group joined peers from a sleepaway camp, Camp Kimama, on their travels through northern Israel’s lush nature preserves – a sight most of the kids had never seen.
“The Kimama rules do not allow phones on trips, and so our kids were forced to disconnect and not think about home for a while,” Ms. Prezant said. “They went from Sunday to Friday afternoon without phones and nobody asked to talk to their parents even though we were prepared for that possibility.”
The no-phone rule, she observed, freed the children to try new experiences and learn things about themselves. “It had a tremendous positive effect. They were rejuvenated. On Friday they all were happy to speak with their parents, and they talked all weekend about their experiences.”
The plan for Shabbat was to stay with hosts in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership2Gether city of Nahariya in the northwest. That was canceled, however, because of covid concerns.
“We ended up with a beautiful boat ride on the Mediterranean on Friday afternoon and then went to stay at a youth hostel in Acco,” Ms. Prezant said. “I lit candles with the girls. One of our boys made kiddush, another did the motzi, and it was beautiful. The next day, our Jewish Agency representative here did a walking tour of Acco for us.”
Ms. Prezant’s son, Jonathan — who lives in Israel, as does his sister, Jacqueline — pitched in as a second counselor from Friday to Sunday.
“He and Dana planned a game night for the kids,” Ms. Prezant said. “Over time we saw them unwinding and getting more and more engaged and forming friendships.”
During the remaining week, the group visited the seawater grottos of Rosh Hanikra near Lebanon and toured the Ghetto Fighters Museum, where “an exceptional guide named Chaim got the kids talking about their grandparents and great-grandparents and their Holocaust experiences.” They also removed litter from a beach in Hadera, rode in a hot-air balloon and rowed on the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, had dinner served by members of the deaf community and did a clay workshop led by members of the blind community at the Na Laga’at culture and theater center in Jaffa, and toured the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve in the Judean Hills and key sites in Jerusalem, a city only three of the kids had ever visited.
They even went ice skating, which resulted in Ms. Prezant taking a spill after one of the kids accidentally bumped her from behind. She rejoined the group with her hand in a cast and soldiered on.
On the last night the group stayed in Ein Gedi, a beautiful oasis and nature reserve near Masada and the Dead Sea.
Whenever possible, 10 virtual host families in New Jersey corresponded or video chatted with the kids.
“It was our way of engaging the American community and giving the kids a taste of what it would be like being hosted in Bergen County homes,” Ms. Prezant said. “The kids were very excited about it.”
One of the boys, Ravid Levi, wrote this note in English to his virtual hosts, Dave and Leslie Smith of River Vale: “I want to thank you very much for all the effort you make to make the program” — Open Hearts Open Homes — “work. It really helps us to break away a bit from the situation in our area and just have fun without worrying about anything. And something else that is important for me to tell you is that the program also helped me deal with a difficulty I had before which was shyness. Because I’m a shy guy. Many times I do not talk much or make friendships. This is one of the most important and good things that the program has helped me deal with.”
In fact, the Levi family is well acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. Smith; they have co-chaired Open Hearts Open Homes from the beginning and hosted Ravid’s older sister, Shiri, whom they hope will be a counselor in the program next year.
“With the exception of the last two summers with covid, we hosted two children every summer,” Mr. Smith said. “This was an opportunity for us and for our children, who are 37 and 34 now, to connect with Israel and learn more about what was going on there. We made connections with kids we still are involved with and keep up with.”
The Smiths visited the Levi family several years ago at their kibbutz near the Gaza border, and reunited with other past participants as well.
“There are so many kids we’ve met and hosted over the years that we feel like rock stars when we visit,” Mr. Smith said. “The last time we went to Israel, we rented a restaurant and hosted alumni there.”
Visiting families in the South put Israel in a new light for the Smiths.
“When you’re standing at a fence in Sderot and you see that Gaza is closer than New York City is from the George Washington Bridge on the Jersey side, it really changes your perspective dramatically,” said Mr. Smith.
The River Vale couple was, of course, disappointed not to host children this summer, “but we knew with the Delta variant it wasn’t possible and this was the next best thing,” he said.
“A lot of these kids, for economic reasons, have never been to other parts of Israel. It was a chance to give them a different experience in their own country — a more modest trip, but still worthwhile. This year’s expenses were considerably lower since we weren’t flying them over, but we always have donors happy to help us give kids an experience of a lifetime.”
As successful as the Israeli Open Hearts Open Homes experiment was, Ms. Prezant looks forward to returning it to Bergen County next summer for the program’s 20th anniversary year.
“I’m glad these kids saw their own beautiful country this summer,” she said. “But Open Hearts Open Homes aims to affect both the kids and the local Jewish community. The kids bring Israel to us and allow the host families to form a relationship with Israelis. Some have gone to Israel for the first time after hosting children.”
The program also aims to acquaints the Israeli teens with diaspora Jewry. “We have a day of giving back where the kids volunteer at the JCC on the Palisades and see the diverse populations they cater to, like seniors and special-needs kids,” Ms. Prezant said. “They visit a shul and different parts of our Jewish community. They engage with residents of Jewish Home Assisted Living, and they have activities with our donors.
“The fact that this is funded by private people who don’t even know them is a foreign concept to them. To know that people donated hard-earned dollars for them to have this life-changing experience is something these kids do not take for granted. We ask people to make a difference in teenagers’ lives, and they do.”
Do the children leave with the impression that life would be better for them in New Jersey?
“When they first come to the United States, their eyes just pop,” Mr. Smith said. “They see the luxury, the green, the size of the homes. But they get over that quickly because the bonding takes over. They value and love the experience here. But 95 percent of the kids would still choose Israel. The family they have there certainly overrides the lifestyle they see here.”
“We see that in the end, there are tears when it’s time to part with their host families, but they want to return to Israel,” Ms. Prezant added. “They feel a longing for their home, for the Jewish homeland where they feel rooted.”