Open Hearts, Open Homes

Open Hearts, Open Homes

Theoretical bonds between people are very good things. We are all Jews, so we all care about each other. We are American Jews with a deep connection to Israel, so we care about Israelis.

But there is nothing like the bonds that develop between Israeli teenagers and American adults old enough to be their parents, when those teenagers spend three weeks living in the adults’ houses.

Those bonds – which are both tight and real, and therefore tend to be long-lasting as well – are what develop through Project Open Hearts, Open Homes, a program of the Bergen County Y in Washington Township.

For 11 years, the Jewish community center has been bringing young teenagers who have been affected by terrorism here for three-week stays. The adults with whom they live take care of them as they care for their own children. The teenagers’ weekdays are occupied by the programs at a travel camp; the adults and the larger YJCC community fill their weekends, and the parents do normal parent jobs, packing their lunches, doing their laundry, and ferrying them back and forth from camp and to and from all the other activities that give them a full view of Jewish life in the United States.

It has affected Amy Wexler’s life. Wexler and her husband, Rob, who live in Woodcliff Lake, have hosted on and off since 2006. “I’ve hosted six kids, and through the program I’ve hosted a total of 13,” she said, explaining that her close relationships with the children she housed led to invitations that were proffered to siblings and other relatives that, in turn, led to even more relationships. Another Israeli teenager she hosted was a counselor. “I’m still in touch with all of them,” she added.

In fact, she is so close with some of these Israelis that two of them – “two of my girls,” as she puts it – came to New Jersey for the wedding of one of the Wexlers’ daughters. “They’ve become my family,” she said.

Relationships are strengthened by Skype, the voice-over-Internet service that facilitates inexpensive overseas video calling. As technology has advanced, the once-amazing e-mails and text messages are supplemented by live action. It all helps keeps strong feelings alive.

The teenagers who come to New Jersey – originally the program accepted applicants who were between 12 and 14 years old, but now the participants are between 14 and 16 – all “have been affected by terrorism,” Wexler said. “They’ve lost a parent or sibling, or are dealing with some kind of post-traumatic stress.”

The towns the teens come from tend to be working class. The visitors speak English, but most have not been to the United States before this trip. Without the program, they might never have made their way here. When they come here, they are emotionally needy and vulnerable.

“I’m the mother of four, and I can’t even imagine my own kids going through this,” Wexler said.

“I know it sounds crazy that inside of three weeks you can make this attachment, but it’s three weeks of them living with you, breathing with you, eating and sleeping with you” the way your own children do, she continued. “I’m the one doing their laundry. When they’re sick, I’m the one taking their temperature and giving them medicine. I’m the one kissing them good night when they go to sleep, and wishing them laila tov” – good night.

Wexler thinks that it might be time for her and her husband to pull back a bit from the program. “A piece of my heart gets torn out every time they leave,” she said. “When I drove my kids back to Kennedy airport, it was pathetic. We were sobbing and holding onto each other.”

This was the first year Mindy Schultz and her husband, Jeff, who live in Fair Lawn, hosted, but it is unlikely that it will be the last.

The program houses two teens of the same gender with one set of temporary parents, so the Schultzes offered hospitality to two boys, Idan, 15, and Gil, 14 1/2. (They are at an age when the half-year matters.) “I feel like I made lifelong connections,” Mindy Schultz said. “One of them has parents from Ethiopia, and the other has a Moroccan background. We had wonderful Shabbats with them, and we introduced them to our extended family and friends.

“I asked Idan if he feels relaxed with us. He comes from S’derot; the sirens go off there almost every day and have for the last 10 years.” (The sirens warn of missiles that are lobbed at S’derot from across the border in Gaza.) “They have 15 seconds to get to the bomb shelter – everyone has a bomb shelter in his house.”

“There are girls on the trip from Netivot,” she said parenthetically. “They have a whole 30 seconds to get the bomb shelter.”

“So when I asked Idan if he felt more relaxed, he said ‘yes – but no, because my family is still there.’ They’re always thinking about their families.

“But they’re fun-loving,” she continued. “And their families have not been to the United States.”

There are screening programs for the teenagers; they are checked not only for physical fitness and for English-language ability, but also for psychological resilience. The trip is a wonderful opportunity, but only for teenagers who are ready to be away from home for so long a stretch and who have the capacity to become connected so intimately to strangers.

It is not always easy, particularly not at first. “This is the first time most have been out of the country at all, and away from their parents,” Wexler said. “If they’re dealing with major stuff, it can be trying.

“It is what you make of it. I tend to be a demonstrative person, and so I don’t wait. My kids come, and I’m greeting them right off the bus with hugs. Other people might be more formal, shaking hands instead of hugging, but that’s not my way. Our kids get it right away. ‘This is a family. These are loving people.'”

Even though the teenagers speak English, language can be a problem at times. Wexler dealt with it by learning Hebrew herself, through federation-sponsored programs, “but,” she said, when necessary, “there is always sign language and pointing.” In the end, everyone understands each other.

The program is funded privately, by the host families and through private donations, and it is administered through the YJCC.

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