The North Jersey Jewish community is banding together to help the battered population of Sderot, the Israeli city that has suffered almost daily rocket attacks from Gaza (see cover story, page 15).
At least 75 percent of 4- to 18-year-olds there suffer from post-traumatic stress, experiencing nightmares, loss of appetite, and problems in school. Some 1’0 children are undergoing long-term mental health therapy.
UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey raised more than $1 million two years ago for its sister city of Nahariya, which was hit hard during the Second Lebanon War. After the war ended, the group turned its attention to Sderot.
The gym of RYNJ during the school’s fund-raising "Tiyul-a-thon."
"We felt it was important to shift resources," said Ofer Lichtig, UJA-NNJ’s community representative in Israel. The federation has allocated funds for several projects around Sderot, providing respite for some local teachers and partnering with the Jewish Agency for Israel to create a quiet room in a Sderot elementary school.
"It’s like a time-out place," Lichtig said of the facility, which offers soft music, carpeting, and toys. "If kids are stressed out and cannot sit in a classroom, what they need is a quiet room."
The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge has raised almost $17,000 for the town. On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which this year fell on May 8, the yeshiva involves its students in a variety of activities associated with Israel. One of the most popular is the Tiyul-a-thon (tiyul is Hebrew for trip), in which students take a "tour" of Eretz Yisrael via a huge map painted on the school’s parking lot.
Before the children embark on their tour, they ask their parents, relatives, neighbors, and friends for pledges of funds for a worthy cause, based on the number of laps they will take around the map. This year, 700 youngsters in grades one through eight worked with the Orthodox Union to raise funds for the children of Sderot, according to Rabbi Yisroel Kohn, acting principal of Judaic studies.
"Our first inclination was to contact the OU," he said, noting that the organization responded immediately, sending Allyson Gur-Aryeh, North American director of OU Israel, to speak to the students about the situation in the beleaguered town. Gur-Aryeh visited the community on an OU mission this past winter and was deeply affected by what she saw.
"Mrs. Gur-Aryeh, in a very sensitive and age-appropriate manner, spoke to the children about what the children and families of Sderot are experiencing on a daily basis," Kohn said. "The students heard how every penny they collect will bring some relief and happiness."
"It made us happy knowing that we could make the people in Sderot happier," said fifth-grader Avigail Weiner.
The Jewish National Fund is also working to help the children of Sderot, building what they say will be the largest indoor playground in Israel.
"We can’t stop the rockets from falling, but we can give these children an opportunity to escape the anxiety and fear that they are forced to live with," said JNF President Stanley M. Chesley, adding that the all-inclusive Indoor Recreational Center, similar to New York City’s Chelsea Piers, will provide Sderot’s youth with a place to be children, beyond the conflict.
The ‘1,000-square-foot state-of-the-art indoor playground, a $5 million project, will be located in a secure industrial zone and feature recreational and exercise facilities for children ages 16 and under, including jungle gym equipment, a soccer field and volleyball court, a rock climbing wall, a snack area and gift shop, a movie and television area, a disco, swing sets, a merry-go-round, and more. The facility will be under the supervision of the Israeli Army Engineers for Security Clearances, and the educational arm of the IDF will provide after-school tutoring services. There will also be three therapy rooms to help children suffering from trauma.
JNF is also spearheading fund-raising efforts locally.
More than 40 Bergen County parents gathered at the home of Dana and Michael Runyon on June 3 to raise money to send children from Sderot to summer camp. The event, which raised more than $1′,000, was one of 50 such events hosted by mothers across the country, all designed to raise money and awareness.
At the Bergen County event, former CNN Middle East correspondent Linda Scherzer discussed the growing threat of Muslim extremism and the reasons Hamas has targeted Sderot. Dana Post Adler co-hosted the event with Dana Runyon. Money raised will be used to send children to camps run by the Jewish National Fund and Jewish Agency.
"As summer was nearing and we started getting our kids ready to go to camp, we realized we just had to something for the children of Sderot," said New Yorker Meredith Berkman, who approached Jewish National Fund to be an anchor partner in the campaign. In just a few short weeks, the campaign was mobilized and other major Jewish organizations UJA-Federation of NY, JAFI, Art for Israel, and One Family Fund have signed on to partner in this initiative.
"The ‘Moms for Israel’ campaign is designed to appeal to women," said Elisa Schindler, JNF’s national director of Women’s Campaign for Israel & Special Campaigns. "Women can relate when they hear that the mothers in Sderot are keeping their children inside, depriving them of normal childhood activities in the hopes that they will be safe from the barrage of rocket attacks."
From the time a siren goes off indicating an incoming rocket, Sderot’s residents have only 15 seconds to make their way to a bomb shelter; not enough time if you’re a child playing outside with friends or riding around the neighborhood on your bicycle, or really doing anything that kids do, Berkman said. So they don’t do anything.
"’Moms for Israel’ aims to help relieve mothers’ stress, to help give children a respite from these attacks, and to help put a smile back on Sderot’s residents’ faces," Schindler said.
A five-day summer camp experience costs $500 per child. This includes round-trip transportation, hiking, activities, food, accommodations, and traditional camp activities.
For more information or to donate, visit www.jnf.org or call (888) JNF-0099.