Sderot comes to New Jersey
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Sderot comes to New Jersey

Locals provide respite for Israeli youth

Despite several violations by the Palestinians, Israel is holding to a fragile truce that promises the residents of Sderot a reprieve from the almost daily rocket fire they have lived with for eight years.

While people in Sderot begin to remember what life was like before the rockets began, some local groups are providing opportunities for Israeli teenagers affected by the rockets to spend their summer in New Jersey.

When Chabad of Manalapan announced that its Gan Israel camp this summer would include 1′ girls from Sderot, Chani Gurkov, co-director of the Chabad Center of Passaic County in Wayne, wanted to do something for the Israeli visitors, too.


Now entering its seventh year, the YJCC’s Open Hearts, Open Homes program brings Israeli teenagers affected by terrorism to New Jersey to decompress from their stressful environments. This year’s group, which arrives this weekend, includes a large number from Sderot. Photos courtesy of the YJCC.

The initiative is a partnership among 11 of Chabad’s Gan Israel camps across the country. Together, they are bringing groups of young boys and girls from Sderot to spend one month at the camp. The Wayne Chabad center does not have its own camp, so Gurkov had to come up with another way to help.

On July 17, the dozen 1′- and 13-year-old Israeli girls and two counselors attending Gan Israel in Manalapan will travel to Wayne for a barbecue at the Chabad house there and then an evening of pampering at Faces Plus, a Wayne salon owned by Sderot native David Ezra.

This is not the first time Sderot and Wayne have been linked. Gurkov’s ‘0-year-old son Zalman is now in his second year of college in Jerusalem and has been going to Sderot to volunteer. Two years ago, Gurkov’s husband, Rabbi Michel Gurkov, led Ezra and other members of his congregation on a trip to Sderot where they met with Ezra’s family. The Chabad house also has a Torah scroll written by Sderot’s deputy mayor.

"When [Tova Chacanow, wife of Manalapan’s Rabbi Baruch Chacanow] started telling me that on top of running the camp they’re starting this group," Gurkov said, "I thought, ‘What could we do to help out and make it easier on my friend for one night?’"

Bergen County will also receive several guests from Sderot this month.

This is the seventh year for the Open Hearts, Open Homes program at the YJCC in Washington Township, and every year the program’s director, Anne McGarity, hopes the program — designed for Israeli teenagers affected by terrorism — will no longer be needed.

McGarity, youth services director at the YJCC, said the program began after a group led by YJCC director Harold Benus visited victims of terror in Israel and asked how they could help. Each summer, about 3′ Israeli children from sixth to ninth grade come for two three-week sessions at the Y. They tour New York, visit amusement parks, mingle with their American hosts, and decompress from the pressures of living with terrorism in Israel.

The main requirement of the program is that the children have been affected by a terror attack. In recent years, the YJCC has focused its efforts on children from Israel’s north, particularly in Nahariya, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s sister city, which was a popular target of Hezbollah rockets during the Second Lebanon War in ‘006. This year, 16 of the ‘7 children are coming from Sderot.

"Because they’ve had so much happening to them in recent times we decided to bring a larger group from there," McGarity said.

The first group of 19 youngsters — 15 from Sderot — arrive this weekend and the session begins on Monday.

So far, this year’s number is smaller than usual but more may be added, McGarity said. Typically, the number of students depends on qualifying interviews and the dollars the program can raise. With a cost of $6,500 per child, Open Hearts, Open Homes is completely funded by donations.

To help fund this year’s program, students in the YJCC’s various art programs are holding an art show July 10 through Aug. ‘4. All 180 pieces will be for sale and all of the proceeds will go toward Open Hearts, Open Homes.

The program’s goal is two-fold, McGarity said. First and foremost is to provide respite for the children. The second goal is to create connections between the American host families and the Israeli children.

"Many of our host families who have never been to Israel have made a trip to Israel as a result of the connection with the kids," McGarity said.

This is the third year as a host family for Betsy and Ron Gold of Hillsdale, who have opened their home to five Israeli girls so far.

"They are just wonderful kids who are so happy to be here and happy to explore America and meet Jewish families here and make friends, really, for life," Betsy Gold said. "It has given us an opportunity to share our home and our lives with Israeli teenagers who have suffered greatly for being Jewish and living in Israel."

One girl who stayed with the Golds had lost her sister in a suicide blast on a bus. Another girl’s mother had been severely burned during a suicide bomb attack.

When the Golds took a family trip to Israel in December with their own three teenage daughters, they visited each of the Israelis who had stayed with them.

"That was even more of a meaningful experience — if there could be one — than having them here. We were able to see how the tragic circumstances have affected their daily lives," Gold said. "Their families were so warm and welcoming and appreciative of us and of the fact that we were able to host their daughters."

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