The rockets are still falling in Sderot but the children of the Israeli border town may be a little happier after a group of students from Torah Academy of Bergen County spent three days there last month.
The faculty of Torah Academy of Bergen County chose five juniors to go on the trip, to see firsthand what life is like in Sderot and do what they can to help, said Arthur Poleyeff, TABC’s principal for general studies. Poleyeff and other faculty members decided they wanted to make a statement beyond donations. The group left for Sderot on Wednesday, June ‘0, and spent three days in Sderot, Shabbat in Jerusalem, and a day in Nahariya, before they returned to New Jersey on June ‘6.
Jonathan Bloom, Eitan Selevan, Dani Forman, Baruch Cohen, and Daniel Goldberg are pictured with the fifth-grade class and its teacher at the Torani Modae Amit School in Sderot. Photo courtesy of TABC
"What we brought to Sderot, they gave back to us tenfold," Poleyeff said upon their return. "They absolutely loved our students and made an instant bond with them."
The TABC mission visited a Sderot elementary school, where they met with a fourth-grade class and heard about living under fire from the children. They met a little girl with shrapnel in her elbow; a girl who had been locked in her house for two weeks; and children who were collecting the shrapnel from the rockets.
"It wasn’t one person who knows someone who knows someone," said 17-year-old Jonathan Bloom of Fair Lawn. "Everybody had a story. Everybody’s affected by it."
The students were shy at first, Jonathan said, but soon warmed up after the five began playing games and teaching them some English.
The school had only 30 students a month before but since the rocket fire quieted down although it has not stopped it has grown again to 75.
Baruch Cohen, Jonathan Bloom, Daniel Goldberg, Dani Forman and Eitan Selevan distribute sweets to Ethiopian children in Nahariya. Photo courtesy of TABC
From there the group visited another school with 15 teenage Ethiopian immigrants mostly the same ages as the TABC boys. Like the elementary school children, the new Israelis were slow to open up, but did so when they all began playing soccer.
"They’re like any other normal kids, playing and running around," Jonathan said. "But when we ask them questions about the kassams, they transform and say they’re not afraid and HaShem will protect them. Seeing 10-year-olds living in fear every day shows how our problems here in America are so meaningless and trivial."
The TABC students had to remind themselves that these children were living under the threat of rocket fire.
"It really was inspiring to see that these kids accepted the situation and continued to live in any way a kid would live," said Baruch Cohen, a 17-year-old from Teaneck. "The maturity and ability to adapt to their situation really impressed me."
That resiliency surprised Daniel Goldberg, another 17-year-old from that township, who was amazed at how Sderot’s children continue their normal routines.
"It became a fact of daily life," said Daniel. "There’s constant stress and constant fear. They all have their own story."
When the group was leaving the elementary school, one of the fourth-grade students pulled Baruch aside to show him a science project he had made: sunglasses for looking at the sun.
"That made me feel important," Baruch said.
On Friday morning the group returned to the Sderot school for a pre-Shabbat program. When they walked in, all the children ran up to them, Jonathan said. The group returned to the school Saturday night to bring games to the kids and another warm reception convinced them to return to the school again on Sunday.
"Their students and our students will never ever forget this trip to Sderot," Poleyeff said.
Poleyeff chose all juniors, who would begin their senior years in the fall, because he thought they could be more responsible than the underclassmen and could prepare for the experience better than seniors getting ready for college.
The trip was coordinated with "A New Tomorrow," a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Two anonymous donors who liked the idea of going to Sderot to show solidarity, rather than just sending checks, subsidized the trip through the school, Poleyeff said. "They felt that was very worthwhile."
On the last day of their trip, the group visited Nahariya, the sister city of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey that had been hit hard by rocket fire in last summer’s Second Lebanon War. While the city has been rebuilt, the boys helped paint an apartment building that housed poor people.
Security was a concern, but the students and their parents had been fully briefed on the risks beforehand. Poleyeff had approached all the parents for their approval before inviting the students on the trip, and reported receiving only praise for what the boys would do.
"I was very proud of him," Jay Bloom said of his son, Jonathan. "I knew it was an experience he would remember for the rest of his life."
Now at summer camp, Dani Forman could not be reached for comment, but his father, Jay Forman, said his 17-year-old son was "bubbling over with pride and joy" when he returned.
"He felt like he had accomplished an awful lot in a short time," Forman said.