While many citizens of Sderot are looking to leave their homes in the face of rocket attacks launched from Gaza, a plane took off from Newark Airport Wednesday carrying five area high school students who have volunteered to spend four days helping the hard-hit city. The Jewish Standard spoke to them on Tuesday.
The faculty of Torah Academy of Bergen County invited five students who just finished their junior year to go on the trip, to see firsthand what life is like in Sderot, and to 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.
"We want to go and show our solidarity by actually showing up and being there, as opposed to simply sending another check," said Poleyeff, who is accompanying the students as their faculty adviser.
Poleyeff handpicked the students for the trip, but before asking them if they were interested, he asked their parents if they would allow the children to go.
"The reaction was ‘kol hakavod,’" literally, "all honor," Poleyeff said. "They feel it is a great statement we’re making, and they’re behind it 100 percent."
Jonathan Bloom, 17, of Fair Lawn said he is excited to have the opportunity to help in Sderot, despite the danger.
"In America, we feel we can’t do anything," he said. "This is a great opportunity to see what is going on first hand and to help in some way."
"I definitely have concerns," said his mother, Lynn Bloom. "I just feel that he’s doing the right thing and I’m very proud of him."
Jay Forman of Teaneck, whose 17-year-old son Dani is on the trip, said he, too, is concerned about the students’ safety but was moved by the purpose of the visit to sign off almost immediately.
"If we truly believe our lot is cast with our brethren in Israel, it’s important to show solidarity and be as cautious as possible to show them we are not forsaking them," he said. "I would never put my son in a situation I wouldn’t put myself in."
Dani Forman said going to Sderot is the least that he and his friends can do to show people that they have not been forgotten. The residents of Sderot have to live with the rockets everyday, he said, and the TABC boys will try to take their minds off those dangers a little bit.
"If I’m going there to help, being nervous isn’t going to accomplish much," he said.
It’s important to go to Sderot to show the people there that the Jewish community understands their plight, said 17-year-old Daniel Goldberg of Teaneck. "It must be tremendously difficult for the people who live there. We [in America] appreciate what they’re going through, but they’re living through it on a daily basis," he said. "While there is a security risk, it’s well worth it. We have to be there to show our full support."
As the child of Holocaust survivors, Daniel’s mother Helen Goldberg said she learned that Jews must take a stand sooner rather than later to protect themselves.
"There are ‘3,000 Jewish citizens living in Sderot," she said. "They’re living there every day and putting their lives on the line. We stand as one; everybody needs to do what they can."
The five students will spend their time teaching English to fifth graders, playing soccer with Ethiopian Israeli teens, and helping to repair damage from rocket attacks.
According to Poleyeff, the residents of Sderot have been very receptive to the visit.
"They want more students to come," he said. "They really appreciate the fact that students from America are going to [visit]. They are overwhelmed with emotion."
The TABC teens are the only high school students visiting Sderot, said Ronit Farkash, regional coordinator of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s "A New Tomorrow" program, which helped Poleyeff arrange the trip. After last summer’s war with Hezbollah, she said, United Jewish Communities, which is contributing funds to the program, decided to put more of its money into people than into bomb shelters. The program embraces 31 regional councils that provide activities for children during and after school.
People in the nearby city of Ashkelon do not know what life is like in Sderot, said Farkash, so it makes sense that people in the United States know even less about what is going on.
"They see [the kids] as ambassadors," she said. "People appreciate it. They want to share their daily routines with them."
UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey helped coordinate the trip, working closely with Poleyeff and JAFI. Students were required to sign waivers agreeing that they would not hold UJA, JAFI, Sderot, or TABC responsible for any injury incurred during the visit, said Wallace Greene, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Educational Services. Two weeks ago, two soldiers from Sderot came to UJA-NNJ’s Jersey to Jerusalem reunion to share their stories about life in Sderot. The TABC students will similarly act as representatives of northern New Jersey, he said, but mainly, they will keep Sderot’s children occupied when they are not sitting in shelters.
"The people of Sderot are very eager for them to come," and the students are excited to be there, Greene said.
The TABC group will also spend time in Nahariya, UJA-NNJ’s sister city, which was a target of Hezbollah rockets last summer. The group is expected to return on Tuesday.