For the last 14 years, Bergen County residents have opened their homes to Israeli teens affected by violence and war. Sponsored by the Bergen County YJCC’s Open Hearts Open Homes program, the privately funded initiative — which receives some monies from the Jewish Federation of North Jersey — has provided comfort to more than 300 youngsters.
Spending three weeks with host families while enjoying a summer respite is perhaps a rare opportunity to spend three weeks living without fear.
Marla Compa, the program’s coordinator and also the YJCC’s children’s department coordinator, noted that “each year, there is a selection and interview process held in Israel to choose over two dozen deserving young people. There are 18 host families to accommodate both the teens, 29 this summer, and the four Israeli counselors, two counselors each session. Most families host two teens.”
While most of the hosts are from Bergen County, this year several were from Rockland. In addition to food and housing, host families provide transportation and some weekend activities. OHOH teens participate in the 92nd Street Y’s Trailblazers teen travel camp and come together for other activities at the Washington Township YJCC.
“Most importantly, hosts provide a family away from home, available for emotional support and comfort — with lots of fun and laughter along the way,” Ms. Compa said.
“There is an overwhelming emotional attachment that occurs between the teens, me as coordinator, and all the host families,” she added. “Most of the host families feel they’ve made life-long connections.”
But if American families say they gain much from hosting the visitors, OHOH has had positive effects in Israel as well, creating a cadre of active alumnae and grateful parents.
Indeed, wrote Herb Levine — who has been active with the program since its inception, first in the United States and now in Israel — OHOH is “a monumental achievement that has succeeded in touching and enriching the lives of hundreds of young Israelis who have at some point in their lives been traumatized by terror.”
Even more, Mr. Levine wrote in an email, “Without OHOH as the catalyst, there would be no SYL [Sderot Young Leaders] and no ‘hard evidence’ as to its importance and its impact upon the young people of Sderot.”
Mr. Levine said that during the first seven years of the program, all the participants were terror victims from the second Intifada, while from 2007 to the present, the program increasingly has concentrated on children from Sderot and the Gaza Rim.
“These children were born during rocket attacks, grew up with color red alerts, and have spent much of their young lives running for shelter,” he said, adding that for most of this time, neither Israel’s central government nor local political authorities were able “to provide the physical, social, and educational services that could lead to change and transform Sderot from periphery to mainstream.”
According to Mr. Levine, “The first group that returned from New Jersey, led by the 15-year-old Sahar Ziv, understood that it was up to them to catalyze community change; no one was going to do it for them.” As a result, “The SYL came into being — a youth leadership organization founded and managed by the young people themselves.”
Craig and Debbie Padover of Woodcliff Lake hosted Eli and Ido for OHOH’s first session this year, which finished July 19. Ido turned 14 during his stay, and Eli will turn 14 in September. This was the Padovers’ third time as hosts.
“I think both boys made the adjustment very well,” Mr. Padover said, noting that the Israeli teens spoke with their parents regularly via Skype. While the boys clearly enjoyed their stay, the Padovers, too, “get a great deal out of participating in this program.
“We are gratified to share some of our slice of heaven here in northern New Jersey with Israeli youth that have to deal with the very grownup realities of missile alerts, bombings, and potential terror attacks. We also got to know on a personal level two fine young men and, indirectly, their families.”
Late in July, the Padovers received a letter from Ido’s parents, thanking them for their hospitality.
“There aren’t enough words to describe how grateful we are for your care for Ido over the past few weeks,” Chen and Cheli Sand wrote. “This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Ido, and we know he will always cherish the memories he made with your family.”
The Padovers expressed their own delight in a return note, adding that “Open Hearts is a special program that helps Israelis and American Jews connect. We think it makes the world seem a little smaller and hopefully less scary.”
Cindy and Shimi Mendelaw of Hillsdale have been hosting for 14 years.
“We really enjoy it,” Ms. Mendelaw said. She is the program’s co-chair, and this year she and her husband are hosting three 14-year-old boys: Sagi, Natan, and Ishaiy. The youngsters — two from kibbutzim near Ashkelon and Sderot and the other from Jerusalem — “check in with their parents every day.”
Ms. Mendelaw said that because her husband is Israeli, “we have a huge family in Israel. We go there almost every year.”
In describing the process for selecting Israeli participants, she said, “we’re always learning, always fine-tuning our process for selecting kids,” usually 13- to 15-year-olds. “They come from all different scenarios,” she said. “We pull some from the One Family Fund — children who have lost family members or been directly involved in terrorist attacks; and we pull from the Sderot area,” where children may have come under intense rocket fire.
“The kids come with different issues,” she said, noting that the selection process often targets bright children who have been recommended by their teachers and guidance counselors for their academic achievement. They also may be strong in English-language skills.
“We select those kids because they will take this experience back with them and be leaders and mentors to other children,” she said. “In the last few years, kids who come here have wanted to mentor younger children and give them insight into what they need to do.”
Ms. Mendelaw said that Israeli and American teens have much in common, a fact that she attributed to the Internet. She also has realized that some of the Israeli children “come here and smile but have deep issues, whether because of rocket bombardment or having a loved one killed. They don’t realize how it affects them. It saddens me that they have to live their life like this and carry such a heavy weight.”
She feels that OHOH is effective in “showing them that life can be better. They can live without fear. It gives them that opportunity to be teenagers. It’s a reprieve — they come and laugh and play and can be healthy and fearless.”
Her own children — now 27, 24, and 19 — have interacted with their Israeli guests over the years.
“They learned to be extremely grateful for what they have,” she said. They don’t have to worry about rockets hitting their home or their parents not coming home.”
In May, Ms. Mendelaw held a reunion in Israel, bringing together “10 years worth of kids” they hosted — now including many officers in the army. Some brought their parents, who “came over and embraced us and thanked us for changing their kids’ lives.”
Debbie and Eric Newman of River Edge hosted two Israeli girls, Chen and Siel, during the summer program’s first session.
“They had a wonderful experience, as did we,” Ms. Newman said. “We have two girls of our own of similar ages. Our kids made a connection, they loved it,” she added, and the teens already are texting each other.”
While Ms. Newman did not speak in great detail with her Israeli visitors, “one of them pointed out how very little time they have to get into shelters,” she said. “When she heard a fire truck, it was pretty intense,” and the hosts had to talk her through the experience, assuring her that all was well.
The host said the visiting teens were clearly impressed by the fact that they could walk around at night, play outside in the yard, and go to the park. Siel, she said, “reacted to things our kids have the freedom to do safely.”
Nevertheless, she said, not everything overwhelmed the Israelis.
“We took them to the Empire State Building and saw some local fireworks from a distance. They weren’t impressed.” (Apparently, the fireworks display on Israel Independence Day displays is more spectacular.)
“Open Hearts is one of a kind — unique in the Jewish world,” Mr. Levine wrote. “I know of no other diaspora community that hosted Sderot youth more than once. Only OHOH has persevered, continuing year after year to inspire hope and motivation for the young people of Sderot.
“I am certain that OHOH alumni carry with them the memories of the friendly, caring Jewish families that opened their homes and opened their hearts and embraced them for three weeks — five during the craziness of Protective Edge. They are eternally thankful, as are their parents and siblings.”
On this side of the world, Ms. Compa said that in hosting two girls, Noa, 13, and Shoval, 13, her own family, including her husband, Peter, and their children, Lindsay, 13, and Jonathan, 6, learned a great deal.
“It was a meaningful experience to show these girls life in America while hearing from them about life in Israel,” she said. “For us, it was an honor to have these girls here and especially important that we could give them something they don’t have at home—life without fear.”