Do you see the shape of a heart in the sky with my father’s picture in it?" 10-year-old Rachel asked as we were lying on a hammock, swinging back and forth, talking and taking in the beauty that arrives with dusk.
Tali Arbit, far left, is pictured with counselors at Camp Koby.
I was a counselor for girls from families affected by terror in Israel. These girls had gone through unimaginable suffering. Most had a parent or sibling torn away from them. They came to this special camp to take a break from the painful reminders that are a constant at home, to be in an atmosphere where everyone understood one another. As Rachel explained it, she could laugh at camp, but not at home.
Would I be able to relate to these girls? How could I possibly help them?
Tal and Tamar, 6 years old, were crying in opposite corners of the room. Tamar’s parents had sent candy for the girls to share, but Tamar refused to share. This fight amazed me. These girls, who had each lost an older brother, spent an hour fighting over candy. I thought candy would be irrelevant to these girls after the trauma they had experienced. However, the candy had become even more important. After astounding horrors, they still needed to act like kids. They temporarily ignored their trauma and immersed themselves in the trivialities of childhood. They refused to let their lives be dictated by their tragedy. My goal thus became to treat them as they wanted to be treated: like normal little girls.
This realization helped me get past the initial barrier of intimidation. I wiped shampoo out of their eyes and tears off their faces, ran after them, jumped into the pool with them, braided their hair, tucked them in, and kissed them goodnight. I talked to them, and they talked to me.
"No, I don’t see it," I replied to Rachel, a little nervously; I didn’t want to say anything wrong. She pointed to the sky.
"You don’t see it? It’s right there!"
I shook my head and let her continue talking. She dwelled on the heart in the sky a little longer and moved on. We continued swinging back and forth, talking about other things and laughing.
As an overworked, sleep-deprived counselor, I had little time for reflection. I concentrated on saying the right things, on giving my girls the best summer of their lives. It wasn’t until later that I realized that it was the best summer of my life as well. They showed me that I have so much more to learn, that I cannot just accept the person I am today. They proved to me that I have something to give; Rachel had chosen to lie on the hammock with me, to confide in me, to share with me her longings for her father who was murdered when she was just 5 years old. They illustrated for me that there is more to each person than what the exterior reveals; you would never know the terrible burden each child carries just by watching her play. They taught me the meaning of resilience and strength; they were able to tell us that everything would be okay despite their immense suffering. They inspired me to look at everything with perspective; if these little girls can deal with tragedy and maintain their sense of faith and optimism, then surely I can deal with my daily little problems.
Rachel saw what she needed to see in the sky. The fact that I didn’t see it didn’t make it any less valid. Although I could never see what Rachel saw in the sky, I would learn to understand her. I realized that what she saw reflected her way of coping, her way of grieving, her way of viewing the world. I learned to recognize, by the subtle and not so subtle hints that children give, what Rachel and my other girls needed to see and how I could help them see it.
I went in with doubts, with trepidation that I had nothing special to give to the girls. I came out a different person, one who had given much and received even more in return.
When we finally got up, the hammock had left imprints on us both.
Tali Arbit, 17, lives in Englewood and is a student at the Frisch School in Paramus. On The Koby Mandell Summer in Israel Program, she was a volunteer counselor for siblings and children of Israeli terror victims at Camp Koby. For information about the Koby Mandell Foundation, go to www.kobymandell.org