Vacation from grief
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Vacation from grief

Local teens volunteer at Israeli camp for kids dealing with loss

Noah Thurm, center, and other Camp Koby counselors from the United States mug for the camera. (Dovi Chrysler)
Noah Thurm, center, and other Camp Koby counselors from the United States mug for the camera. (Dovi Chrysler)

All 400 campers in Camp Koby live every day with the pain of having lost a parent or sibling to terror or illness.

That is the only cost of admission to the weeklong sessions held at Kibbutz Yechiam, near the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership 2000 city, Nahariya.

It’s the job of professional therapists to provide a safe environment, with art, drama, music, nature, sports, and animal therapy. It’s the job of volunteer counselors — this year, including seven from Bergen County — to pack as much adventure, fun, and laughter into that week as they possibly can.

Noah Thurm, left, and Daniel Elbaum with camper (Max Muss)
Noah Thurm, left, and Daniel Elbaum with camper (Max Muss)

“I don’t talk to the boys about their personal stories,” said Ari Portal of Teaneck, 16, a rising junior at the Frisch School in Paramus. “The camp is about making sure they have fun, and are not focusing on the bad parts of their lives unless they want to.” As a co-counselor for four boys going into seventh grade, Ari accompanied them to activities on and off the kibbutz, including swimming, paintballing, and kayaking.

“There were days they seemed upset and they said they needed a minute to be alone,” Ari said. “One of the boys mentioned that a parent had died. I didn’t probe too much.

“What you take away from Camp Koby is that these kids who suffered such tragedies can lead normal lives and have fun. They don’t have to be sad all the time.”

Camp Koby, geared to children and teenagers from 7 to 17, is one of several ongoing programs for bereaved Israeli families from the Koby Mandell Foundation. The foundation was created by Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son, Koby, was stoned to death in 2002 by terrorists inside a cave near the Mandell home in Tekoa, a small village south of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Mandell told the Jewish Standard that from the start, Camp Koby was inundated with requests from American teens wanting to volunteer. “In our third or fourth year, we took a few girls from New Jersey as counselors and realized it was a wonderful thing for both sides of the equation and we should expand it,” he said.

The camp affords volunteers a chance to meet real Israeli kids, he says. “Most of them have been to Israel many times for touring, so this brings them a whole new set of connections. On the Israeli side, the campers appreciate that these ‘mythical’ Americans want to help them, and that they are important to Jews all over the world.”

Shoshi Jeselsohn and a Camp Koby camper (Courtesy Shoshi Jeselsohn)
Shoshi Jeselsohn and a Camp Koby camper (Courtesy Shoshi Jeselsohn)

The foundation considers applications from teenagers who already have volunteered at hospitals or with underprivileged kids, want to connect to Israel, and have some Hebrew-speaking skills. In addition to one week at the sleepaway camp, each accepted applicant gets to experience four weeks of supervised touring across Israel. They can opt for an additional week at the Gadna pre-military training program.

The staff-camper ratio at Camp Koby is about one to one, and each older camper is assigned one American and one Israeli counselor.

Shoshi Jeselsohn, a rising Frisch junior from Teaneck, says the Hebrew immersion she experienced in elementary school at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus enabled her to interact easily with the two sixth-grade girls assigned to her and an Israeli co-counselor.

“But I also learned so much more vocabulary in one week,” she said. Another intangible she gained is “a sense of thankfulness. It’s been really emotional to be surrounded by children who have lost family members. It’s really changed me to see how happy and sweet these girls are.”

Rachel Kraft of Englewood, soon to start 11th grade at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, assisted during sessions of art, movement, dance, and other therapeutic modalities. “I wanted to do an Israel summer program that had meaning to it, and I like working with kids,” she said. “Meeting these kids, who have been through so much, and have had to handle much worse situations than I ever have, has put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

Rachel Kraft and camper hug. (Courtesy Rachel Kraft)
Rachel Kraft and camper hug. (Courtesy Rachel Kraft)

 She recalled one 8-year-old who was sitting in a corner crying during a therapy session. Rachel sat with her, and learned that the little girl was homesick. “I suggested she color a picture for her mom, and she liked that idea,” she said. “She gave me a huge hug, and I drew ballet shoes for her to color. She was very excited to give the picture to her mom.”

Noah Thurm of Englewood also was a therapy intern at Camp Koby. The 16-year-old rising junior at Frisch was especially moved by a 9-year-old boy who was born in Australia, moved to Israel four years ago, and recently lost his father. “He’s a great kid, and we got very close,” Noah said. “This has given me a new appreciation of what I have, and how to relate to children better.”

Josh Dukas and Yonatan Potash of Teaneck and Daniel Elbaum of Bergenfield also volunteered at Camp Koby this summer.

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