Weaving a web of connections

Weaving a web of connections

Open Hearts, Open Homes brings Israeli kids to north Jersey

Think of it like a web.

Not entirely the internet kind of web. Remember when we used to call it the World Wide Web, a decade or so ago, when we were young? (Okay. Younger.) Keep the world wide part, but drop the virtual aspect. This web is physical.

For 15 years now, Open Hearts Open Homes has been bringing young Israelis to stay with families during the summer, and to participate in travel and day programs at local Jewish institutions. As the world has changed, Israel has changed, those young people have grown up, demographics marched on, and the institutional landscape here in northern New Jersey and Rockland County has changed as well. And so has Open Hearts Open Homes.

But the program doesn’t end for the young Israelis and their host families once the summer has ended and everyone’s back home. Instead, those relationships continue. That’s the physical web part. Every year, more and more Israeli and American families are woven into this web.

“Every year, we bring over all of these children, supported by two counselors,” Cindy Mendelaw of Hillsdale, who has been involved in the program since it began 15 years ago, said. This year, there will be 20 teenagers, ranging from 11 to 13 years old, and Ms. Mendelaw, who now is a program co-chair, was part of the interviewing and vetting process that chose them.

“I’ve hosted 31 children over 15 years, and I’m still in touch with many of them,” Ms. Mendelaw said. “I see many of them almost every year, when I go to Israel. In the last few years I have been going in the springtime, specifically because I know that they are more available then.

“We have had reunions. This year, I went to visit a young lady who stayed at my home 10 years ago. She is now an officer in the IDF. She is lovely. She had two siblings killed during a bar mitzvah terrorist attack; she was 13 when she came to us, and the attack had been three years earlier. We got together with her and her mother in April.”

That, she said, was just one of the many visitors with whom she has maintained a relationship. “When I see these children and their parents, when we’re in Israel, the parents come up to me and hug me and kiss me, and say ‘How can we ever repay you for what you did for our child? It changed their lives.’

“And I say ‘You don’t repay me. We do this because we want to. Because it is important.’”

Participants from eight years of visits gathered for a reunion in 2014.
Participants from eight years of visits gathered for a reunion in 2014.

The program is particularly important to her, Ms. Mendelaw said, because of her relationship to Israel. It goes far back into her adolescence, when she lived on a kibbutz. Her husband — “his name is Shimi, but his real name is Shimson,” she said — is Israeli. “We have an exceptionally large family in Israel,” she continued. “Shimi is one of 11, and we have 46 nieces and nephews and about 125 great nieces and nephews on his side.”

So when Harold Benus, who was the director of the YJCC in Washington Township 15 years ago, and who started Open Hearts Open Homes, “came to me and said ‘I am looking for some people to help,’ I said ‘Count me in.’”

The teenagers who come to be part of the Open Hearts Open Homes program are terror victims, related to victims, or, increasingly, living in such places as Sderot, where the threat of missiles from over the Gaza border is constant. There are firm criteria — they must speak English, because it is important that they be able to communicate with their host families. They must be academically capable, and leaders in their own communities — the idea is that they will be exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking and being that they can share with their friends once they’re back home. And they must never have traveled overseas — Open Hearts Open Homes is for kids whose families’ means do not allow for such luxuries.

Once they were chosen, there used to be a chance for participants to meet each other in Israel. This year, there were a few such meetings, including one at the Tel Aviv Rowing Center; professionally run exercises encourage bonding. By the time they come to this country, the children will know each other fairly well. (By the time it’s over, usually groups have melded firmly, and the Israelis continue to see each other.)

This year’s group has fun with more bonding exercises in Israel.
This year’s group has fun with more bonding exercises in Israel.

Open Hearts Open Homes participants are assigned to host families. Each family takes two Israeli kids, so no kid ever feels abandoned in a houseful of foreign strangers. Each trip is accompanied by two Israeli counselors, who are in their mid-twenties, “young enough so that they can relate to the children, and old enough to be mentors,” Ms. Mendelaw said.

Once they are here, participants spend the trip’s three weeks seeing this part of the country. “They spend nights at the Y camps, and at Camp Getaway in Connecticut,” Ms. Mendelaw said. “They will be going to water parks and amusement parks; we will take them to New York City, where they will see the Blue Man Group, take a boat ride and a bus tour. We will take them either to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, and to Times Square. We’ve learned that they love the Hershey store, and the M & M store. And we take them to Little Italy for dinner.”

Some plans have been adapted, given kids’ reactions in other years. “We have taken them to see the Yankees,” Ms. Mendelaw said. “They go, and they’re all excited. They get to the stadium, and it’s amazing, and they say ‘Look at this!’ and ‘Look at that!’ and they run around and look at everything. And then after one inning they’re bored out of their minds. They go to the concession stand, they walk around, they do everything but watch the game.

“They don’t know from the game.

“We have learned from experience that baseball’s not necessarily the best thing for them.”

The visitors pay nothing for any of this. All the costs are borne by the committee and private donors. The program is overseen by Abby Leipsner, the CEO of the Washington Township YJCC, and administered by Elana Prezant of Haworth. The two went to Israel to recruit and interview students for the trip; Cindy Mendelaw joined them for a day.

“It’s all private funding, and the chairpeople raise it,” Ms. Prezant said. From the beginning, David and Leslie Smith were the co-chairs; years ago, Cindy and Shimi Mendelaw joined them. “It’s a fully independent group, and everything that is donated goes into the program. It’s all based on relationships that the chairpeople have developed. The funding comes from them soliciting their friends.

This summer’s counselors, Michal Bechar and Ron Blecher, in Israel.
This summer’s counselors, Michal Bechar and Ron Blecher, in Israel.

This year has presented a particular challenge because some of the institutional programs that Open Hearts Open Homes used to work no longer exist. The most obvious is the YJCC itself. It now is operating on a skeleton basis as its leadership tries to decide what form it should take; although it still is running some programs, it no longer can provide either the physical base for Open Hearts Open Homes or the teen programming the Israeli kids can join.

For a few years, Open Hearts Open Homes also used the 92nd Street Y’s teen programming, but trucking its kids to join the Manhattan-based institution’s groups proved too tiring and time-consuming to be practical.

This year, with the YJCC’s building entirely unavailable, Open Hearts Open Homes planned to work with the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, but just a few months ago the JCC said that its summer teen programs would be discontinued.

Out of what could be a disheartening situation, Open Hearts Open Homes supporters have found new possibilities.

For one thing, the Rockland JCC is hosting the visitors for one week. The Kaplen JCC has invited the visitors and their hosts to a Fourth of July party. Beyond that, it is transferring the deposit it made to Camp Getaway, in Kent, Connecticut, for its own teen program to Open Hearts Open Homes. “That’s for three days and two nights, and it’s three quarters of what we needed to pay,” Ms. Prezant said. The New Jersey Y Camps has given the group a two-day, one-night free stay at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah, and Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge will host the group for a Shabbat dinner during their stay. So will the Smiths.

Another change is that host families used to be centered around the northern part of Bergen County, but now they come from farther away, from Haworth and Tenafly.

Ms. Prezant is deeply moved by some of the stories she heard as she interviewed potential trip participants. “The more you know about it, the more it touches your heart,” she said. “When you hear the stories about the kids who are coming, you can’t not want to give them your whole heart.

“There’s a girl whose father was injured two years ago. He was in the hospital for a year, and she and her siblings were farmed out to friends and relatives. When he came home, the family had to make major adjustments. She is now living a life that is so very different from her life two years ago. There’s a boy whose father was a bus driver. There was a bomb on the bus. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, and it took him years to be able to drive a bus again.”

Although she has been to Israel many times, speaks Hebrew fluently, and feels she knows the country and its culture, “unless you see it” — you see exactly where the kids are coming from, exactly what they’re experiencing, exactly what provides the background for their nightmares — “you don’t know what they mean.” So she’s done some traveling within the country.

Many of the recent participants come from Sderot, so she went there too. “I went to a kibbutz where one of the kids comes from,” she said. “They talk about its proximity to Gaza. From their homes, you can see the buildings in Gaza. One of the mothers told us that from the time they are very young, kids can identity where the bombs are coming from. They can hear it. They can hear the bombs being launched before the sirens go off.

“This mother has a 10 year old, who two years ago was able to identify whether he was hearing bombs from Gaza or fire from the IDF.

“The kibbutz is beautiful. I can see the appeal of living there. And then you see the buildings where there are patches to cover the bomb damage. One bomb fell near the gan,” the preschool. “The contrast between the beauty and the danger is so strong.

“And then you meet the kids, and they are all full of life. They all want to give, and to do.”

Ms. Prezant talked about a public school in Sderot whose students mostly come from lower-income households. Eight of the school’s students will be on the trip this year. The school’s computer club, under the leadership of a boy who was on Open Hearts Open Homes last year, is taking apart old computers, refurbishing them, and giving them to kids who don’t have computers. “This is an afterschool club, in a school basement,” Ms. Prezant said, and this is how its members chose to spend their time. “These kids just want to give.” (As an aside, she said that the club was “a roomful of boys and one girl. I asked the girl, ‘so where are your girlfriends?’ and she said ‘they don’t want to do this — but I do want to do this.’ That girl is coming on our program.”)

“One of my questions to the children was ‘Have you ever been away from home?’ That was one of my main concerns. They said that they’d all been sent away during Operation Protective Edge, two summers ago. They’d been sent away to safety to stay with family or friends.

“You ask this question and you expect answers like ‘Yes, to camp’ or ‘Yes, on a trip,’ but those were not the answers we got,” she said.

One of the stories that touched her most was about a boy who will be coming on the trip. He was referred to Open Hearts Open Homes through the One Family Fund, which, Ms. Prezant knew, means that he or someone close to him was the victim of terror. “We asked him about it,” she said. “He said that his mother had been in the shuk and there was a bomb. She was injured.

“He didn’t tell us but we found out later that he had been with her. He was holding her hand the whole time. They live in Dimona, and it took them seven hours to get to Jerusalem for the interview. She’s a single parent, she’s Russian, and they speak Russian at home. The two of them live alone together. You just want to protect him. You just want to hug him.”

Some of this work is emotionally difficult. “In between interviews with the One Family kids, we had had to compose ourselves,” Ms. Prezant said. “Sometimes we cried.”

They accepted the 20 children for whom they had space, “but there were more than 20 we’d have liked to have taken,” she said.

David and Leslie Smith of River Vale can trace their involvement in Open Hearts Open Homes all the way back, and he recalls its roots. “I wouldn’t call myself a founder, but I was involved since the beginning,” Mr. Smith said; he and his wife were active with Tzahal Shalom, which brings injured IDF veterans to this country. “When Harold Benus came back from Israel 15 years ago, it was with this idea that we could help kids affected by terrorism in a similar vein, but integrate them more into Bergen County by integrating them into a teen travel program.”

The Smiths have hosted many kids. “Leslie and I feel very strongly about sharing the program with others,” he said. “We don’t want to be in the position of taking kids every year, and not allowing others to have that experience.

Leslie and David Smith with other hosts and guests.
Leslie and David Smith with other hosts and guests.

“Of course, it’s not every year that we have an overabundance of host families,” he said ruefully, although this year he did. One of this summer’s activities, a barbecue, is being planned and hosted by two families who were not able to take guests — they came too late, and there were too many would-be hosts already — but wanted to do whatever they could to entertain the Israeli kids.

“A few years ago, we had two girls from Sderot,” Mr. Smith said. “One of them was still sleeping with her mother, at 13, because of the bombing. She came into our home, with another girl, and they both were as sweet and as wonderful as any we’ve ever had. We made a special bond with them.

“They tried to get us to promise that we would never have any other girls stay with us, because they were our daughters. Of course we couldn’t make that promise, but we have stayed in touch with the families, to the extent that last year friends of ours in Mahwah had a son who had a bar mitzvah in Israel, and he went to one of the girl’s homes and spent the day with the family.

“It was such a wonderful connection that we made that not only is it our connection, but now they also have a lifelong connection with the son of our friends.

“When these kids from Israel come into our lives, they don’t come into our lives for just three weeks. They stay in our lives.”

Now that changing tastes and demographics seem to have ended most local teen travel programs, Open Hearts Open Homes is revamping. “In a way, it’s now the best of all worlds,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re doing some things with Rockland, and we’re doing some of our own programming. We can have our kids do the New York experience in a way that local kids don’t want to do — they don’t want to be tourists in the city.” He, his wife, the Mendelaws, Elana Prezant, and Abby Leipsner handle all the fundraising and the programming.

He is confident that the program will continue next year, as this year’s challenges have been surmounted. “We will always be involved, as long as there is an Open Hearts Open Homes,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Petak with Nitzan Avir, who had been a guest at the Petaks’ house and remained close with them.
Ms. Petak with Nitzan Avir, who had been a guest at the Petaks’ house and remained close with them.

Jayne and David Petak of River Vale also are longtime Open Hearts Open Homes hosts; she also is the president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“We have long discussions with host families, making sure that they understand the responsibilities that come along with hosting,” Ms. Petak said. “We have to make sure that the children go to families that will be sensitive to them. It is the first time that many of them have been away from home — and they’re a long way from home. The families have to care for them as they need to be cared for.”

The host families “often have kids the same age” as the visitors, “or younger, and so the Israelis become surrogate big brothers or sisters.”

Jayne Petak and Herb Levine with some young Israelis who have been part of Open Hearts Open Homes.
Jayne Petak and Herb Levine with some young Israelis who have been part of Open Hearts Open Homes.

She remembers being in Israel a few months ago, on federation business. “We were in Sderot, opening the animal therapy center,” she said. “All of a sudden, this young man taps me on the shoulder, and I turn around and get this giant bear hug. He’d been in the program three years before” — but not in her home, so she didn’t know him nearly as well as the participants who had been. “It took me a second to recognize him, but he said that we’d met in the States, and thanked me for being there, and for the program.

“He was now going to school, moving on with his life. He was much bigger than he had been then, of course, and that’s why I had to stare at him. It’s the connections that you make.”

Although Open Hearts Open Homes is flourishing, it always needs funds, and now it needs them more than ever. “More donations would be greatly appreciated,” Ms. Prezant said. “This year, we don’t have the YJCC behind us.” To support it, or to get any questions about the program answered, email her at eprezant@yjcc.org or call her at (201) 666-6610.

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