Each summer, the Open Hearts, Open Homes program, run through the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township, gives Israeli teenagers whose lives have been affected by terror a few weeks of respite here.
The teens stay with local Jewish families and participate in the YJCC’s Teen Travel Camp with Americans their age. At night and on weekends, their host families take them on outings.
“They’re going to travel around the city, see the NBC building, go tubing down the Delaware, see “West Side Story” on Broadway, go to Dorney Park, take a bike tour of Central Park, they’re going on a beach day. The last four days, they’ll do an overnight in Ocean City, Md., and they’re doing a one-night overnight in the Poconos,” said Steven Mark, Youth Services director at the YJCC. “We’re going to add a small community service piece where they spend a few hours helping a community service program at the Y, so that way they feel like they’re giving back and also helping our community.”
Now in its eighth summer, the program brought 16 Israeli seventh-graders and two counselors here on July 5. They will leave for home on Sunday.
Three years ago, the DeNikes of Old Tappan hosted Amitai Klimand. It didn’t take long for him to become part of the family.
“I was sort of nervous at first when we went to go pick him up. Will it be awkward? Will he speak English? Will I be able to connect to him? After the first hour, I got to know him really well, and we went swimming at 2 in the morning in my pool that night,” said 15-year-old Jake DeNikes.
These days, Jake and his brother Zach, 11, still speak to their Israeli “brother” regularly.
“They webcam each other,” said their father, Larry DeNike. “Almost every day for three years, they’ve been talking to each other.”
During Amitai’s first visit here, he and the other Israeli teens were able to enjoy the relaxing summer the program aims to create.
But right before the Israelis were scheduled to go back, the Second Lebanon War broke out.
|From left are Jake and Zack DeNike and their Israeli “brother,” Amitai Klimand. Jerry szubin|
“We fell in love with our child,” said Bettina DeNike. “I said to my husband, ‘I can’t send him back. I’m going to ask his parents if we can keep him here until the war settles down and then we’ll send him back.'”
The YJCC supported the idea, but felt it was unfair to offer that opportunity to only one child. If Amitai was going to stay, every other child was going to get that same chance. Bettina DeNike decided she was going to make that happen.
“I wrote a letter to every single human being that I knew,” she told The Jewish Standard. “Members of my golf club, my entire community, the YJCC, people were literally coming to me handing me checks. Within a week, we raised $30,000, and we were able to keep the kids here.”
While a few of the young Israelis decided to go back on the original date, most of them stayed here. Since some of the original hosts were not all able to keep their guests longer, new host families were found. For many of these children, their new placement was at the DeNike home.
“It was like having one big Israeli slumber party,” said DeNike. “There were many nights where the children were up until two or three in the morning swimming in the pool and we’d make fires and talk – and that’s when they really began to open up about their experiences.”
The program is just as valuable for the American teens as it is for the Israelis, according to the YJCC’s Steven Mark.
“It provides an original experience for American teens,” he pointed out. “They get to spend time with the Israeli teens and hear their stories and keep in touch. We’ve had a few families who have gone to Israel for the first time specifically to see the children from the program.”
Since Amitai first stayed in their home, the DeNikes have seen him several times – both in the United States and in Israel. Last summer, they brought Amitai to visit to surprise Zach, who was turning 11 and wanted only to see Amitai for his birthday.
“We said we were going to Blockbuster when we went to pick him up. We got back and we said ‘Blockbuster didn’t have the movie, so we got this instead,'” said Jake. “He was just amazed. He thought he was hallucinating.”
Amitai arrived this week for another visit with his second family.
“They were on the phone all the time,” said Bettina DeNike, “and Zach just looked at me and said ‘Please, he’s 17, he’s going into the army, I don’t know how much more we’ll be able to see him.”
With the current state of the economy, DeNike wasn’t sure the visit could be managed, but after $200 in piggy bank savings, $250 from a family friend, another $250 from Amitai’s family, and money from selling glass necklaces made by a family friend, it became a reality.
The DeNikes plan to visit Israel next year for Zach’s bar mitzvah, and hope to see Amitai then, before he goes into the army.
“We’re really lucky,” said DeNike. “What started as a three-week thing turned into a wonderful experience for both of our families.”