The coordinators of "Open Hearts, Open Homes" wish their efforts were unnecessary. In fact, said Anette McGarity, youth services director of the Bergen County YJCC and director of the project, "We had talked about ending [the program] before last summer, but then war broke out."
Open Hearts now in its sixth year offers healing and respite to young Israelis directly affected by terrorism. This summer, the community will welcome 3′ youngsters, between the ages of 1′ and 14, who either experienced violence themselves or whose family members were victims of terror. The first group, arriving July 1, will remain until July ”, when the second group takes its place. Youngsters in the latter group will return to Israel on Aug. 1′.
At right, Riva and Zamir Margabit of Edgewater visit with Israeli teens during last year’s "Open Hearts, Open Homes" program. photo courtesy of the yjcc
Last year, as a result of the Lebanon war, visiting Israelis were offered a chance to extend their stay by several weeks. This year, said McGarity, "We just don’t know what the situation will be, but we obviously hope it will be peaceful."
McGarity explained that in selecting participants, the YJCC works with several agencies in Israel that maintain databases of victims of terror. Teens may attend only once, although siblings of previous attendees are welcome. Each summer, the group includes two Israeli counselors (madrichim), usually post-army age.
"Since members of our first group are now in the army," said McGarity, "some of them may now be eligible to be our counselors."
She also noted that Israeli students chosen for the program, which is funded through private donations, must have some proficiency in English; must be deemed able to leave their families; and must pass a psychological exam administered in Israel.
"We also show preference to those who have not been able to travel outside Israel before," she said.
This year, the YJCC made a special effort to include teens from areas particularly hard hit by last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Because of the local Jewish community’s relationship with Nahariya through Partnership ‘000, McGarity traveled to that city in April to help select youngsters in need of respite.
Going to Israel to meet the students personally "proved helpful to the Israeli families," she said. "It allowed them to put a face to the program and enabled better matches with host families."
In addition, said McGarity, because of hostilities directed toward the city of Sderot, "we felt the need to host youngsters from that city."
This year, ‘3 families from towns throughout Bergen County will host the Israeli teens. "Many learned about the program through The Jewish Standard or by word of mouth," said McGarity, adding that some of the families have children of similar age, while others no longer have children living at home. In the latter case, families are being asked to accept two students, so that "the teens will have company."
The visiting Israeli teens participate in the YJCC’s Teen Travel Camp Monday through Friday, joining in day trips and overnight experiences. On weekends, said McGarity, non-host families in the community open their homes to the teens for barbecues and pool parties.
According to McGarity, host families report enjoying the experience. Some say it was "the best experience of their lives, that they received much more than they gave," she said, adding that host families are generally "caring and wonderful individuals who want to make a connection with these teens and with Israel." While most hosts had not visited Israel before participating in the program, she said, "more than 50 percent go to visit their teens in Israel" after the summer.
McGarity said that through socializing at the YJCC camp, the American and Israeli teens "always discover how much they’re alike and how much they have in common," like music and movies. After the summer, she said, "The kids keep in constant contact with one another through e-mail and Instant Messenger."
Best of all, "the Israeli parents call and write to say that their kids come back happy and healed," said McGarity, noting that while the Israeli teens are not encouraged to talk about their brush with terror, they generally become comfortable enough to open up and speak about it. It "opens the eyes of the American teens to what’s happening to others their own age in Israel," she said.
If, as McGarity hopes, terrorism ends and there is no further need for the Open Hearts program, there will still be opportunities for teens from the two countries to meet, she said.
"We will always find a way to make a connection between Israeli and American teens, whether through this or other programs," she said, pointing out that the YJCC hosted young Israeli basketball players from Nahariya in December.
According to Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Sholom in River Edge, the Open Hearts program not only takes Israeli teens off the streets in the summer, increasing their chance of remaining safe, but "it gives them a positive experience and shows that we, as Americans, really care." In addition, it provides relief to their parents, he said, noting that "we all worry about our teenagers."
The "meaningful interactions" between the American and Israeli teens also benefit the host families and the local community, he said, "From this contact will grow friendships. If we want to build bridges, this is how to do it."
Borovitz visited Sderot in October and said that the city needs help. "The rockets [fired on the city] are meant to terrorize," he said. "The people are traumatized. What bigger mitzvah could there be than to help some of these kids?"