Twelve members of an Israeli high school basketball team have spent the past 10 days visiting Bergen County and talking to other teenagers about what it was like to live through the recent war in a town close to the Lebanese border.
Adi Israel and Tal Raviv, 15-year-old visitors from Nahariya.
"I was afraid," confessed Tal Raviv, 15, a 10th-grader from Nahariya, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s "sister city" in Israel. After the shelling began, Tal was fortunate enough to escape to Eilat, a resort town in the south. His parents stayed behind in their town, which is a few miles from the northern border of Israel and Lebanon. About 900 bombs dropped on the town, doing "a lot of damage," according to Tal, speaking through an interpreter his host "mom," Lisa Babin of Glen Rock, who is fluent in Hebrew. (Families in northwest Bergen County hosted the 1′ visitors.)
Babin’s 16-year-old twins, Zack and Klil, play basketball on varsity teams at Glen Rock High School. The family, which also includes 9-year-old Jordan and dad Zafrir, hosted both Tal and his friend, Adi Israel, also 15.
Tal, Adi, and their fellow hoopsters were here on a trip sponsored by the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township as part of its Project Open Hearts, Open Homes, which offers respite time in America for children and teens affected by terrorism in Israel. The visitors attended Nets games, visited the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, shopped at malls, and played basketball against area high school teams. The boys also had some free time with their host families, most of which have an adolescent boy who plays basketball. They were scheduled to leave on Thursday.
Basketball was the entry point for the Babins in participating in Project Open Hearts, Open Homes. "My husband plays in several adult leagues, including the one at the Bergen County Y," said Lisa Babin. "He’s also Israeli and he’ll do anything he can to connect the two things he enjoys most, basketball and Israel, especially in a way involving his kids."
"We wanted another opportunity to bring our American and Israeli teenagers together," says the Y’s executive director Harold Benus. "We wanted them to be able to explore how they’re the same and how they’re different. Basketball was the way to connect them."
Steven Molino, 17, plays basketball for Pascack Hills High School in Montvale and helped his parents, Amy and Rob Wexler, host 18-year-old Oz in their Woodcliff Lake home. Rob Wexler, chairman of Project Open Hearts, Open Homes, and his committee planned a schedule that included visits to the Frisch School in Paramus and Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale. There the teens showed a video about their school, team, and the war, and told about their own experiences.
When most of their American counterparts are focused on choosing a college, these visitors are thinking about which unit of the Israeli army they will enter when they graduate. At least three of the team members will be joining the army in July.
"Oz has talked about going into the army," Wexler says. "I’m very impressed by the enormous attachment to their country that these young people demonstrate."
Another family, the Katzes of Woodcliff Lake, hosted Sahar and Gal, both 17. Michael Katz reports that one of his guests spent a week in a bomb shelter this summer before escaping from Nahariya; the other said the house next to his was shelled. Sahar and Gal have also spent some of their time "hanging out" with the Katzes’ son, Sam, 15, and his friends.
Were the Israelis boys having a good time? "Yes!" said Steven Mark, the YJCC’s sports and recreation director, on Tuesday. "The proof is that they are always exhausted, and they never want to leave the places we’re visiting."
Despite some language difficulties and the natural diffidence of teenage boys, the Israelis have related well to the Americans they’ve met. "Being with these kids is a great opportunity to see and connect emotionally," says Lisa Babin. "My kids have been to Israel and seen what it looks like, but now they can really get to know some of the people and find things in common."