For Israeli children coping with loss, a week of hope and healing

July 24, 2019 by  
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Losing members of one’s family to violence is traumatic for anyone, let alone the very young.

Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu enjoys pre-Shabbat preparation acivities with young campers at the OneFamily Sleepaway camp in northern Israel in July 2019. Photo: Eytan Morgenstern

Unfortunately, this is something too many Israeli children have experienced—terrorism and war have torn asunder thousands of Israeli families. Fortunately, there is an organization in Israel that focuses on helping such children put their lives back together.

OneFamily, a nonprofit organization recognized in Israel, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, rehabilitates, reintegrates and rebuilds the lives of children bereaved by war and terrorism. The organization, founded in 2001, consists of family-care professionals, volunteers, supporters and victims, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Just as it has for the past 15 years, this month it brought together more than 300 hundred children and youths for a six-day Sleepaway Camp at Hermon Field School in Kibbutz Snir in northern Israel. The age of the campers ranged from 8 to 18, and they participated in a host of activities, including a special Shabbat and a gala concert on the final night.

During Shabbat, Chief Rabbi of Tzfat Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu shared words of wisdom with the children and heard their stories.

“When I received the invitation to join you, I immediately said ‘yes,’ ” Eliyahu told the campers on Friday night. Wherever he goes, he said, he’s always asked to bless others, but that now it was he that wanted to ask for a blessing.

“Despite the pain you’ve suffered, your willpower to continue on with complete faith in God. It means that you have the greatest power to bless others,” he said.

The final day of the camp ended with a concert at the Tel Hai Courtyard featuring one of Israel’s top reggae bands, Hatikva 6, who performed free of charge.

The evening proved emotional one for everyone. More than 80 “graduates” currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces or performing national service came back to share the evening with the younger campers.

‘They could really understand me’

Camp provides a break from life at home for the kids, offering an abundance of activities, as well as therapeutic seminars, that allow them to free their minds.

“This camp is a place I can have fun with others like me without feeling alone or different,” said Hili (Ben-Dor) Levy, whose sister, Rachel, was killed in a terrorist attack in 2002 in Jerusalem, and whose father died last year in a car accident. Levy said that one of the things that helps her overcome tragedy is having others to talk to about what she’s going through.

Indeed, the support these children get from one another is unique. Every camper has been impacted by terror and war in some way, and for kids who are still adjusting to loss, to have such a culture of support is remarkable—and necessary.

“In the beginning, it was very hard,” said camper Doron Shalev. “Everyone knew each other except me, so I did not talk. I remember the first, most significant activity, when everyone told their story on why they were there. I did not take part, but I listened to everyone.

“After that,” he continued, “it was easier for me to connect to everyone, and I understood that everyone here lost someone, and that they could really understand me. I became more self-confident.”

Shalev’s brother, IDF Sgt. Shahar Shalev, was killed in “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza in 2014.

One of the remarkable features of this camp is its inclusiveness—the campers come from all backgrounds and from every part of Israel. This, according to the staff, makes it easier for campers to find someone to connect and relate to. Although there are, of course, professional psychologists and social workers among the staff, making sure there’s always support available for everyone, the biggest impact on the campers is not necessarily made by them, they say.

“The staff and professionals are there to play a key role in the process,” said OneFamily executive director Chantal Belzberg, “but the ‘big brother/big sister’ aspect is what really sets this experience apart for many of the participants.”

The relationships the children forge with one another, she added, are something truly remarkable.

Report from: Austin Winslow

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