July 12, 2007
By BATSHEVA POMERANTZ
As the young boys made their way through Nahlaot on a walking tour of the neighborhood, they were greeted by cheers from other tourists who heard the youth lived in Sderot.
The Monday night tour was one of a series of activities sponsored by the Jewish Agency and other donors as part of a three-day summer camp for children from the Kassam-ridden development town of Sderot to provide them and their parents with a much-needed break and some peace of mind.
"In the past few months we have felt the love of the people from all over," says camper Tzur Yigal Yifrah, 13. "It really gives us strength when people think about us, but the government forgets us."
Transportation was provided for the Sderot children to the capital, where they were hosted by Boys Town Jerusalem in Bayit Vagan. During the school year, Boys Town is home to some 800 students aged 12 to 20, and provides a unique educational combination of Torah and technology, in programs ranging from junior high school through a college of applied engineering.
On Sunday, when the camp began, five Kassams were fired at the western Negev and Sderot. "In the morning, as I was leaving my home to take my young children to their pre-schools located in shelters," says Sderot resident Rabbi Simha Eckstein, whose older sons were among those who attended the camp, "the red alert warning went off three times as we went back and forth from my home to the car. After the third red alert my kids became hysterical."
As the campers boarded the bus to Jerusalem they, too, were herded back and forth because of the red alerts, says Eckstein. "There's nothing like the fresh air of Jerusalem," he says. "The warmth and sensitivity of our hosts is special. It gives us energy and carries us through the entire year."
On Tuesday, the children were joined by 120 siblings and parents for activities and tours in Jerusalem and a festive lunch at the 70-dunam campus, before heading back home.
Boys Town also opened its facilities this week to some 100 fourth through eighth grade boys from eight evacuated Gush Katif settlements who now live in caravan communities throughout the South. The Gush Katif group was treated to a similar but separate summer camp from the Sderot group.
"For many of the children from Gush Katif, the camp provided them with the first opportunity to see friends whom they had not seen for two years," says camp organizer and Boys Town public relations director Eddie Wolf. "They're dispersed in different places in the south without a chance to see each other."
This week isn't the first time Boys Town has hosted such an initiative. In the summer of 2001 Boys Town created "Camp Shalom" for the children of the then-beleaguered Gush Katif settlements. Boys Town also provided a safe haven for children from the North during last summer's Second Lebanon War.
Campers from both contingents were treated to organized tours, trips, sports, cultural and educational activities, including a visit to the Biblical Zoo, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the Old City and the Western Wall, and a special trip for bar mitzva age Gush Katif boys to Oter Yisrael to observe the tefillin-making process.
"The [Gush Katif] schedule was planned in the spirit of bein hametzarim [the three weeks of mourning before Tisha Be'Av] focusing on historical Jerusalem and the Temple. The children came from various schools, so the theme of unity and connecting with each other was also emphasized," explains Rabbi Yuval Gavrieli, principal of the Talmud Torah Elementary School) in Shomriya, where many people from the former settlement of Atzmona now live.
While Gavrieli occasionally organizes trips and events so the Gush Katif children can meet each other, he said he appreciates the Boys Town experience. "After decades of working in education, the [Boys Town] dean, Rabbi Moshe Linchner, has wholeheartedly given us his support. We are also deeply grateful for the wonderful people here who show us that they really care about us."