PETACH TIKVA (Aug. 3)
Wide-eyed Daniel’s eyes grow even wider when he talks about hearing the Katyushas hit near his house in Haifa. “It’s nice to come to this camp and be out of the city,” the 10-year-old says.
“One of the bombs hit my uncle’s house in Haifa. I’m sure there will be more bombs,” he adds philosophically.
Says Fayed, age 9, from Sha’ab, an Arab village near Carmiel: “I came here because I didn’t want to hear the bombs.”
Daniel and Fayed are among nearly 20,000 children from northern Israel evacuated since Hezbollah began bombing Israel on July 12.
The camp they attend, which takes up to 600 children for five-day stays, is in the Baptisti Village Hayarkon Park complex near the town of Petach Tikva. The camp is run by the Hanoar Haoved V’halomed, the largest youth movement in Israel.
Funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the camp is one of the largest of 20 camps and four youth villages in an agency program called “Embracing the Confrontation Line Children.”
The coordinators, all in their 20s, realize that the crisis has created an opportunity.
“The kids come from different worlds in the north, except for the Haifa kids who live in somewhat mixed neighborhoods,” explained the camp’s educational director, Liza Atias. “While we try to give them the same values about equality and opportunity, it has always been easier for cultural and logistical reasons to run the camps separately. This is the first time in our movement that Jewish, Arab and Druse kids are together, and it is a success.”
The Jewish Agency’s chairman, Zeev Bielski, came up with the idea of opening the camps on the night of July 13 and immediately found $1 million in funding from the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of Jewish federations in North America.
Since then, Bielski has raised close to $3 million from the UJC and Keren Hayesod, which raises money for Jews around the world.
More money has come from Israeli companies and private sources, as well as from private international donors.
Bielski himself insisted on putting the Jewish, Arab and Druse kids together in the two youth movement camps.
“I wanted to get the kids out of the North,” he said, “and the war has shown us that it doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or Arab. If you are Israeli, you are under attack. This is the first time, as far as I know, that JAFI funding has gone toward the Arab sector like this.”
The youth movement acted quickly after getting the call from JAFI.
“In one night we found this complex, contacted the parents, put the kids on the buses and got them the hell out of the north,” technical coordinator Efrat Shaked says. “Their camp counselors from each community, 16-18 year-olds, came with them. For many of the 9- and 10-year-olds, this is the first time they have left home, so their counselors are a real security net.”
Everything in the camp is outdoors under drooping eucalyptus trees. Jewish kids sleep on one side in sleeping bags without tents, boys and girls more or less separated.
The Druse and Arab kids sleep in their own separate areas, in tents.
“The boys and girls cannot just sleep separately; they must have some kind of physical barrier between them, such as a tent,” Shaked says. “This is their culture, and we respect that.”
One recent day, Druse and Arab kids are busy putting up tents with the help of their counselors as some of the Jewish kids look on.
The day has been spent at a nearby Luna water park, and athletic competitions await after dinner.
“Contrary to what you might think, not one Jewish kid has asked, ‘how come they get tents and we don’t?’ ” Efrat says. “When they arrive here to spend five days away from the North, they are mostly excited and worried.”
Often when kids go to summer camp, their parents worry about them.
“Here, it is the opposite,” she says. “The kids are worried about their parents, who in many cases are still home in the north. Not everyone can afford hotel rooms in Tel Aviv and Eilat, and some people cannot leave their jobs for various reasons.”
Luba and Omer are among a group of kids sitting in a circle, singing with their counselors.
“I saw the bombs make the houses shake,” says Luba, 11, from Haifa. “We went to the shelters. My parents are still at work. I’m glad to be here, but I’m worried about them.”
Omer, also 11, knows about politics.
“We don’t want to kill the Lebanese people, especially the children,” he says. “We just want to destroy the Hezbollah. And I think it is great that the kids from the Arab villages in the north are here with us. I have never talked with them before. So maybe we can get to know them now.”
“In the village, people say it is ‘maktub,’ your destiny, if you get hit by a bomb,” says Muzia, an 18-year-old counselor from Sha’ab.
She explains that there are no shelters in Arab villages, where men and women who aren’t from the same family can’t sleep together in the same room.
“Personally, I would rather be here in this camp,” Muzia continues, “and I am grateful that the movement got us out of the North for a while.”
At headquarters, a large tent under the trees, coordinators are sitting in front of computers. Shai Nir is handling phone calls from parents.
He says that about 40 parents have called from bomb shelters to make sure their kids are all right.
“We reassure them,” he says. “The kids are fine.”
He looks toward the armed guards at the entrance to the camp.
“The North is not far away, but here, the kids are safe,” he says. “The rest is not in our hands.”