NEW YORK (JTA) – Happy. Fun. Great. Proud. Privileged.
Eighth-graders at the SAR Academy were describing in one word what it is like to grow up in Riverdale, N.Y., in the borough of the Bronx, attending a yeshiva day school.
As Debbie Gross, the director of the Orthodox Union’s emergency trauma team in Israel, and I stared out at the 40 faces of boys and girls brimming with confidence and excitement about their futures, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia. I myself had attended SAR more than 30 years ago.
Thought it was long ago, I still recalled the giddiness and joy living in a beautiful Jewish community, surrounded by family and friends, feeling pride at being a Modern Orthodox Jew growing up in the United States.
But for one hour I was going to burst that bubble – for myself and for the SAR students in the room.
Fear. Kassams. No Future. Hopeless. Stress. Suffocation.
These were the words that students in Sderot had used to describe the environment in which they are growing up. I wrote them on the board to the right of the words offered by the SAR students.
The American 12- and 13-year-olds responded with shock and confusion. Where is this place Sderot that kids their age are feeling this way? Few were aware that Sderot is not in some Third World country or unheard-of land but in our homeland, in Eretz Yisrael.
Debbie and I described what the kids there endure every day. We even simulated a red alert in which students have three seconds to react, run for cover and protect themselves.
A resident of Efrat, in Israel, I was traveling in North America as the associate director of the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center focusing on promoting the many chesed (loving kindness) programs we run throughout the country. From youth groups for underprivileged children, to open-minded outreach, to classes for English speakers, to rehabilitating youth at risk, we spend our days finding innovative methods to connect Jews in Israel to each other, our homeland and God for meeting the needs of our fellow Israelis.
One of the center’s programs involving trauma therapy for the children of Sderot is led by Debbie Gross, a psychologist, and her team of social workers. These professionals visit Sderot twice a week, going from school to school providing much-needed therapy to children of all ages.
The counselors let the children know that someone cares and help them express their feelings. Ultimately they teach them to cope with the crises that affect them daily.
It is about a 9-year-old who started wetting his bed again at night and can’t concentrate in school, or a 15- year-old who figures she won’t make it to 16 and should have as much fun – legal or otherwise – as possible, or a 5-year-old who has kept his emotions bottled up for fear of not being strong.
I asked the SAR kids what they would draw to depict their lives – it’s the same exercise we do with the children in Sderot. The SAR responses included the school, the synagogue and the home, all replete with sunny skies, trees, family and friends.
Then I showed them dozens of pictures drawn in Sderot. They were of the same places – home, school, synagogue, with the trees, grass and sun – but with one major difference: Each drawing had a picture of a Kassam missile threatening their homes, schools or synagogues. There were no smiles, no kids playing outside and no clear skies. Instead there was destruction and despair.
To conclude the session at SAR, Debbie asked the students how they could help. Their responses were not surprising, like writing letters or sending care packages. Every suggestion was meant to let the Sderot kids know they cared.
I thanked Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, the principal and my old classmate, for setting up the talk so quickly and set out to speak in another city.
Two days later I received a surprising call from Rabbi Menachem Linzer, the assistant principal at SAR, informing me that a girl named Ayelet Grajower had just walked into school holding a huge box. She had been so moved and shaken by the previous day’s presentation that she went home and assembled a care package for girls in Sderot.
Letters, cards, games, toys, trinkets – Ayelet put in the box anything she could get her hands on. She also included a beautiful note, carefully written in Hebrew, telling the children of Sderot that she cares, that she wants to talk to them, that she prays for them and wants them to be strong.
Upon my return to Israel, I visited the Ulpanat Amit girls high school in Sderot where Debbie and her team are currently providing therapy. The six girls around the table had experienced almost a full week of calm when the day before the session, a barrage of Kassam missiles struck in Sderot and interrupted electricity for six hours.
Debbie sat down and opened the session with the usual exercise: “Hi, my name is Shani and my phrase is: ‘When will it stop?’ “
The students followed:
“Hi, my name is Hadar and my word is fear. My phrase is: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ “
“My name is Linoy and I say, ‘I’m in shock, enough already.’ “
Each girl expressed a part of her personal story through her response.
Debbie then handed out cards for the girls to reflect on their lives and how they are coping. Linoy picked up one with a picture of a chess board and spoke of how she identifies with it: Every time she wants to shower or shop or play with her friends, she has to plan five moves ahead.
Ofek grabbed the card and said, “All I see are pawns, and it reminds me of how we are little pawns being played by our enemies.”
Shani held up a picture of a maze and said solemnly, “There is no way out.”
Devora showed us a card with a picture of a beautiful city in the distance and said, “This is how the city of Sderot feels. Its beauty and tranquility are off in the distance. I hope we reach it.”
This workshop was the beginning of a six-week series aiming to build trust with the girls, to teach them how to cope with the stress and to offer them hope for the future.
As the end of this first session approached, I spoke to the girls about what I had done in the United States and the students I had spoken with in Riverdale. None had ever traveled outside Israel, and they were in shock that children 6,000 miles away were even aware of their existence.
They were incredulous hearing about Ayelet preparing the box for them, smiling from ear to ear as they experienced firsthand the “arevut,” the brotherhood, that Jews feel for each other. The girls were impressed with Ayelet’s efforts and expressed a great desire to respond, to tell her what they would do with the games and toys she had sent.
At the end of the session, the girls posed for a picture for Ayelet and for the Jewish world, sharing their brief respite from their usual pain and despair and experiencing the therapeutic nature of true ahavat Yisrael, love for Israel.
(Rabbi Avi Baumol is the associate director of the Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center.)