(February 15, 2013 / JNS)
For those of us who ever went to summer camp, we vividly remember our first night in a bunk, first scary story, first campfire, and for some, our first kiss. But for nine children from the southern Israeli city of Sderot who spent three weeks in 2007 at Camp Sunapee in Georges Mills, NH, their first vivid memory of summer camp was a peaceful night.
Most of the campers at Camp Sunapee were first or second-generation immigrant Jews from the former Soviet Union. Having friends was one thing, but having a community around you that understands your culture, your ideologies, and your upbringing is another.
“A support system is equal to a trampoline. It helps us to jump high and to land safely,” wrote camp director Inessa Rifkin in an open letter to her campers. “Summer is the best time for building your children’s support system. During the summer, a child is free from all the worries of the school year. His or her soul is free and open for people.”
Word spreads fast among Russian Jews. Whispers began before we got to camp that children from Sderot, which is frequently subject to attacks by Palestinian Qassam rockets, would join us. My counselor the previous summer was Masha Rifkin, who had spent the past year studying in Israel and would be facilitating their arrival.
The group of nine children arrived at the camp with fanfare and celebration. Regardless, we were not sure how to greet them. Were we to treat them like any other camper? Did they speak English or Russian? Did they follow sports or watch movies like we did? For the first few days, boys and girls aged 9 to 13 felt very alien.
Our initial concerns were assuaged as we got to meet, speak, and play with them. The girls quickly assimilated into our cabin life. After picking out which combination of bunk beds was the most suitable for midnight whispers, they decorated their spaces with photographs and cutouts. At some point, I took on a counselor’s role and spent much of my time listening to their stories.
They were much like other girls their age. Same interests, same ideologies, and the same ways they prepared for the camp dance. But the differences between our real life and theirs soon became very clear.
The night of the dance was a stormy one. The first few drips of rain evolved into vigorous thunder and lightening, the raindrops rapping on the aluminum roof of the cafeteria building. Across the room, past the children dancing, laughing, and running, I saw 12-year-old Nadia caressing the head of the youngest Sderot camper, Dalia, and ran over.
“I thought we finally had quiet! I thought there are no Qassams here!” she sobbed repeatedly while curling into the smallest position she could get herself into.
Turning around to see the Sderot girls congregated around us wasn’t nearly as remarkable as seeing other campers offering consolation and support. After convincing Dalia that we were far, far away from Qassams, the Sderot girls and I ran hand-in-hand through the field to the cabin.
The composed facade that the other girls maintained unraveled as soon as we entered the door of our cabin. Though the older girls realized the booming, thunderous sound was lightening, the volume and surprise still conjured up memories of Qassam rockets raining on their neighborhoods and Tseva Adom (Hebrew for “color red,” the emergency radar) warning them of their 30-second limit to find shelter. The rest of the night was spent trying to unwind. Needless to say, we all slept in the same bunk that night.
“Sderot was a harsh smack into reality. I couldn’t believe that, within the very land that was created to defend the Jewish people, they were suffering—quietly—unbeknownst to most of Israel, let alone the rest of the world. I wanted to change that, both to offer some respite to the kids I had come to deeply care about and to raise awareness of their situation,” said Masha.
The night of the dance, they attempted to describe how they maintain their resilience. All they knew to do was to stick together in these times, for they were never sure if their family or friends would be seen again. Despite the hardships of living there, Sderot was their home and they did not want to abandon it.
The courage of these children bolstered our sense of community support and connection to Israel. That summer, we learned that our responsibility was not only to take care of ourselves and our families. As we grew closer to Israel, and its children, we realized that the support we got from our own families and communities had to be extended to the greater Jewish world.