OneFamily Chairman Marc Belzberg speaks with boys who lost close relatives to terrorism, at a Chanukah event in Modi'in, Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by Sharon Altshul.
OneFamily Chairman Marc Belzberg speaks with boys who lost close relatives to terrorism, at a Chanukah event in Modi'in, Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by Sharon Altshul.
featureIsrael at War

Giving children affected by terror time to heal

Since Oct. 7, the number of children who have lost family members to terrorism is, tragically, growing by the day.

The piercing siren warning of incoming missiles from Gaza interrupted the quiet evening as Shabbat began in Jerusalem on Friday. The booms of the Iron Dome interceptors sounded dangerously close. Even the crowds praying at the Western Wall had to move to a protected area.

It has been over two months since Oct. 7, when multiple sirens warned of a barrage of Gaza rockets aimed at Jerusalem. However, they had not been heard in the capital for more than a month.

Girls at the OneFamily Chanukah event in Modi’in, Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by Sharon Altshul.

‘But what if you are dead?’

The weather was pleasant in Jerusalem on Oct. 9, when a young mother faced the harsh reality of living under the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza. As she ventured out to a park close to home, a siren sounded. With no bomb shelter near the playground, she bent over to shield her five children with her body. That rocket hit a few miles away, killing a man near a mosque in Abu Ghosh.

The next day, one of those children, a six-year-old girl, went back to the park with a grownup cousin and asked her, “Where do we go if there is a boom?” Her cousin answered, “I’ll take care of you, I am the adult, don’t worry.”

“But what if you’re dead?” was the little girl’s response.

On Dec. 11, a mother posted on social media, “When you take your kids out to the theater to see a film this Christmas…imagine you have to be ready within 90 seconds to run across the street to a bomb shelter because sirens are warning of incoming rockets. How will you keep your first-grader calm when you can hear these huge bangs that sound as if they are overhead (which they are!)?

“This is now, in a bomb shelter, in Holon next to the Children’s Museum. These kids were at a special holiday film screening. I was in a meeting. This is Holon, next to Tel Aviv,” she wrote.

For their entire lives, children growing up in southern Israel have been running for shelter from the tens of thousands of rockets and missiles fired from Gaza. Since Oct. 7, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have also experienced the deafening sirens that southern and northern communities know too well, and have had to shelter their children and deal with their distress.

How much greater is the trauma for the children who have lost family members to terrorism, with the number of tragic cases growing by the day?

At the Supernova music festival on Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists murdered Eynav Levy as she tried to hide in a bomb shelter. Her husband, Or Levy, was taken as a hostage to Gaza. Alternating between the grandparents is their two-year-old son, who certainly cannot comprehend what has happened to his parents and home.

The Idan children—Amalia and Michael, ages 6 and 9, watched their parents being murdered by Hamas, then hid in a closet for 14 hours before being rescued. Avigail, age 3, became a hostage in Gaza was was finally released on Nov. 26.

Since Oct. 7, some 1,400 Israelis have been killed, and more than 5,000 wounded. Each morning Israelis hesitate to open the news to see how many IDF soldiers have fallen overnight and read about the fate of the hostages. With the increased number of reservists who have reported for duty, many voluntarily, the number of children losing a parent is sadly growing daily.

The numbers include the children of recently fallen reservists Ort Pelech Boys School principal Sgt.-Maj. (res.) Yossi Hershkovitz, 44, five children; Master Sgt. (res.) Elisha Loewenstern, 38, from Harish, six children; and Master Sgt. (res) Tzvika Lavi, a father of three children. 

During Chanukah, OneFamily ran at least six events in various areas of the country for different age groups. Participants included adults orphaned because of terror, young adults, new widows and bereaved children. On the fifth day of Chanukah,180 children participated, along with 50 staff and volunteers, for a full day of programming at the Achuza Hall in Modi’in.

The annual Chanukah school vacation camp could not be held because of the war. All of the children who participated had lost a sibling or parent (or both) to terror. Many of the children have been coming to annual OneFamily Chanukah gatherings for years, however, approximately 50 of the kids—36%—were “new,” meaning their losses are since Oct. 7. 

JNS was present to observe the discussion circles with counselors, the craft activity of making mandalas, the lavish lunch and the face painting before candle lighting. Small age-appropriate groups celebrated birthdays, some with sparklers on a cake. A stranger who dropped into the event hall would never have imagined the background stories of the young participants. The colorful decorative balloon dreidel and Chanukah menorah, the smiles and the singing and dancing looked like a normal community Chanukah celebration. 

Fourth-grade student Rachel Yogev’s brother Boaz Menashe fell on Black Shabbat at the Nahal Oz outpost while fighting against terrorists. He was declared missing for a few days until his body was found and identified. Rachel told JNS that the Chanukah event was significant for her. She was happy to meet new friends which helped her cope with the bereavement.

Girls at the Chanukah event in Modi’in, Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by Sharon Altshul.

Their peers will understand

Tehilla, one of the counselors for the 9-10th grade girls, had 27 girls in her age group attending—nine of whom were new to OneFamily, having lost a loved one during “Operation Swords of Iron.” She told us “the girls who are just joining us were open and very willing to introduce themselves to this strange but comforting new group they find themselves in. But make no mistake; every single one of my kids has been seriously affected by this war.

“The girls who have been coming every year had a lot to share as well. This has been very hard on all of them, and our discussion circle time was a chance to make new friends, and also to share deeply their experiences. That’s why they come to OneFamily, because they feel that their peers here will understand in a way that no one else will.”

Shira Hodia Testa is in the 10th grade from Jerusalem, and her brother Ofir Testa was murdered on Oct. 7. Shira came to the event with concerns because she didn’t know anyone, and it took her a while to open up. Her mother called CEO Chantal Belzberg the day after and said that her daughter came back “bright” and full of experiences. She had not believed that Shira would be able to break free and connect with all the girls. She danced at the party and let herself enjoy herself as she hadn’t been able to in a long time, and was already waiting for the next meeting of the youth department.

Marc Belzberg, chairman of the OneFamily Fund, noted that this year, orphans who joined as children have matured into group leaders. They are likely to understand the suffering and challenges of those who lost their parents and can offer support. OneFamily was founded in 2001 in response to the increasing number of terror attacks in Israel to assist and empower individuals and families affected by acts of terrorism, including those who have lost loved ones or have been injured. The support extends to both immediate and long-term needs, addressing physical, emotional and financial aspects of recovery. The number of children to be added to the list has grown exponentially since Oct. 7.

Dovid Lessin, PsyD, shared this observation with JNS, “When a child loses a loved one, there is a hole left in their heart that will never fully go away. They will always miss their beloved parent or sibling and will want to hold onto their memories of him or her in some meaningful way.

“However, people are incredibly resilient, especially children, and are gradually able to reorganize their lives so that they can eventually find happiness again. For this to happen, they need support, love and the space to move through the stages of grief at their own pace. No child should be pressured to talk or share if they don’t want to. Only when they are ready.

“Our job is to open the door for them through a relationship that embodies safety and security. The best predictor of childhood resilience is the presence of a caring person in the child’s life so that they know they are not alone. We can’t erase what has happened, but we can be there for them—and they for each other—in a way that provides the space to heal.”

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