For five months now, since March 2018, Israeli communities bordering Gaza have sustained ongoing terrorism and arson from hundreds of rockets and incendiary devices, causing constant stress and chaos for the 50,000 people who call this region home. Residential and commercial damage, along with some 10,000 acres of land, including forests and agricultural plots, have been destroyed.
Just as the worst seemed to be over, this month more than 200 rockets struck the Eshkol and Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Councils—a vast area sharing 37 miles of border with the Gaza Strip, also known as the “Gaza Envelope.” There was no mistaking that families and children were being targeted, as rockets landed within feet of the new JNF playground in Sderot, an Israeli town located less than a mile from Gaza that has been in the crosshairs for decades.
Jews from around the world have been sending prayers and thoughts to the families living amid the terror. But for Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF), the escalation of violence prompted a call to action.
“What can we do for these kids, right now?” asked JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson. In the span of a few hours, JNF took action by declaring a Yom Kef, or “day of fun,” for children in the Gaza-area communities.
Except that wasn’t enough. JNF decided to turn one day of fun into two weeks, providing a much-needed respite for these kids—a chance just have fun, as all children should during their summer vacation.
Mobilizing its network of partners across Israel, more than 1,000 children and parents from the Gaza Envelope were bused to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem to kick off the events. A renowned historical site, the area boasts sprawling green lawns and a built-in recreational campus.
‘It’s just such a gift to us’
“This summer has been especially challenging,” said Einat Eliyashir, a mother of three from Moshav Yesha. “To go out from the Gaza Envelope, suddenly these concerns fade away. It warms our hearts to know that there are so many JNF supporters who are thinking about us and helping us to have such an incredible day of fun for the whole family. I don’t have enough words to explain how much this means to us.”
For Eliyashir’s 11-year-old daughter, Meitar, this break made all the difference in the world.
“This summer has been a little scary,” she said. “This is our summer vacation, and if I want to go outside to play, I always have to be close to the bomb shelters.
“It is so important to all of us to be able to get out and have fun during our summer break, and it is amazing that there are people who care about us to give us this opportunity and understand our situation,” continued Meitar. “It is so much fun to be able to come to a safe place and enjoy ourselves for a day.”
Clowns, balloons, games, climbing walls, obstacle courses, zip lines, live music, food and drink, and many other activities served as a way to relieve the stress these families face. Kids were also offered a VIP tour through the site by Israel Defense Forces’ veteran soldiers who fought in the Ammunition Hill battle during the 1967 Six-Day War.
With their faces covered in face paint and hands grasping balloon animals, the children had time to be … children.
“It’s fun to come out to a place like this,” said Shay Sagiv, one of the girls from Kibbutz Sufa. “I’ve known about donors supporting us in the past, but not like this. It’s just such a gift to us to have a day like today.”
Gal Beinart, a mom from Moshav Sde Nitzan, explained that she has four boys between 5 and 14, and moved to the region 12 years ago for its strong sense of community. “The only thing is that life can be stressful,” she acknowledges, “but we are so lucky to be out here on this beautiful day with our boys, and participating in all the activities and sports.”
Her 12-year old son, Roi, said, “Our summer has been fun, but there were a lot of alarms and bombs that have made it very difficult. We appreciated being able to come out to places like this to just have fun. This feels normal, and it’s awesome.”
Maayan Nochomovitz, a mother from Moshav Ein Hasof, said it’s not good for the kids “to hear the rockets all the time and to run for the shelters. The kids always ask if they are able to go outside or what to do in an emergency; it’s not an easy situation at all.”
Amid stories of what the families endured back home, the smiles on so many faces didn’t go unnoticed by the executives, staff and volunteers managing the event.
“This right here is the spirit of the Jewish people, of the Jewish nation,” said Eric Michaelson, JNF Chief Israel Officer, as he looked across the field packed with children. “In good times and bad, we are there to stand with and support them.”