This past May saw over 4,300 rockets fired into Southern Israel, forcing its citizens into safe rooms and shelters for 14 days. Threats have continued with incendiary balloons and other acts of terrorism. For those living in cities like Sderot in the Northern Negev close to the border with Gaza, signs of trauma are notable. The children are particularly hurt; their lives have been forever changed. They may have experienced the loss of a loved one, be living in constant fear of the next attack, or know life only with the sound of constant sirens.
The “Open Hearts Open Homes” program of the Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey was established specifically to help these Israeli children. More than 19 years ago, leaders of the JCCNNJ (formerly known as Bergen County Y/JCC), while on a leadership mission in Israel, visited Sderot. Seeing firsthand what terror and rocket fire were doing to the people of this area, and wanting to help Israeli children affected by the Israel-Arab conflict, they created a program whereby the Jewish community in Northern Bergen County could help out.
The mission of Open Hearts Open Homes is to give these Israeli teens a respite from the terror and fear they live with on a constant basis and allow them to enjoy fun like children should while at the same time connecting with New Jersey families who host them.
Every successful program needs dedicated volunteers, and Dave and Leslie Smith are just that. They have chaired the program since its inception. Wendy Ward became co-chair two years ago. Elana Prezant, supervisor for the past six years, wears many hats, from selecting participants to planning events and daily activities, recruiting and orientation. Over 500 teens have been helped by this program.
When COVID-19 hit, the JCCNNJ could not welcome the teenagers who were scheduled to come that summer. Now, in 2021, Open Hearts Open Homes had to pivot because of the challenge and uncertainty in travel to the U.S., obtaining visas, and finding host families during a time when COVID-19 was still present and spreading. Now, with vaccines available to this age group, vaccination is a requirement for program participation, especially since young people will now be guests in homes in Nahariya.
The program remains committed to supporting Israeli teens, but with an amazing and meaningful summer experience in Israel this August. “We are proud of the fact that we will still be able to provide a meaningful opportunity for the Israeli teens and the JCC of Northern New Jersey community,” said Prezant.
This summer, the two-week program will include activities throughout Israel that the teens would not have previously experienced. The first week will include home hospitality for Shabbat in Nahariya, the Federation’s sister city. Also, as part of a sleep-away camp, the group will go up north for hiking, swimming, kayaking and glamorous camping. The second week, the teens will be in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with a sunrise climb in Masada. They will share experiences that they have never had in Israel. They will have virtual-host opportunities and programming that will include the JCC of Northern NJ community.
Currently, approximately 20-26 teens have been chosen to participate in the Open Hearts Open Homes program. The Israeli families do not have the means to provide their children with respite from the trauma of daily life, and cannot provide an experience like this. The children will be given this all-expense-paid trip, as well as gifts from generous donors in Bergen County.
Everything is funded by the Bergen County community, including airfare. The teens, generally 14 years old, will be exposed to places and things that they would ordinarily never have been able to experience. “This summer, the Israeli teens will get a taste of the U.S. in Israel. They will be able to see what a Jewish community is, outside of Israel,” said Prezant.
The program boasts many life-changing stories. An IDF orphan who lost both her parents asked her host parents to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. Another host family from Closter has the boys they hosted four years ago visiting them for two weeks. And another host family just got a “save the date” for a wedding next June so they can be part of that boy’s simcha.
Counselors from two years ago were children in the program 14 years prior. They had remained in close touch with their hosts through the years and came back to the program as counselors. One girl, four years after her participation in the program, said that she learned from her experience what it means to do for others and give back, so she began to volunteer on a weekly basis with a food charity once she returned home to Israel. Another girl said that this was the first time she felt loved by people outside of Israel. She only knew the hatred she felt from the neighbors around Israel.
“It is a gift to see these kids begin to relax and decompress after the first few days,” said Prezant. “There is nothing better than seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter as they begin to relax.”
Open Hearts Open Homes greatly welcomes donations in any amount. A gift of $6,500 provides a full scholarship for one teen to participate.
For more information, please contact Elana Prezant at [email protected] Phone: 201-805-2004 or call 201-666-6610 ext. 4.
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and writing about Israel. Susan has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.