It’s a devastating reality that’s all too common in Israel: When soldiers die in combat, their family members — spouses, children, parents, siblings and others — are left to cope with myriad levels of grief that most of us can’t even begin to grasp.
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ Legacy Summer Camp, a 10-day, U.S.-based program for Israeli children whose loved ones died while serving in the line of duty, provides them with an opportunity to find joy, friendship and support from fellow campers and counselors who have experienced similar losses.
Founded and funded by FIDF, an organization that advocates for soldiers in the IDF and their families, Legacy Summer Camp brings Israeli b’nai mitzah-age youngsters to the United States every summer for a week of traditional American Jewish summer camping and a second week of touring and sightseeing.
Sixteen Israeli campers recently spent the first week at Capital Camps & Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa. According to Ari B. Dallas, executive director of FIDF’s Mid-Atlantic Region, the Israeli youngsters at Capital Camps enjoyed American summer camp traditions such as “swimming, archery, rock climbing and arts and crafts,” as well as Israeli camp traditions such as singing, dancing and Jewish studies.
Perhaps most important, they bonded with each other, their counselors and their American peers during the camping program from July 10-23. The program in the Mid-Atlantic Region alternates between the D.C. and Baltimore areas every year. Last year, FIDF Baltimore board member Barbara Berg was chair of the Legacy program.
“It was an incredible experience to see these youngsters make connections, both with others who have experienced similar losses and with the American children at the camps they visited,” Berg said. “The love and caring they experience is bound to have a lasting influence, and it is so important for them to know that their loss is our loss — and that we will continue to care for them as they themselves enter the IDF.”
“Here [at camp], we let them be children again,” said Sarai, an active-duty commander in the IDF Casualty and Wounded Department who accompanied the group to the U.S. (FIDF does not release the last names of active-duty IDF personnel.) The campers were joined by a group of Israeli counselors who were soldiers in the IDF and had experienced first-hand what it’s like to lose a family member in combat. In fact, many of the counselors were former Legacy Camp attendees.
In the second week of their trip, the children visited Hersheypark and were hosted by FIDF supporters who reside in the Washington, D.C.-area Jewish community. Dallas and his family hosted three Israeli students.
“The ‘F’ in FIDF really stands for family,” he said, alluding to the strong connections that develop among campers, counselors and host families during the trip.
For Sarah Stern, founder and president of the D.C.-based Endowment for Middle East Truth, hosting the children “was a memorable experience. These kids are great.”
While in D.C., the campers toured the U.S. Capitol, visited such historic landmarks as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, and posed for photos in front of the White House. They also visited an area Target superstore, where they purchased American snacks and electronics items.
“I really enjoyed my time in the United States,” said Meitar Shahar, 13, one of the campers. “With all the exciting activities and fun we had, I wanted to stay longer!”
Fellow camper Jonathan Yermiyahu, 13, concurred. “We had so much fun in America, and I was happy to be part of this program,” he said. “It filled my heart with pride.”
For information, visit fidf.org/midatlantic.
Jordan Loux is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Photo of Legacy Summer Camp participants at the Lincoln Memorial provided by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces
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