September 4, 2007 / 21 Elul 5767
Children wearing face paint jumping on castle-shaped floats, swooshing down water slides, and bouncing on trampolines is perhaps a familiar scene this time of year. But for the children of Sderot, whose lives have been disrupted by an unrelenting barrage of rocket fire over the past year, the summer camp experience was anything but ordinary. It took them out of life-threatening situations.
With the generous support of North American Federations through the UJC and Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency for Israel provided an exciting array of free summer camps over seven weeks in July and August to over 8,000 children, aged 6-17, from Sderot and the surrounding area. For the older kids there were sleep-away camps, overnight hikes, field trips and scouting camps. One group went to a scuba-diving camp in Eilat. There were day trips to different sites and attractions around the country, and theme-based day camps. Over 100 teenagers participated in a stand-up comedy camp held at a comedy club in Tel Aviv.
For the younger kids there were nature camps, arts and crafts camps, trips to amusement parks, a soccer camp, outdoor field activities such as wall-climbing and a "Wheels" camp where the children went to a different place each day. Said six-year-old Alon as he sat on his counselor Sara’s lap, “The best day was when we went to the water park.”
The length of the different camps varied, but when one camp ended, the children were able to immediately sign up for another camp. In this way, anyone that wanted to participate in a camp was able to do so, either all summer or at any time during the seven weeks.
The sign says: With Love from Sderot.
"The feedback from parents, children, and counselors was outstanding," says the Jewish Agency's Eli Carmeli. "We received hundreds of thank you letters from the children and parents.”
One of the highlights of the summer was a trip to Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency sponsored a three-day happening "Going Up to Jerusalem," that featured outdoor street shows on the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, concerts, children's activities and a street fair. Tens of thousands of people came from around the country. The Jewish Agency brought the summer camp children and their families to the event and provided them with guided tours of Jerusalem and free entrance to museums and historical sites. "This is our first trip to Jerusalem," said Yehuda, a father of five. The trip concluded with an outdoor performance by popular singer Boaz Sharabi at Solomon's Pools, bordered by the beautifully lit walls of Jerusalem's Old City.
The last day of camp was a major festival at the Hai Kef zoo and park in Rishon Letzion – far from the Gaza border. Over 3,000 kids took part in a full day of activities, including arts and crafts, water slides, dance lessons, capoeira and live music performances by popular stars from the Children's Network. Even the ice cream was free.
“Some of the kids couldn’t believe that this was all for them, and it was free,” laughs Yael Raz, the Jewish Agency coordinator of summer camps. “They would walk up to the ice cream stand and just look, thinking it cost money. We said to them, ‘No, this is for you, enjoy!’ They were thrilled beyond words.”
Noa and Tal, 11-year-old friends from school, were busy making little people out of pinecones, sticks, and leaves. “The arts and crafts were my favorite,” Noa said. “Me too,” said Tal. “I’m glad that Noa and I were in the same camp. That made it more fun.”
Twelve-year olds Liki, Sari and Zohar liked having their faces painted. “And to be with our friends,” Liki said. “It’s nice to get away.”
The Jewish Agency operated the summer camps in cooperation with a number of different organizations, including the Society for the Protection of Nature, the Working and Learning Youth Movement, Migdal Ohr, Maccabi, the non-profit organization for Sports Advancement in Sderot, and Israel Experience, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency.
Patrick Chasques, communications and marketing director for AUJS Appel Unifie Juif De France (Keren Hayesod in France), met the children at Hai Kef during a recent visit to Israel, and was very moved.
“We know the situation in Sderot, and we believe that we have to do something,” says Patrick. “These children are the future and we must not forget them. Now, in France, many Jewish children are having great vacations, but we have to remember the children of Sderot. It is our duty.”
“In France, we are very proud of what the Jewish Agency does for the children of Sderot,” Patrick continued. “This is a great day for all of us.”