September 4, 2007 / 21 Elul 5767
It was an otherwise great day. In the middle of July, a busload of first and second graders from Sderot who had spent the day in a Jewish Agency summer camp playing games and swimming, were on their way home. They were exhilarated but exhausted, the way kids often are during the summer. When they were a few kilometers from home, the bus passed through the main square of Sderot, and that’s when a Kassam rocket fell nearby.
“It was pandemonium,” describes Orly, a mother of two who was volunteering with the Jewish Agency sponsored summer camp and was on the bus during the attack. “The kids were so fearful. Some were crying, some were screaming. Thank God nobody was physically hurt. But this kind of event has a lasting effect on kids.”
Since early 2002, the children of Sderot and the Gaza perimeter communities have been living under constant threat of rocket fire from the Gaza strip. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since August 2005, an average of 80 Kassam rockets a month have been fired on the region. Orly’s bus was caught in a rocket barrage twice this summer. And the long-term impact on kids has yet to be fully understood.
“The Jewish Agency counselors were working overtime that day,” Orly says with a mixture of admiration and sadness. “They were amazing with the kids, really caring and professional. They invested so much of themselves and had so much patience with the kids – which wasn’t always easy. They took extra care to make sure the kids’ emotional needs were met.”
Counselor training seminar
The counselors and staff of this, as well as the eleven other camps for Sderot kids that the Jewish Agency sponsored this summer, received special training in assisting campers with post-traumatic stress. Through seminars and workshops led by trauma professionals, they learned how to recognize signs of stress, how to talk to the kids, how to deal with parents, and techniques for administering special workshops, like psychodrama, to help youngsters cope with their fears.
According to Yael Raz, the Jewish Agency coordinator of the summer camps, the feedback from these workshops was astounding. “Some of the counselors from the youth movements, who work with kids all year long, said it was the first time they were trained like this,” she reported. “They said that they see signs of trauma and stress in kids all the time, but they were never taught how to address these issues. These are vital skills for counselors.”
Indeed, according to research by the Tel Hai College Resource Center directed by Prof. Moli Lahad, one out of every three Sderot children suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and all of these children also have at least one parent who suffers from PTSD. "These grave figures stem from the fact that the parents' basic security in their ability to protect their children has been completely shaken," Lahad explained in an interview with Eli Ashkenazi of Ha’aretz earlier this year.
Counselors reported that many kids underwent profound transformations during the camp. “It was a very hard summer,” according to Sivan, the director of the nature camp in which Orly’s children participated. “Many kids began the summer acting out with violence and other difficult behaviors. But by the end, they were doing much better. Once they realized that they could get into a routine, that we were looking after them, that they were safe with us, they became much calmer. By the end of the summer, it was like they were different children.”
A missile alert is sounded while Sderot campers wait for the bus.
The counselors concurred. Sara, a 20-year-old soldier from Jerusalem, and Tzlil, a 21-year-old soldier from Yavneh, who worked as counselors in the ‘Wheels’ camp, said that the camp was critical for the kids’ well-being. “It was really important for the kids to get out of Sderot,” Sara said, “to have fun, to not think about the life that has become ‘routine’ in Sderot.”
“It’s very hard for them,” Tzlil agreed. “They’re great kids; they’re just like everyone else. But they are having a hard time.”
For Sderot parents like Orly, the summer camps were a true gift. Many of them were unable to afford to send their children to camp or away from Sderot. At the end of the school year, with two months of vacation looming before them, parents did not know what to do.
With the support of its partners, the Jewish Federations of North America through the UJC and Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency stepped in to provide over 8,000 children and youth, ages 6-17, with summer camp opportunities, at no charge. "It was an amazing gesture," says Orly. “Our lives have stopped. We are just frozen. The kids who are going through this, the trauma and the fear–it destroys them. The summer camps were a wonderful respite."
“I just want to live a normal life,” says Orly, who was born in Sderot and has lived there her whole life. “I’m not going to any hotels, and I’m not going to Eilat. I want to live peacefully, freely at home in my country. I’m not asking for more than that.”