More than 100 children from the Israeli desert town of Sderot arrived in the United States to begin a summer season free of the threat of Palestinian rockets raining down while they play.

In an emotional ceremony July 2 at the international arrivals hall at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, 10 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis gathered to welcome 70 children to the United States before taking them to East Coast branches of the Lubavitch-run Camp Gan Israel network.

Bedecked in a bright yellow T-shirt bearing the logo of his Camp Gan Israel of the North Shore and carrying a guitar on his back, Rabbi Yossi Lipsker – co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore in Swampscott, Mass. – gathered the Israelis together in a specially cordoned-off area. Tired from the trans-Atlantic flight, the dazed children perked up and clapped along when Lipsker began strumming Hebrew tunes on his guitar.

Ophir Turjeman, 12, turned to Rabbi Sholom Deitsch, co-director of the Fairfax-based Chabad-Lubavitch of Northern Virginia, and told him that he was looking forward to swimming more than anything else.

“Can we swim twice a day?” asked Turjeman, who was heading to Camp Gan Israel of Northern Virginia. “What about three times?”

All told, supporters from four states and Canada were on hand for the ceremony. On the West Coast, 40 more children arrived at Los Angeles International Airport to begin their summers at Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs, Calif. An additional 50 children traveled to Europe where they were being hosted by camps in Denmark and Belgium.

According to organizers, the campers’ no-cost American experience – funded in large part by George and Pamela Rohr, and Morris and Lillian Tabacinic – will allow them the chance to temporarily forget the troubles of home, where a steady barrage of rockets fired by terrorists in the Gaza Strip has claimed lives and left Sderot a virtual ghost town.

Rabbi Dan Rodkin, co-director of Brighton, Mass.’s Shaloh House, said that the effort grew out of a smaller-scale program he helped coordinate last year with a camp in New Hampshire. Back then, 10 children joined him at his suburban Boston Camp Gan Israel, while another 10 went to the Granite State. By all accounts, the Israelis – some of whom returned for this summer’s fun – had a great time, but Rodkin saw a change among the locals over the course of the past year.

The local children told him they wanted to see their peers from Sderot again. Rodkin, however, didn’t want the effort to end in New England, so he reached out to his fellow camp directors.

“We feel we are giving to the children of Sderot, when really it is we and our children who are so enriched and enlightened by their presence,” said Rodkin. “Spending time with these children strengthens our identity, and connects us to the Land of Israel and to the people of Israel.”

Family and Friends

Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore in Swampscott, Mass., serenades the visiting Israelis.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the North Shore in Swampscott, Mass., serenades the visiting Israelis.

Among those who showed up at the ceremony was Berry Vaknin, a middle-aged woman from New York City’s Upper West Side. She came with her 18-year-old son Shlomo to greet her nephew and niece: Yehuda, 14, and Yarden, 12. Another nephew was part of the California contingent.

“We do all sorts of things in our own community for the citizens of Sderot,” said Berry, “including helping with camp in Israel and donating money. But what Chabad is doing is unbelievable, and I admire them for it.”

Many of the newcomers at JFK could intimately testify to the horrors of the rocket attacks, having family or friends killed or maimed over the past few years. Solomon and Chanan Yakobov, whose father was killed in a rocket attack last year, each arrived wearing a silver medallion necklace bearing their slain parent’s image.

David El Derry, 13, said that he was hoping for a carefree summer.

“I can’t wait to have all sorts of different experiences,” said the boy. “But most of all, I’m looking forward to us all being united as campmates.”

“I’m really looking forward to some quiet,” said Noah, 14, one of five siblings. “It’s not easy living in Sderot. It’s constant pressure. Any moment, there could be a red-alert siren and we’ll have to run to our bunkers. Here, it’s very different. I feel secure.”

Lior, her 13-year-old friend, said she was looking forward to some independence.

“I just want to enjoy, make friends, and break the language barrier,” she said. “It’s going to be so much fun here, but we’ll be thinking about our families back home.”