Emily Nastarenko was oneand- half-years old when her soldier father, Aleksander, an immigrant from Ukraine, was killed in action in the Gaza Strip in 2002.
“I don’t remember him physically, but my mom tells me stories about him. He is really, really missed,” the 13-year-old told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday evening.
Emily, along with around another 150 IDF orphans aged 12 to 18, met in Eilat on Sunday with dozens of high-school students from New Jersey as part of a five-day OTZMA Camp program organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO).
“I started coming to the camps two years ago. At first I was really scared, because I didn’t know anybody and I had a lot of fears and worries about adapting to the place and to the other children, and then I discovered how it is really like family for me,” Nastarenko said.
Every Hanukka, Passover and Succot since 2011, hundreds of children from all over the country who have lost a parent in the IDF get together through the OTZMA camp program to participate in fun filled activities and to celebrate the holidays together.
“I can share my personal story here and everyone will understand me. The connection that was built between us [IDF orphans] is on a daily basis. Even though my friends live far away from me I talk to them until the late hours of the night and we tell each other what we feel and what our worries are – we tell each other everything,” she said.
Also at the retreat were some 30 high-school students from the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, New Jersey, who are spending their final semester of senior year studying in Israel.
Student Jason Mast, 18, decided to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon last month and raise money for the IDFWO.
“My original plan was that a few of us would run the half-marathon, but in the end we had 16 runners from my school, eight kids, two moms and two staff members from the IDFWO who ran the 5K marathon,” said Mast.
Jason and his fellow students helped raise around $6,500 for the OTZMA program.
“Our school always promotes a connection to Israel and the idea that we could just make their [IDF orphans] day a bit better, well everyone rallied around that,” he explained.
At the camp in Eilat, the US students have spent their days with the younger children acting as unofficial camp counselors. Together they have gone on hikes, visited the Dolphin Reef, and just “hung out and talked,” said Mast. The older IDF orphans have spent their week scuba diving and in the evenings get together with their US counterparts at activities organized through the program, including a homecoming event.
“It is no different than any camp in the US, it’s kids hanging out having fun, but at the same time their personal stories are somewhat in the background,” he said.
The new connection between the IDFWO and the US students has had a great impact on Mast and his community.
“It is incredible what they [the IDFWO] are doing, my personal connection is something I definitely want to continue and the connection with the school is something that will continue, I will make sure it continues,” he said.
Nava Shoham, chairwoman of the IDFWO, accompanied the children on the annual Passover retreat and witnessed firsthand the “incredible connection” between the two groups.
“I think that when American youth meet with Israeli children who lost a father because of army service it is a very important thing. They have built lasting connections and have gotten to know each other and understand the loss experienced by these Israeli children,” she said.
Donations to the IDFWO can be made through www.idfwo.org.