Last summer, children who are an ocean away from each other and whose worlds collapsed on them in a single day united for a short time, not only to cry, but also to learn that it is still allowed to laugh and joke around.
Those children were Israeli orphans who took part in the Otzma project run by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization (IDFWO), and American orphans from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), who gathered for two days in Washington to share their pain, speak about bereavement and connect with one another.
The first morning of the summer camp began in a reserved atmosphere at a hotel meeting room. Forty IDF orphans of bar and bat mitzva ages and 15 US Armed Forces orphans immediately discover the first difference between them. The Americans are amazed to hear that Israelis refer to someone who lost a parent during military service as an “orphan.” In the US, they prefer a term that includes the entire bereaved family, in the plural – “Survivors” refers to the orphans, the widows and the bereaved parents all together.
Yet no matter how many differences there may be, it doesn’t really matter to the summer-camp participants. For them, what they have in common exceeds their differences, and a few party games are sufficient to break the thin ice that separates them. When the atmosphere warms up, they all begin dancing together.
Afterwards, the children are invited to sit down around tables. They are given paper on which to draw the contours of their hands and then asked to cut out the drawings with scissors. The purpose is to create a huge wreath of paper made from small hands that will be placed later that day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
The counselors suggest that on the shape that the children cut out they can write a personal message – the name of the parent, perhaps something they would like to tell him. One Israeli participant chose to make a hand with a picture on it. With colorful markers, she sketched the image of a strong and very large man, holding the hand of a small girl. As she looked at it upon completion, she wiped away a tear.
Anthony Belmar, 14, lost his father, Ryan, in Iraq in 2008. He recalls, “At first I didn’t want to know details about how my father was killed. Only after some time passed was I ready to hear.
His vehicle went over a roadside bomb and he was killed immediately.”
Caitlin Sweet, 12, lost her mother, Jessica, that same year. She became ill with cancer, like many of the soldiers who served with her in the same polluted area of Afghanistan. “On the day that she died, our father just told us that she loved us very much,” says Caitlin. “The first period of time without her was difficult, but afterwards you learn very slowly to cope and to think less about death.”
Anthony explains, “I am glad that I can talk to other children about what I am going through. We are exactly like the Israeli children. The death of a father is death. Period.”
Caitlin adds, “I wanted very much to come to this summer camp, to understand how children in Israel feel after going through a trauma like mine.
After several hours with the Israelis, I understand that there aren’t a lot of differences, even though we come from different cultures. Mourning is universal.”
Assaf Amitai, 14, lost his father, Warr.
Ofc. Yaron Amitai, in the Second Lebanon War. Like his friend Anthony, he also wants to follow in his father’s path of combat service, and like Anthony, he also is unable to draw a clear picture of his father in his mind.
“I can’t remember his hug. I can’t remember what his body looked like or the sound of his voice. It is as if in order to protect myself I deny that he existed.
I am so sorry that I don’t have a memory, I am so sorry that I can’t feel his last hug before he left the house,” he says.
“At this summer camp I want to offer tips to other children about how to manage, but I also want to receive tips from them for myself.”
Roi Danor, 13, lost his father, Maj.
Shai Danor, who was a pilot who died in a Cobra helicopter crash in the Jezreel Valley. “I remember him so well,” he says. “We would go on many trips together, play and laugh a lot. I think about him a great deal and still remember his hug, his words.
“It’s the hardest for me at memorial ceremonies. Suddenly I imagine a collage of pictures with him, and many thoughts run through my mind. I try to overcome it, but it takes time and happens slowly. Therefore it was very important for me to meet American children in my situation, since it gives me a lot of confidence.”
Almost all the children in the room say they want to be combat soldiers, to follow in the paths of their parents.
Later that day, the children load onto the bus the wreath on which they have glued the paper hands that they made, and take it with them to the huge military cemetery in which about 400,000 have been buried.
The visitors from Israel will learn about the American funeral ceremony and watch a presentation of gun demonstrations. Afterwards, they will gather at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to see the changing of the guard.
No one makes a sound throughout the very precise ceremony that the children watch with eyes wide open. Only when the soldiers take their place, two children – an Israeli and an American – place the wreath at the base of the monument.
In several hours, after they have calmed down a bit from the experience, everyone will join together on the dance floor for a party organized in their honor. Just as the children have been taught, even after the devastating death of someone who is most dear to them, life still goes on.
“Quite a number of years ago we had the opportunity to meet the leadership of IDFWO, and it was a natural connection, as we both care for the children who lost a parent in the military,” says Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS, of the relationship between the organizations.
According to IDFWO chairwoman Nava Shoham, forging bonds with American children who have experienced similar loss is an important and worthy cause. She summarizes what was a powerful experience for everyone, “It shows the children that not only does Israel fight for its independence, and not only in Israel are there orphans, but that other children also have to deal with the loss, too.”The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization was established in 1991. As of today, it works with more than 8,000 widows and orphans of the Israeli security forces.
It provides them with a protective, therapeutic network through social and voluntary activities, as well as on-going representation before relevant authorities in Israel.
IDFWO is proud to run various dynamic projects: It purchases school supplies for first graders; takes orphans abroad for a summer camp experience; celebrates Hanukka, Passover and Succot by taking teens to camps all over Israel; holds an unforgettable celebration for them on their bar/bat mitzvas at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; provides scholarships for university students; and reaches out to newlyweds with presents on their wedding days.
For its widows, it offers a week of relaxation; arranges numerous trips around Israel; and organizes university-level classes, among others teaching them English, computers, and other skills, all while working with the women on how to deal with their tragic loss.
The organization would like to use this opportunity and invite you to generously support its numerous activities and assist its widows and orphans, women and children who lost their dearest ones for Israel’s right to exist.
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