On the first day of Hol Hamoed Succot, in the middle of a beautiful forest, the sounds of laughter, music and chatting boys and girls are all around. What looks from the outside like a youth movement on holiday is actually a camp for an extraordinary group of people.There is a unifying factor among all these youngsters who are going to be together at Camp Otzma over the next four days – a reason only they understand.They share the grief of losing a parent in war or combat.
The camp is a project of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, established in 1991 to reach out to families that have a lost a loved one either through terrorism or serving in the IDF. Officially recognized and given support by the state, its activities – which include camps in Israel and the US, trips abroad, and bar and bat mitzva activities – is also funded by donations from around the world.For children who have lost a parent, or those that have lost a spouse, returning to the everyday activities and looking forward to family celebrations can be a harrowing ordeal.The IDFWO wanted to give these families a safe place to celebrate milestones, with a community of people that understand what they’re going through.After Operation Protective Edge, which ended in mid-August, four more children were unfortunately inducted into this group.Shlomi Nahumson, the youth programs director, says these children are going through a time where they feel they can’t be themselves. They feel guilt if they’re happy, or are struggling with their grief.“Otzma one of the few places where they can be themselves... Here, they can be happy – even if it’s only been a month.”Nahumson says that the Otzma camp is like a family trip and the newcomers are welcomed immediately. “I don’t even have to ask the campers to make them feel comfortable because it just happens naturally; not even 10 minutes pass before they are interacting with the new kids.”Noam, a counselor who has been working at the camps since its beginning, is an army orphan herself; her father was killed in the IDF helicopter disaster on February 4, 1997. “My mom, who is an army widow, told me the organization was looking for counselors to go on a trip with the children to the US. I thought it could be a fun experience, so I went to the first interview, and that was it.“As an army orphan myself, the connection with the kids was immediate.I have a group I have been working with from the beginning, and I hope I will be with them until they go to the army.”When the IDFWO first began, the main focus was to bring these youngsters abroad on trips to either the US or Germany, to give them time away from daily life in Israel, and a chance bond with others their age and counselors who have gone through the same traumatic experience. Those who participated expressed a desire to meet up after these trips, says Daniel Tuksar, the resource development director. Therefore, Otzma was started as a four- to five-day retreat during the major holiday vacations so the children could enjoy activities like paintball, hiking, kayaking, cycling and more. “Each camp is in a different place in Israel, and we have 150 participants who come to every one,” says Tuksar.Alian and Hila, 15-year-olds from central Israel, have been friends since they were four; they have been coming to camp together since the beginning. Alian talks about Otzma with a smile on her face. “I don’t know how to explain it, Otzma is like an extended family.”Hila adds, “Here we can talk about everything and anything.The friends we make here stay with us forever. The fact that we have a group of teenagers we can relate to makes it easier to continue.” A minute later, the two are off to talk to another girl who is sitting alone.Another army orphan by the name of Shlomi explains that his father was killed in action, and he has been in the program ever since. He comes to every camp Otzma holds and even now, at age 18 – in basic training with the Givati Brigade – he is here, and proud to be a soldier.Shlomi’s bond with program director Nahumson is very special.“He is like a father to me, ever since my dad was killed, he is my most important father figure, and I feel I have someone to turn to. Now that I’m in the army, this camp is like a vacation, an opportunity to be with the friends I’ve known since we went on the bar mitzva trip together.”“[Nahumson] is the best, he can help with anything. Even now, when I started the army, I had a problem and he helped me get to a good place and made sure I was doing well.”The group, between the ages of 12 and 18, come from all over Israel.From south Tel Aviv to the Golan, Jewish and Druse, religious and secular – on the surface, they appear to be from completely different worlds. Yet through their shared tragedy, they find strength and security. “They communicate and meet not only at our camps but also during the year,” says Tuksar. “They have organized days and even a WhatsApp group where they chat all the time.“The whole purpose is to show them they can move forward with life. We try to link children with similar stories, or those whose fathers served together.”The relationship between management and counselors and the campers is extremely strong, filled with love and encouragement.“We stay in contact with them throughout their lives, and that is what makes the connection so strong and unique. When they go to the army, to university and get married, we are always there for them,” says Tuksar.Noam points to Otzma’s emphasis on ensuring the youth stay in contact.“We are really close even outside the program and for me, it even feels like a kind of therapy, it helps me deal with the situation I’m in,” she says. “A part of what gives the children hope and keeps them strong throughout the year is that they know they will come to camp and relax, have fun and just be themselves.”Noam discusses her experience working with youngsters who are just like she was, and how in Otzma they can be free of the pressures one feels as an army orphan. “I was five years old when he died. I remember what it was like; I was that child, the strange one whose dad never comes to school for meetings, or was always absent on Remembrance Day. I know what these kids are going through, the other counselors told me that the relationship I have with the children is different. I didn’t think like that in the beginning but now I see it, I relate to them in a special way.“Here they can feel normal, they are equal, and so am I.”In the future, the organization would like to expand its activities to help the children who are too young to spend overnights at the camps or to travel abroad. “The youngest ones here are 12 years old, and our dream is to bring younger children to activities with their [widowed] moms,” says Tuksar. “We are dreaming about a summer camp because right now, we don’t have a big activity during the summer. For that we need more funds, but I believe it’s possible.”It’s clear through the interactions between the counselors and the children that Otzma and the IDFWO is more than just a few fun days away – these people are intricately linked for the rest of their lives. When Noam got married last month, it was a happy event shared by everyone in the Otzma family. As Shlomi goes through his IDF service, he continues to be very active in activities within the organization. And as Alian and Hila finish their last year before high school, they include Otzma as their immediate family to continue with them on their journey.For more information go to visit www.idfwo.org