World Bnei Akiva lends a magic hand in Ashkelon

Kicking a soccer ball around in the street, the volunteers and the children seem to be passing the time pleasantly.

ashkelon rockets 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
ashkelon rockets 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
As relative calm prevailed in Ashkelon Wednesday morning, Australian volunteers from World Bnei Akiva were playing games with a group of neighborhood kids outside their bomb shelter. Kicking a soccer ball around in the street, the volunteers and the children seemed to be passing the time pleasantly. "We've been teaching them dances, doing arts and crafts," said Nicole Schwartz, a 22-year-old from Perth who had just wrapped up a Bnei Akiva program here, and decided to spend the end of her trip helping kids in the South. "It's been great, you know, just to try and make them happy and get their minds off of things," she said. Her brother Michael concurred. "It's been a really positive experience. We were pleased to see how well their shelter had been set up, and we were just happy to be able to give them an outside influence. This way they don't have to think about this situation all the time." But the "situation" presented itself moments later, as a loud siren wailed throughout the city and everyone - kids and volunteers together - headed for the shelter in a flash. Downstairs, around 40 children sat at tables, on couches, or in front of computers that had been set up for them. As they played a computer game in which computer-animated characters were throwing a combination of punches and kicks at one another, two young boys said they weren't afraid. "We do this every day," one of the boys said. "I don't mind, it's fun to play video games." Asked if they had gone onto the Education Ministry's Web site to try and keep up with their studies, one of the kids looked up with a smile. "What do you think?" he said, and then went back to staring at the computer screen. But despite the stoic reaction of the children, the volunteers said they had passed a milestone of sorts. "That was my first siren," said Nicole, without betraying too much emotion. "The kids were actually worried about me. They were telling me what to do, they brought me down here, and this little girl told me, 'It's okay, the rockets can't get in here.' "It's obvious that they do this every day. It's regular for them." Ilan Frydman, a World Bnei Akiva staffer and magician, awed the kids with juggling acts and fire-eating. "Mom, come look this!" one of the kids yelled, as Frydman digested balls of flaming paper. "Do it again, my mom has to see this!" Another siren sounded outside, and the kids sat and waited. A few Home Front Command soldiers set up musical equipment, getting ready to entertain the children with a show after the volunteers left. "In some of the other shelters, our volunteers said that the kids wouldn't let them leave," said Zvika Klein, World Bnei Avika's spokesman in Israel, who had joined the volunteers on their trip down south. "It's been a great experience overall." Moments later, it was time for the Australian volunteers to go, as they were scheduled to meet up with the rest of their group, which included volunteers from France, the US, Argentina and Ecuador. The children, although somewhat distracted by the ongoing musical preparations, bade them farewell. From the shelter, a bus took the volunteers to a girls' school for pupils whose families had previously lived in the Gaza Strip community of Kfar Darom. Standing in the traditional "Chet" formation, World Bnei Akiva Director-General Zeev Shwartz adressed the crowd, emphasizing the value of their experience in the South. "Today you had the opportunity to experience the reality that residents of the South now live under on a day-to-day basis," he said. "You heard the sirens, you heard explosions as the rockets fell, and through that experience, and through being here with the residents of the South, you've done a great and compassionate thing."