“The Birds Are Singing As If There Were No War”

Monday, July 24, 2006 10:14 AM


A Day at KKL-JNF Summer Camp for Residents of the North and South

In the middle of a trip to Nahal Ktalav a “Red Dawn” air-raid warning sounds. No, the Qassam rockets haven’t followed us here from Sderot. It’s Yishai Cohen’s mobile phone ringing. “I just can’t get up in the morning without it,” he apologizes with a smile.
Simon Elbaz, director of the center: “The lodges were built so as to bring Jewish youngsters from Israel and the Diaspora closer to Zionism, nature and the Land of Israel. But our job now is to host those living in the shadow of the war.”
Children and teenagers from Sderot are being hosted at Ness Harim Field Center, which was established with the help of Friends of JNF America.
Families who have fled the war in the north are staying in cabins nearby.


It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the thunder of the missiles falling in both the north and south of the country than the quiet pastoral atmosphere which, even in these troubled days, enfolds the KKL-JNF field center at Ness Harim. The center, which was built with the help of Friends of JNF America, is situated in the middle of American Independence Park, high in the Judean hills to the west of Jerusalem. 


In normal times young people from Israel and abroad come to stay in the pleasantly appointed cabins, hike around the area, get to know the country and learn about nature. But now groups are coming from the north and south of the country to take a break from the war on their doorsteps, to recover and regain their energies.


“There are families here now who are trying to get away from the war in the north,  and they’ve got nowhere to go. In the lodges right next door there are young people from Sderot who have come for a change of scene and to get away from the threat of the Qassams for a bit,” said Simon Elbaz, director of the center. “The cabins were built just over ten years ago to bring Jewish youngsters from Israel and the Diaspora closer to Zionism, nature and the Land of Israel. The great advantage with KKL-JNF is that we always know how to adapt to cope with current needs. Our job now is to host people who have been living in the shadow of war.”


One day, when things calm down a little, Elbaz hopes to continue to develop the site and build a permanent dining room and classrooms. “If we can raise enough money, of course,” he says.


Among those staying there at present are about 40 members of the Bnei Akiva movement in Sderot, who have come for three days of excursions, recreation and fun. When they finish their holiday and go home, their place will be taken by two groups from Sderot youth clubs for the children of Ethiopian immigrants.


Over the summer several hundred visitors from the north and Sderot will stay here. They will tour the surrounding area, take part in camp activities and, above all, escape the tense situation for a few days. Activities include hiking, visits to historical sites, campfire singsongs, orienteering, swimming in the pool, quizzes, etc. Everything is free, with KKL-JNF providing not only sleeping accommodation and meals, but also instruction and transport.


Taking Time Out from the Turmoil 


“It’s pretty comforting to know you can get away for a bit from the chaos of everything that’s going on in Sderot and all over the country,” says 16-year-old Yaakov Pendel, from Sderot. “The atmosphere here is completely different, with the silence of the forest. You may be able to calm down a bit, but you can never forget what’s going on in the rest of the country. It’s a really nice place, it’s like you see in American movies, with kids going to camp in huts in the forest.”


Lidor Maman, another member of the Bnei Akiva group: “It’s a really nice place. You wake up to the sound of birds in the morning, and they sing away as if there were no war. The forest is soothing and gives you a feeling of calm, but I know that my family back home is still stressed out from the situation.”


Their companion Elisaf Sharabi adds, “We want to get away for a bit, so we came for three days’ hiking to try to forget our problems.”


Yossi Tayyari, a 23-year-old electrical-engineering student from Sderot, joined the group as an adult escort, “We decided to take time out from the turmoil. Finally we got to sleep through a whole night without being interrupted by “Red Dawn” warnings announcing that Qassams were about to fall, and without hearing the explosions of IDF shells. It’s a nice place, the cabins are great, the forest’s amazing and it’s a wonderful way to de-stress.”


Orly Kovliker of Netivot came to escort the group as a nurse and armed guard. “The whole country’s in a state of hysteria, but we’re getting away from the war: no news broadcasts, no newspapers, no television. Sometimes, on the bus, we bring ourselves up to date with what’s happening, because you can’t run away from it altogether.”


Praying that Everything will be all Right


In the middle of an excursion to Nahal Ktalav a “Red Dawn” warning rips through the air. No, the Qassam rockets haven’t followed us here from Sderot. It’s 17-year-old Yishai Cohen’s mobile phone ringing. He recorded the air-raid warning at home and transferred it to his cell phone and alarm clock. “I just can’t get up in the morning without it,” he apologizes with a smile.


But even the air-raid warning shrilling from the telephone doesn’t make national-service girl Sivan Afriat raise her eyes from the Sudoku puzzle she is in the process of solving. She bet one of her friends an ice cream that she’d solve the puzzle before they reached their destination. She has no intention of losing, and as far as she is concerned the war can wait another few minutes.


For the youngsters humor is an important tool which helps them cope with their fears and the dangers each day brings. Gedalia Pendel (18) feels like an old warhorse as he gives a few tips to his companions from the north, who are less experienced than Sderot residents when it comes to life in the shadow of the rockets: “You’ve just got to take things calmly. I don’t say you shouldn’t be scared, because you can’t help being afraid. But you’ve got to laugh about everything that’s going on, because when you laugh it helps you keep calm.”


Noa Zeev from Jerusalem, who is guiding the trip: “They’re just like any other group of youngsters, full of laughs and joie de vivre – apart from the fact that you hear them talking about Qassams the whole time.”


Mor Avisrur (16): “When we’re here it’s pretty funny to think that there’s a war going on in the country right now. My tip to people from the north is not to get stressed out, and just pray that everything will be all right.”


Yael Hagar from Givat Zeev chose to spend her year of national service in Sderot, and she now runs the Bnei Akiva clubhouse there. “Our group is pretty stressed out, especially the younger children. We talk to them about it and try to calm them down. A trip like this can help a lot and give them the feeling that normal life is still going on in the world. But the truth is that the situation in the north is even worse now, and it seems there will be a lot of people who need this kind of activity just as much as we do.”