Eleven-year-old Benjamin Sternklar Davis felt far away from the safety of his Upper West Side home as he walked through the debris-strewn streets of Sderot, in southern Israel. Visiting homes that had been devastated by rocket fire, Benjamin and his mother Sarah wandered through rubble riddled with household items — half-completed math homework, a shredded teddy bear, a frying pan.
“Life is lived there on 15-second intervals,” Sarah Sternklar said. That is how much time Sderot residents have to make it to a bomb shelter after the siren is sounded signaling an incoming missile.
In April, the two visited Sderot with Sarah’s friend Meredith Berkman, when they were invited to the opening of an emergency trauma center built by the American Friends of Magen David Adom. Since 2006, the Israeli city near the border with the Gaza Strip has been bombarded with Kassam rocket fire from Hamas, enduring more than 1,000 rockets and more than 1,000 mortar shells this year alone, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sternklar and Berkman, both professional women and parents of students at Manhattan’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, became acutely aware of the crisis in Sderot when their Arts for Israel organization began raising funds for Magen David Adom.
After they returned from their brief visit, however, the two women were distraught about the reality of life in Sderot. Unsettled and itching to do something to improve the devastated lives they had observed there, they decided to adopt the children of Sderot as their own.
“These are our children,” Berkman said. “As mothers it is our responsibility to care for these children as we would our children.”
That is how the Moms for Israel: A Campaign for Sderot organization came into being about a month ago. Soliciting funds and assistance from private donors and large organizations alike, the two mothers decided to raise money to enable the children to attend weeklong camp programs outside of Sderot for weeklong programs this summer.
They have worked quickly and effectively. Through individual contributions and an unusual cooperation among UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish National Fund, the One Family Fund, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Art for Israel, Berkman and Sternklar said they have amassed over $100,000 since June 3, when the women held fundraising parlor meetings worldwide. And checks are expected to continue to come in until the camp season begins.
“You have to look at the role of mother in the Jewish world — from Sarah to the way mothers have been involved with power biblically,” said JNF CEO Russell Robinson, who attended a Manhattan parlor meeting. “It talks about the power of women, the power of a mother.” Meanwhile, Robinson said that his own mother organized her own Moms for Israel event in El Paso, Texas.
Robinson remembers when Berkman came into his office only a month ago, asking for JNF’s support in bringing these kids some respite during their summers. “It’s the only town in the entire free world that is under siege,” he said.
A $225 contribution allows a child between the ages of 6 and 12 to attend a week of day camp run by UJA-Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel. With $500, children between 12 and 17 years old have the opportunity to spend a week at sleep-away camp run by the Jewish National Fund, which is also currently building Israel’s largest indoor recreation center in Sderot, according to Michael Feinman, zone director of Greater New York.
In a third effort to bring the children of Sderot some summer fun, the One Family Fund offers a 10-day sleep-away program for victims of terror from all over Israel for $1,000. At all three organizations, all money raised goes directly to Sderot’s children, with absolutely no profit to the fundraisers, and donations are 100 percent tax deductible, Sternklar said.
On Tuesday, June 3, and surrounding dates, moms all over the world held over 50 meetings to raise money for the cause, with gatherings everywhere from New York and Beverly Hills to Paris, Ottawa and Hong Kong.
“It’s a really busy time of year for moms [because school is winding down and preparations for camp are under way]. The fact that everybody came out says a lot,” Berkman said, adding that the gatherings were “perhaps the biggest melding of moms and organizations ever” in the Jewish community. Within a month, Sternklar and Berkman spread word to family members, friends of friends and acquaintances internationally, until they established a Web-based network of avid donors, ready to fight for the cause.
“Thank God for the Internet,” Sternklar said. “It was our idea to have this one-day parlor meeting all over the city, all over the country, all over the world, as a way of mothers taking ownership and making a difference.”
At their own meeting last Tuesday morning on the Upper West Side, Berkman and Sternklar spoke to a group of more than 50 people — all but a handful of them women. Occurring at the same time was a related meeting on the Upper East Side orchestrated by another mom, Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua.
“If we were gathering in Sderot instead of here, the first thing I would do is tell you where the bomb shelter is,” Sternklar said, tearing up as she addressed her guests. She went on to describe the eerily empty city streets, vacant of normal child’s play and the clamor of daily life. Unlike American parents, she explained, Sderot mothers and fathers can’t tell their children that everything will be better tomorrow because there is no reassurance that this statement will be true.
A psychoanalyst by profession, Sternklar noted that a lot of people in Sderot are perpetually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders.
“I’m acutely aware of how that kind of day-to-day trauma affects your mental health,” Sternklar said. “You’re clenched and you don’t even realize you’re clenched until you leave the city and your whole body relaxes,” she added, recalling her own body language as she entered and exited the city limits.
The pitch seemed to work. Eleanor Merczynski, a mother of children at Heschel who attended the parlor meeting, said, “Hearing more details about what is going on in Sderot is heartbreaking. When it’s personalized and you see what the children have to live like … this has brought to the forefront of my awareness of what can be done.
“It’s just a reflex to help these kids and want to do something, to give them a break.” Merczysnki continued. “I wish I could have written a bigger check. I do plan to give more.”
Berkman, a freelance writer who had recently given birth to her fourth child, remembers stopping in a Sderot emergency center to use the breast pump she carried with her. While she sat there draining the milk, she silently wished that this would be the only reason any mom needed to use the center.
“Tragically, we all know the reality,” Berkman said, recognizing the terror that brings parents and their children to the emergency rooms. “Some days there are 12 or more red alarms,” signaling the incoming approach of a rocket.
Following their own maternal instincts, she and Sternklar banded together to lead a forceful army of women who would protect these children from a terror that they should not have to feel so regularly.
“It’s been enormously gratifying to see women taking responsibility for arguably the biggest problem in Israel today,” Berkman said. “When it comes to children, mothers can and will change the world.”
“We take checks from men, too,” Sternklar added laughingly.
Two of the few male participants in the room, JNF’s Robinson and Feinman, were a minority as fathers in a predominantly female-led organization.
“These kids are traumatized and they do not have a sense of normalcy that our kids do,” Feinman said. “This is really about the kids — bottom line, the kids,” who need the support of moms and dads alike.
“It pulls a little more at the heartstring to be called ‘Moms,’” said Lori Kolinsky, associate director of Emerging Leaders and Philanthropists of the UJA-Federation of New York.
From an American child’s perspective, surviving, as Sderot children do, in such a life-and-death atmosphere on a daily basis was unthinkable, and young Benjamin Sternklar Davis could not even imagine what his peers had to go through each morning.
“When he saw those rockets he said, ‘I don’t get it,’” his mother remembers. “It’s not fathomable.”
“It would be so scary,” Benjamin said. “I feel so safe here.”
And by leaving the city to attend camp, Sderot’s children will have the opportunity to feel the same safety — if only for one fleeting week.