They were coming to get away from the bombs. But the ninth graders from Sderot got here shortly after four Muslim men tried to blow up two synagogues in Riverdale.
Turns out it was probably quieter in the southern Israeli city near the Gaza border — which has been calmer since the end of the Gaza war — than it was here, with Jews on edge in the wake of the foiled bomb plot.
The group of 33 ninth graders, along with five staff members, came to Long Island from the Mashatzim for Sderot leadership program based at their local Amit School, to spend two weeks relaxing and socializing with students of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway.
Often charged with far more responsibility than any other high school student would have to shoulder, these teens work as role models to younger Sderot children and help raise the morale of the war-encumbered city.
“These are not just a bunch of regular of ninth graders — they’re involved in civil defense,” said Rabbi Yotav Eliach, principal of Machon HaTorah at HAFTR. “For the next two weeks taking care of them is our project.”
During their first week here, the Israeli students attended services at local synagogues, where they delivered presentations about the dangers of living in Sderot. They spent the second week at Camp Morasha in the Poconos, enjoying outdoor activities that are often unavailable to rocket-ravaged Sderot. The trip was made possible by HAFTR student fundraisers, private donations and small tuition contributions from the Israeli participants, according to HAFTR Athletic Director Asher Ross.
“They’re leaders, and we’re trying to help them show that leadership side,” Rabbi Eliach said. “But we’re also trying to give them a break — no rockets.”
And at the moment, in the wake of the Gaza war, quiet might persist back home in Sderot, but some of the students and staff members, like gym teacher Itzhik Asraf, think that this is only the calm before the storm.
“You don’t know when is going to be the next time,” he said, explaining how often he can’t allow the children to play sports outside, and for four months he had to teach his athletics classes underground. “How many times can you play ping-pong?”
“We did have a missile right before we left that reminded us what it’s like,” added student Stav Ulien, 15. “But hopefully we’ll have a quieter summer.”
Staff members likewise hope for a peaceful summer, so that their hardworking students will have the chance to play basketball and soccer just like other Israeli children.
“It is not these kids’ jobs to protect everybody — they are kids,” said Lt. Col. Ori Schecter of the Israel Defense Force Reserves, who leads the group.
But in their work as volunteers, medical clowns and first-aid assistants, the Mashatzim student leaders have faced huge challenges, including an incident two years ago, when 40 Kassam rockets showered the city within six hours.
“They went to go sit with the children,” said Nurit Davidi, one of their teachers and a group leader. “This is really one of the hardest days I can remember.”
Yet despite having to battle such frightening situations, most of the students in this group say they intend to remain in Sderot, where their predominantly immigrant families have settled. One student, 15-year-old Shlomi Abecassis, would like to become a computer engineer at a high-tech firm located within the city.
“We don’t have an easy life in Sderot — it’s really difficult,” agreed Dudi Chanukayev, also 15. “But we really believe in living there, and we’re not going to let [danger] send us away.”