Over a recent Skype video-call, two groups of preteen girls danced to “Never Say Never” by Justin Bieber, made funny faces at the camera, and compared knitting projects, one holding up a scarf, the other a headband.
The only difference: one group was on the eighth floor of the JCC in Manhattan, in an air-conditioned room with a sweeping view of the city skyline, the other in a windowless, rocket-proof Community Center in Sderot, a mile or so from the Gaza border in southern Israel.
The girls are part of a cross-cultural knitting group initiated by Noa Mintz, a 12-year-old girl from the Upper West Side, and they’re nearing their one-year anniversary. After a visit to Sderot with her family three years ago, Noa decided that she wanted to use her bat mitzvah money to help the Negev community that has, for years, endured a barrage of rocket fire, collateral damage in the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Noa, who has been knitting since she was a small child, worked with UJA-Federation of New York’s “Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah” program to create the knitting group, the goal of which was to help girls her age in Sderot to cope with the trauma brought about by the Hamas rocket attacks. Knitting, recognized in recent years for its unique therapeutic qualities, seemed a perfect fit.
“My first visit to Sderot made a huge impression on me,” said Noa. “We walked to a lookout point, and I was able to see how close we were to Gaza. It made the situation so real — I realized the fear the girls in Sderot must live with every day.
“I decided I wanted to combine my passion for knitting with a way to give back and help this community.”
Oshrat Amar, an artist and resident of Sderot for 30 years, and a life-long knitter (when she was 20, she knit a kipa for then- president of Israel Yitzhak Navon), was contacted by the federation and now leads the knitting group for the girls in Sderot.
Amar was injured in a Kassam rocket attack three years ago while running for shelter after the rocket hit her house. “It is my job to stay brave for these girls, even when I’m panicking inside,” Amar said. “This knitting group provides an intimate social setting for the girls to share about their lives and talk about their fears.”
Needles and yarn in hand, members of the Sderot group meet regularly for a couple of hours every week, knitting everything from socks to blankets. When an alarm siren sounds and a rocket hits, the knitting continues. “We are located in the Community Center, which is completely fortified against attack,” said Amar. “When the siren sounds, girls within the group react with varying levels of fear, but we keep on knitting. There’s no reason to stop.”
Hodaya Chagbi, 12, has become an accomplished knitter. In the year the Israeli knitters have been meeting, she’s completed a hat, a bowtie, several scarves, a flower and a pair of socks. Her favorite colored yarn: “pink!”
“I love the knitting group because you end up with a product after all your hard work,” said Hodaya. “The process is also very calming.”
Margarita Minazov, 13, is mid-way through a kipa. Speaking about meeting the American girls on Skype, Margarita recalled, “We tried to speak to them in English, which was fun. It’s always fun to try out our English.” Would you visit New York if you got the chance? “Of course,” said Koral Chori, 12, another member of the group in Sderot. “But Sderot is where I want to live.”
Under a sky free of rocket-fire, a parallel knitting group takes place at the JCC of Manhattan with Noa and several of her friends. “I wanted to start this project not only to help the girls in Sderot pull through these hard times, but to raise awareness about the situation in Sderot here in America,” said Noa. Besides personal knitting projects, the girls in New York decided their first group project would be blankets for newborn babies in the hospitals near Sderot. “We will each knit separate squares and then combine them to make the blankets,” explained Noa. “This way, everyone’s contributing together.”
For 12-year-old Manhattanite Emma Ruskay-Kidd, the project, besides being “a calm and relaxing thing to do,” gave her some new insights into people. Yes, it was sometimes hard to communicate with the Israeli girls, but, Emma said, “Even though they live in such a different community from us, they are a lot like us in many ways.”
When the two sets of girls got together on Skype for the first time, it was a powerful moment.
“The first time the two groups knitted together via Skype was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” said Becky Kimmelstiel, a long-time knitter and leader of the group in New York. “[The Sderot kids] barely spoke English and our Hebrew was very limited, but the minute that computer screen turned on there was a connection. Knitting became the new common language. The girls here played a song, and then the girls there played a song, and they started dancing together, constantly bringing their knitting projects up to the screen to compare,” Kimmelstiel recalled, her voice breaking.
“And then the girls in Sderot went crazy when we showed them the view of New York from where we were sitting — they had never seen New York City before, and they just couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Brittany Wayne, the charity’s point person who helped Noa develop her project said the program “encourages the younger generation to get involved in philanthropic work. Bar/bat mitzvah age, an age introducing communal responsibly, seemed an opportune time.”
Aside from the Mitzvah program, which began nine years ago, two new philanthropic youth programs — SPARK, a service learning and community outreach program for seventh and eighth grade students, and the Teen Philanthropic Leadership Council, a high school student fundraising project (which raised over $50,000 last year to help vulnerable Jewish communities worldwide) — have been launched. “We attribute the overwhelming success of these programs to the excitement that comes with empowering youth,” Wayne said. “When students realize they can make a difference, the effects are contagious.”
The knitting group succeeded beyond its leaders’ expectations. “The girls in Sderot knit every week, religiously, and they are thinking of starting a second group for children and possibly a group for adults,” said Wayne.
Noa’s mother, Meredith Berkman, guided her carefully throughout the process, “We’ve tried to instill a sense of communal responsibility in our children from a young age,” she said. “It’s incredibly gratifying to see Noa take these values and just run with them.”
On the family’s most recent trip to Israel a few months ago, Noa visited Sderot to meet with the knitting group for the first time. She brought with her hot pink sparkly yarn. Her gifts were received with ecstatic squeals and kisses. In exchange, the girls in Sderot gave Noa a bag full of scarves they had knitted to bring back to her friends in New York.
“Sometimes, when it seems like the world is falling apart, the most important thing is to remember that you can create,” said Noa. “Even if it’s something small. You can create something beautiful, with your own two hands.”