We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
This past summer, I spent four weeks in Israel participating in a program called Kol Hanearim. Little did I know that it would turn out to be a life-changing experience.
Kol Hanearim, which means “Voice of the Children,” is a program through which American volunteers run summer camps at several group homes for children throughout Israel. I was placed in a group home in the town of Afula. The children in these homes have been removed from their families by the Israeli government because it is no longer safe for them to live at home. While the kids’ specific family situations vary, many of these children have experienced things that no kid should ever have to be exposed to, like hunger, poverty, abuse, or terrorism.
Kol Hanearim’s mission is to not only bring happiness and fun into these children’s lives, but also to surround them with caring, loving people. The founders of the program hope that the volunteers will stay connected to the kids even after the summer is over, so that each child knows that there will be someone there for them during their ups and downs and during their greatest milestones in life. In this way, Kol Hanearim hopes to break the cycle of distress, so that when these children grow up and leave the group home at age 18, they will be able to move past their hardships and live beautiful, successful lives.
When I signed up to participate in Kol Hanearim, I did not really understand what I was getting myself into. I figured that I’d have a fun summer volunteering with children, but I was not aware of how much I would change as a person, particularly in regards to my feelings about Israel. Having visited Israel before, I already had a strong connection to the land of Israel, but I ended the summer with a stronger connection to the people of Israel. By engaging with these kids and speaking in Hebrew with them, I made a mark on their lives.
By the second week in, I came to love these kids, and I even felt as though I was one of them. As the program went on, I realized that the mission of the program made this experience in Israel more meaningful than any other.
Kol Hanearim’s motto is “FTK” or “For The Kids”, so it was fitting that everything we did on our trip was geared toward making this summer one that the kids would never forget. Our daily schedule was packed. Each morning we would wake up early, ready to take on a day of adventure. While our exact schedule depended on the day, we, along with the kids, would usually engage in up to five activities in each span of 24 hours. On some days, we coordinated our own programs at the homes, like Master Chef, soccer tournaments, arts and crafts, and even a huge carnival for the kids. Other days, we would take organized trips to various locations around the country. These “tiyulim” (expeditions) included a visit to an amusement park in Tel Aviv, rafting on the Jordan River, and a trip to the Kineret.
Before the summer started, many people asked me why I would choose to volunteer instead of touring and sightseeing. My answer was that I thought it sounded like an interesting program. But as I experienced Israeli life with these special children, I began to feel differently about myself; I realized that I, as a Jew, must be there to help my fellow Jews during times of need.
There’s a quote in the Talmud which reads “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh” or in English, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” I feel fortunate that I was able to give of myself and to fulfill this responsibility with the children of Kol Hanearim, and in doing so, become a better person. I keep in touch with one young girl in particular from the home, Hila, and this bond enhances both of our lives. I plan to be there as a friend and mentor for Hila as she enters adulthood. I know that the skills that I learned from this summer will be useful in how I deal with helping those in need, through Jewish organizations as well as other humanitarian causes. Thank you so much to the Lemsky Endowment Fund for their support in making this incredible experience a reality.
Rena Mashinsky, the daughter of Deena Thomas and Alex Mashinsky, is a senior at Goldie Margolin School for Girls. Memphis Jewish Federation’s Lemsky Endowment Fund provided her with a Teen Israel Experience grant to help offset the costs of her Kol Hanearim program in Israel. All rising juniors and seniors in the Memphis Jewish community are eligible for grants of up to $3000 to attend a recognized teen summer program in Israel. Teen Israel Experience applications for summer 2018 are available online.