by Shira Schwartz
July 10, 2017
I was talking to Kaeren Fisch the other day, our wonderful representative in Nokdim. She mentioned that as summer approaches, she finds herself thinking less about school and more about the long vacation ahead. We had a good long talk, and even though it was over the phone, I heard the smile in her voice when she spoke about the youth of Nokdim. They’re a very special group of kids and she wishes the community could do more for them. The religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva is the only youth group in Nokdim. I was really excited to hear that because Nokdim is a mixed community with religious and secular families living side by side, they all go to the religious youth group. Kaeren’s children are counselors and say the mix is a great way to teach tolerance.
I hear her talking and it makes me think of when my kids were counselors in Bnei Akiva. These counselors are an extraordinary breed.
They’re still children themselves, still full time students. I remember when my son Avraham was a counselor… Sixteen years old and off in a dormitory school up north. He would come home Thursday night, after two weeks of not being home, dump his huge backpack (filled with dirty laundry) at the entrance door, call out a quick hello to anyone home, throw on his special blue and white Bnei Akiva staff shirt, and run out the door to run an activity for his group.
My daughter Ahuva used to stop at the local neighborhood grocery store to pick up a few bags of potato chips, some bottles of drinks, or the typical Israeli bag of pita and a container of chumus… sustenance for that day’s activity. It helped the children focus and cooperate!
Kaeren pointed out to me how amazing it was that these kids were spending money they didn’t have, for a “job”– that was completely voluntary! They weren’t earning a shekel. We laughed, remembering how much we, as parents were also subsidizing Bnei Akiva activities. A bottle of ketchup or paper goods for an evening’s barbecue, stacks of paper, pairs of scissors and packages of markers that somehow never made it back home. We kept interrupting each other, remembering (proudly) lists of items that went missing from our homes and ended up in the Bnei Akiva Youth Center.
Being a Bnei Akiva counselor often gets in the way of other things our kids are supposed to be focusing on at this stage of their lives. Like their studies! They are counselors while in high school, years filled with demanding matriculation exams and stress.
But Kaeren and I agreed that we never had the heart to tell them to stop their labor of love. How can we let school get in the way of these dedicated teenagers, motivated to make topics like Israel and the Bible alive and relevant? My kids would come home, eyes blazing with passion as they recounted a successful activity… “Ima (Mommy)– they listened! They heard me!” So who am I to tell them to pick up their Civics book, sitting neglected on the living room couch? These kids are living Civics, teaching Civics.
What’s really special is when the younger kids look up to their counselor as a role model. And that’s because the movement is run by the youth. It’s much more effective to tell a kid it’s time for prayers when the person telling you is your buddy… a peer you already admire and adore.
Kaeren’s voice turns grave. Summer in Israel is a potentially perilous time. Days stretch out, empty and long, and inactivity and boredom lead to nothing good. Bnei Akiva is sometimes the only framework in Israeli communities that offers youth the structure and meaning they thirst for.
Summer is here and Kaeren is witness to the counselors’ commitment. Night after night, sometimes till early hours of the morning, they meet at one of the kids’ houses, and sit around with blank photocopied calendars of July and August and discuss ideas for filling in those little squares with entertainment. And substance. Value.
But Kaeren is worried. The clubhouse is in very bad shape. It’s overcrowded, there’s barely any furniture, the wear and tear has taken its toll, and in the summer, the place is stifling. She asks if we can help. The mobile home is hopefully only a temporary structure. The Religious Council promises to help finance the construction of a new center but there is so much more that is needed. A multimedia center, tables, chairs, closets, air conditioning and heating units. I told her not to worry too much. I’m convinced the kids don’t see the peeling paint or warped floors. But Kaeren doesn’t laugh. For the children of Nokdim, a new center is not a luxury; it is essential.
I hung up the phone still thinking. The youth of Nokdim need a place that belongs to them… a place they belong to. Will you help them?
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