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The missing pieces
by Gil Troy

September 7, 2006

War is hell, particularly for children. Even now, amid a Mideast ceasefire, parents caught in the crossfire remain on the front lines with their children. What information to share, how to explain the adult world’s chaos, opens educational, psychological and moral dilemmas.

Spending this summer in Jerusalem, our four children experienced no trauma, enjoying themselves, although the war fascinated them. Our four-year-old asked, “Why do the Palestinians keep bombing Israel?”

Overlooking Hezbollah’s popularity in Gaza, hoping the next generation will bring peace, my wife and I explained that Hezbollah Shi’ites are not Palestinians and not all Palestinians embrace terror. Recognizing our attempts to avoid stereotyping, our nine-year-old asked the more nuanced, devastating question, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora must answer: “How come the mean Arabs push the good Arabs around?”

While some Israeli friends banish their children when the TV stations broadcast bad news, we do not shelter our kids from unpleasant realities. True, we omitted to mention the Palestinian sporting a five-kilogram suicide bomb vest caught two blocks away from us. But our kids knew that, despite our comfort, others nearby suffered.

Our six-year-old, who made Hamas and Hezbollah the bad guys in his imaginary games, told visitors, “Hezbollah won’t bomb us [in downtown Jerusalem] because we’re too close to the Dome of the Rock, and if they hit that, the other Arabs would get mad.”

When we told our 11-year-old daughter before she left for sleepaway music camp that she might end up in a bomb shelter – she didn’t – she asked, logically, “How do you get oxygen in underground shelters?”

Giving the children some sense of control – while teaching social responsibility – we joined Israel’s massive outreach initiative to support soldiers and terrorized civilians. My two sons and I visited Sderot, the working class immigrant town Hamas bombs regularly from Gaza. We went mid-morning, when Kassam missiles rarely fall, visiting a family whose house these “crude,” “primitive” yet dangerous rockets damaged. We embraced them with flowers and hugs. Amid the commotion, only the head of the household knew some monetary assistance was subtly delivered too.

South of Sderot, we met Rabbi Seth Mandell and the staff of Camp Koby, reluctant masters at coping with trauma. Palestinian terrorists murdered Rabbi Mandell’s son Koby in 2001. Transforming individual heartbreak into communal good works, Rabbi Mandell established a camp for children whose parents or siblings were murdered by terrorists. In a country politically and religiously polarized, Rabbi Mandell welcomes victims of all stripes with one healing message.

An American immigrant, Rabbi Mandell is transplanting certain North American ideas into Israel’s rocky soil. He adapted American-style summer camping to his campers’ needs, offering four short sessions annually. He is also implanting a therapeutic culture into a macho society that often tells victims who have “only” been scarred psychologically to “get over it.”

Despite its array of therapists treating 150 kids whose dearest relatives have been murdered, Camp Koby is a happy place. The kids walk around smiling. The staff are warm, huggy, well-trained idealists.

Rabbi Mandell’s sensitivity to his campers comes from processing a parent’s worst nightmare through a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Transporting campers from 100 different Israeli communities, the buses go house to house. Rabbi Mandell did not want to add errands to the work of the many now-single parents in his target population.

Hearing this characteristic anecdote, seeing the beaming kids, whether frolicking at the pool or doing breathing exercises with a Sephardi kabbalistic yoga master, I began to appreciate how much this miracle worker has helped the 700 relatives of terror victims who have attended the camp – free – over the last three years.

In one therapy session, each camper selected a puzzle piece. Each described the shape’s appeal, then decorated it. When assembling the puzzle, one central piece remained missing, representing the hole that violence had ripped in their lives.

I left Camp Koby, mourning the new missing pieces Islamofascists are tearing into the fabrics of so many lives. I wondered about the missing pieces we as parents seek to make our kids feel whole while they develop in trying circumstances. And I missed the missing peace that prevents us all from living the carefree secure lives we and our children deserve.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of the updated edition of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Hillary Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.