It started as a simple letter-writing campaign: The students at an Orthodox boys’ school in Monsey, N.Y., sent notes expressing their sympathy to kids their age who were forced to move last summer when Israel evacuated settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
But then the project grew, and soon Yeshiva Darchei Noam had “adopted” a fledgling school recently relocated from Atzmona in Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement bloc to Ir Emunah in the south of Israel. In addition to sending letters, the Darchei Noam students raised more than $6,000 for school supplies, sports equipment and the Israelis’ basic needs. It was a bond built on little more than the commonality of being a kid during a time of high emotions and political turmoil.
“Because we were talking more about kids their age, instead of just a community, they were able to relate more,” said Rabbi Dov Klahr, a teacher at Darchei Noam.
Though the boys in Monsey may be the most closely linked with Israeli students, they are not alone in helping settlers’ children. In fact, the Ataret Beit Yaacov girls’ school in Monsey also got involved, sending combs, earrings and other trinkets to schoolgirls in Jerusalem who’d been affected by disengagement.
A few large-scale efforts by such national Jewish groups as the Orthodox Union have also addressed the needs of schoolchildren after the Gaza withdrawal. The World Mizrachi movement distributed 1,620 backpacks to former Gush Katif students who had attended 22 elementary schools and 11 high schools in the settlement bloc, all of which were closed down during the disengagement. “You mustn’t forget, when they were evacuated, it was two weeks before school started. The last thing on their mind was school supplies,” said Solly Sacks, director-general of Mizrachi.
But Darchei Noam’s ongoing efforts are unique because of the focus on children helping children. The school — which includes 270 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade — got involved last summer when principal Yakov Horowitz called the mayor of Atzmonah. “I asked him what his needs were, and he said, ‘The kids are getting ready for school,’” Horowitz said. The principal responded with an offer to purchase school supplies and other equipment for the 300 boys and girls at Talmud Torah Atzmonah and Beit Sefer L’Banot Atzmonah. Both schools reopened in Ir Emunah on September 1. He asked each of his own students to donate a few dollars. The students at Darchei Noam responded enthusiastically, and soon they had made the Israeli school their ongoing pet project.
The Monsey students spent small amounts of class time learning about disengagement and drafting their letters to the Israeli students, but their fund raising — via lemonade stands, garage sales and raided piggy banks — took place during students’ free time, Horowitz said.
Yona Emanuel, a parent of six Darchei Noam graduates, praised the school’s efforts. He said that although many of the Israeli students don’t speak English and couldn’t converse directly with the American children, they were thrilled with the new sports equipment and school supplies. “They were moved,” Emanuel said.
Though Israel’s disengagement shone a light on the divisive and emotional decision to leave Gaza and certain West Bank settlements, Horowitz said his school’s efforts steered clear of politics. “Regardless of whatever political agenda you have, there is a very strong human element here. There are children in school, and families… just trying to get their lives back together,” he said.
After visiting Ir Emunah on a recent family trip to Israel, Darchei Noam student Binyamin Weinstein, 12, was more resolved than ever in his commitment to the students there. “They are living in tiny trailers,” he said. And money is tight for families struggling to buy food, let alone school supplies. “We take our lives for granted… I want to let them know that there are people here who care about them.”