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Meet the Israelis: Summering in America

The night before Rana Abu Frieh left Israel for the first time, the 16-year-old Bedouin cried as some 50 relatives crowded into her small home to offer farewell presents. Frieh was leaving her village of Rahat, south of Beersheba, to attend this summer’s July-August session of Camp Shomria in Liberty, N.Y.

“Some of my relatives found it strange that I would go to a Jewish camp,” said Frieh, a Muslim who went through a rigorous selection process to earn a scholarship to the camp. When she arrived a day later at the Zionist camp in the Catskills, Frieh and two teenage boys who joined her became the first Bedouins ever to attend a camp in the United States.

As Frieh was preparing for Camp Shomria and her first plane ride, Leah Schijveschuurder was getting ready for her first visit to the United States. The 12-year-old Israeli Jew, who suffered minor injuries and lost both her parents and three siblings in the Jerusalem Sbarro bombing on August 9, 2001, was one of 22 Jewish Israelis on the Anguish and Hope Solidarity Tour.

The tour was organized by the One Family Fund, which the Jerusalem-based businessman Marc Belzberg founded after the Sbarro bombing to assist victims of terrorism. The purpose of the trip was twofold: to offer respite to traumatized victims aged 12 to 56 and to raise American consciousness about the suffering of Israelis.

These Israelis summering in America — Bedouins, Arabs and Jews — were here for far more than rest and relaxation. As far as they were from the difficult issues that dominate their days back home, it was just those issues that they humanized for the Americans they encountered.

“The presence of these victims reminds American Jews, who aren’t traveling to Israel very much these days, of the ongoing horror of the terror,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie said of the solidarity tour. Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, is a member of One Family’s Adopt-a-Family Board.

Camp Shomria “offers a dream of what can be, and hopefully what will be,” said Stephen Shapiro, an advocate for Israeli Bedouins who, along with fellow supporter Robert Arnow, helped raise funds to bring the Bedouin teens to New York. Shapiro said he hopes the Bedouins’ presence at Shomria will inspire them and raise awareness of their communities’ struggles. Many of Israel’s 195,000 Bedouins live in dire economic straits in “unrecognized” villages that lack critical infrastructure and sound schools.

Camp Shomria was founded in the 1940s. Every year, about 150 to 200 kids between the ages of 9 and 16 live in a kibbutzlike environment where they play, learn, study and work together and celebrate Israeli culture. Shomria was started to encourage Jewish kids to make aliya and to prepare them for life on an Israeli kibbutz. In the ensuing years, the six-week summer camp — which is run by Hashomer Hatzair, a secular Jewish youth movement — and its goals have shifted away from aliya, toward social action and secular progressive Zionism. “You can be a Zionist no matter where you are in the world,” said camp co-director Elissa Harel.

The arrival of the three Bedouins and 20 other Arab and Jewish Israelis in the Catskills was the result of a partnership between Hashomer Hatzair and the Givat Haviva Institute’s Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, which won the 2001 UNESCO Prize for peace education. This summer and last, the joint effort has brought together Arab and Jewish Israeli teens, mostly from Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, to foster mutual understanding and an appreciation for Israel’s diversity.

“They’re here not as Bedouins or Arabs, but as human beings,” said Shomria co-director Ronit Gal of the Israelis. “Here we can all talk normally, away from the noise of what’s happening in the Middle East.”

The Camp Shomria teens took in a Broadway show, “Beauty and the Beast,” and the sights of New York City. During their Manhattan bus tour, an American woman told the Arab and Jewish Israelis sitting together that their camaraderie seemed like “an oxymoron.” But despite the locals’ commentary, the campers loved the city, marveling at the gigantic buildings and the colorful blend of passersby.

The Israeli teens joined about 75 American campers, 70% of whom were the children of Israeli immigrants. On one of their outings this summer, the Jewish and Arab Israelis were hiking in the mountains when they ran into a group of charedim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews. A 10-year-old raised in an ultra-Orthodox home stopped the campers, shocked to have heard Hebrew and Arabic mixed together within a group of friends. “We asked him to guess which Israelis were Arab and which Jewish,” Gal said. “He couldn’t tell. He was very confused as he tried to understand this riddle.”

In response to such misunderstandings and conflict in the Middle East, Shannon Shibata, 23, the international representative for One Family and a full-time volunteer, moved to Israel to devote her life to supporting terror victims. For Shibata, a non-Jew from North Carolina, the decision was not rooted in Zionism. “I was tired of people saying, ‘Let them solve their own problems and clean up their own mess,’” she said.

“This is not a Jewish struggle,” Shibata said. “It’s a worldwide struggle. As a gentile, when I speak out on behalf of the Jewish people, people stop and listen. My message is that it’s not okay for Jews to be slaughtered for who they are.” In November of 2002, Shibata, a few credits short of graduating from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, left the United States to work for One Family. She sold everything she had, including books, clothes, jewelry and her car, to start a new life in Israel.

During their trip to the United States, Shibata and the One Family contingent traveled to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing. As Leah Schijveschuurder’s brother, Shvuel, 20, described to Senator Hillary Clinton the loss of his parents and three siblings in the Sbarro bombing, Leah wept quietly. Members of the congressional staff also cried, faced with the reality of orphans who, one tragic summer day, lost half of their 10-member family.

After grueling days recounting their tragic losses, the One Family visitors took time to relax. In New York, the contingent went to a Mets game and a Broadway show. They took a helicopter ride over Manhattan and a boat ride around the Statue of Liberty. Donors showered them with free CDs, electronics

and shoes. Kosher restaurants treated the group to lunches, and generous hosts took in the visitors and listened to their stories.

On their last weekend, the One Family visitors were hosted in the Hamptons by Revlon magnate Ronald Perelman, a devoted supporter. They took turns driving Perelman’s Ferrari and Porsche and later munched on popcorn while watching “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” in his private theater.

Such luxury brought the Israelis far from the crumbling homes that are also a problem for some Jewish victims of terrorism, 60% of whom are living at or below the poverty level, according to the Israeli government’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

“Many of these families have lost their major breadwinner,” Shibata said. “In Israel’s current economic state, the government can only do so much.”

One single woman who lost her daughter in a bus bombing lived in a housing project in Jerusalem with no windows and without heat. When One Family came to help the woman, they found that her ceiling had rotted and her house was falling apart. One Family bought her new furniture, installed a heating system and helped the woman pay her rent, according to Shibata.

On its trip to the United States, One Family collected more than $1 million in contributions, bringing its total fundraising over two years to about $8.5 million. The organization, which includes nine full-time staffers and more than 400 full-time volunteers, has helped 1,800 families victimized by terrorism.

Like One Family, which relied heavily on donors worldwide to pay for the Anguish and Hope trip to the United States, Camp Shomria relied on private funding and grants from the Foundation for Jewish Camping and the Puffin Foundation to help cover much of the $2,700 cost of plane tickets and camp tuition for the Israeli teens.

For One Family trip organizers, as well as Shomria’s Gal, the Israelis’ trips to the United States this summer were successful in bringing the visitors a taste of peace and spreading information about their causes. “Zionism here… [is] about peaceful coexistence,” Gal said. For some of the One Family travelers still grieving, coexistence still seemed far away. But at the end of the trip, smiles outnumbered tears.

Among the Israelis embodying the Shomria ethos were Reem Masarwa, a 16-year-old Arab, and Ma’ayan Pearlman, a 17-year-old Jew, who became best friends this summer.

As one of only two non-Jews at a school of 800 kids that she attends with Pearlman, Masarwa is used to being a minority among Jews. At Shomria, Masarwa says, Jews and Arabs joke and hang out together irrespective of ethnicity. But some of her neighbors back home in Baqa El-Garbia, an Arab village of 20,000, don’t approve of her choices. “They think I should get an Arab education, marry when I’m 19 and have 10 kids,” Masarwa said.

Masarwa and Pearlman appreciate the plight of terror victims in Israel because a geography teacher at their school was killed last year. “It’s one thing to watch it on CNN, where it all seems so far away,” Masarwa said. “It’s something else when it’s just down the hall from you.”

To Shibata, One Family’s trip was a way to create hope out of boundless suffering. “Some of these victims have lost their children, others their parents,” she said. “But as audiences hear what they’ve gone through, maybe we’ll find a way to stop what’s happening. There has to be a heart change, a soul change, to support these people. And then instead of looking at the pain of the past, we can all start looking forward to the future.”

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