No Jewish community has borne the brunt of the latest Palestinian violence more than those of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip. In the first nine months of the current intifada, more than 200 mortar shells have been fired at Gush Katif. Roadside bombings, terrorist attacks and/or shootings are nearly daily occurrences. Residents venture out onto the roads in military-escorted convoys, with travel to Kfar Darom feasible by armored car only.
The plight of Gush Katif's children was thrust into national consciousness following the bombing of the Kfar Darom school bus and the horrific mutilation of three children from the Cohen family.
Moving beyond politics, the Jewish people identified with the suffering, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and offers of assistance, not just to the Cohens but to all the Gush Katif children.
Continuing in this vein, Boys Town Jerusalem opened its facilities and its heart to the children of Gush Katif, at a cost of some $100,000 to the institution. Nearly 200 boys, ages 11 through 14, their teachers and their teachers' families attended a four-day summer camp earlier this month. No girls were invited because Boys Town only serves young males.
Boys Town donated the use of its spacious 70-dunam campus and dormitories in Bayit Vagan. It provided the group with daily meals and snacks and organized tours, trips, sports, cultural and educational activities. It supplied bus transportation, including two armored buses to transport the children from Gush Katif to the Kissufim Junction. And it also provided 10 Boys Town students as counselors/big brothers. All this was at no cost to the Gush Katif kids and teachers.
Boys Town was founded in 1949 by the late Rabbi Alexander Linchner to give disadvantaged Jewish youth an education and an opportunity to succeed. Today, under the direction of his son, Rabbi Moshe Linchner, Boys Town's dean and chairman, it provides a unique educational combination of Torah and technology for some 1,000 students from 12 to 20, in programs ranging from junior high school through a college of applied engineering.
'My father was inspired by the Hafetz Haim [Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen] to do [good] for the Jewish people,' Rabbi Moshe Linchner explained. 'So when our board met at the end of the school year and the idea was raised that we should have a camp here for the boys of Gush Katif, I knew immediately that my father would have said 'let's do it.' So we did.'
Boys Town has a tradition of lending its facilities to children in need of R&R. For the past decade, the campus has hosted the summer camp of Zichron Menachem, an organization providing recreational activities for children with cancer.
Moreover, Boys Town keeps in close contact with its 5,000 graduates, who work in nearly every technological field in Israel. Although the decision to host the Gush Katif camp was made only two weeks before the opening date, Boys Town was able to organize quickly due to its alumni connections.
'Rabbi Yitzhak Amitai, one of the founders of the Atzmona Talmud Torah, is one of our graduates,' noted Yossi Guttman, director of Boys Town's alumni association and assistant principal of its junior high school. 'We contacted him and he put us in touch with the principal of the Talmud Torah as well as the principal of the Neot Katif State Religious School in Neveh Dekelim, the other main school in the Gush.'
The Gush Katif camp was divided into two four-day sessions. The first was for 70 children and 10 teachers and their families from the Atzmona Talmud Torah. The second session included 101 boys, their teachers and families from Neot Katif.
The camp was open to any boy from either of the two schools. There was no question of Boys Town taking a fee. 'The Gush Katif settlements earn their living mainly from agriculture,' stated Eddie Wolf, director of public relations at Boys Town. 'Due to the violence and the inability to get agricultural workers, the economic situation of the families is not good. We couldn't possibly have asked them to pay. Besides, the whole point was to help and support our Jewish brothers and sisters in Gush Katif who have been suffering all these months.'
The decision was also made to have children from as many communities as possible.
'The kids came from Atzmona, Neveh Dekelim, Ganei Tal, Kfar Darom, Netzarim, Katif, Netzer Hazani, Gadid, Gan Or, etc.,' Wolf continued. 'These are the names in the headline news.'
The precariousness of the situation was brought home on the day the second group was due to arrive. 'I got up in the morning, turned on the news and what I heard gave me butterflies in my stomach,' Wolf recalled. 'A suicide car bomber had blown himself up only meters from the Kissufim Junction. I knew that our campers were due to arrive at Kissufim to change buses at about that time. Thank God, the kids had not yet left Neveh Dekelim. They heard the explosion but they were well out of harm's way. I consider it another miracle. Just a little bit later and who knows what tragedy could have taken place.'
Due to the different nature of the two schools, the programs varied slightly. Atzmona, a private school founded by Boys Town graduates, follows the Talmud Torah schedule with summer break beginning only after Tisha Be'av. Neot Katif follows the Ministry of Education calendar with summer break beginning July 1.
'The Atzmona parents were concerned about the children losing school time,' Wolf said. 'We promised them a program with educational value in addition to recreational activities.'
The program included sports activities, swimming, a visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, a 'survival' experience in the woods, a pantomime performance, a day trip to the North and a closing party. The trip to the North included a visit to the Tel Hai Museum, a ride on the Manara cable car and kayaking on the Jordan River. The Atzmona group also visited the Air Force Technological School in Haifa, Ein Zeitim and Rashbi's grave.
The boys were guests of the Upper Galilee Regional Council during their visit there. In inviting the group, Amnon Levin, director of the Tel Hai Museum, wrote: 'We are doing this out of identification with your stubborn resistance in the face of the intifada, and in the belief that the story of Tel Hai will strengthen your resolve in the days to come. I would like to point out that the visit is on us, without any payment.'
In addition, the Atzmona group had a special program on the Temple, visits to a tefillin-making factory and the Holyland Hotel's Second Temple model, as well as a shiur (lesson) given by the former Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who personally blessed the boys.
The Neot Katif group visited the Tel Nof Air Force base, Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, the Armored Corps Museum in Latrun and held special prayers at the Western Wall.
'This camp was important both because of what the kids got out of it as well as what we in Boys Town received,' said Reem Kandil, camp coordinator for Boys Town. 'For the kids, it helped to break the tension and stress. Through sports and discussions, we helped them to unwind and relax. But we in Boys Town also benefited. We formed strong connections to the children and vice versa. When the boys left, they went up to our counselors and hugged every one of them. They didn't want to go. And our counselors missed them too. After Tisha Be'av, our counselors intend to go to the Gush to visit the boys.'
Kandil admitted that in the space of four days it was hard to tell exactly what impact the camp had. 'These children need a lot of warmth, love and attention,' he said. 'The most important thing was that we let them know that we stand by them and support them.'
Rabbi Youval Gavrieli, principal of the Atzmona Talmud Torah, concurred. 'It is important that the children know and feel that the Jewish people love and care about them. I don't think things are so tense in the Gush. Actually, I think people seem to be tenser and more uptight in the rest of the country. But we are educating our children to be Zionists. Our message is that we have the right to settle in every place, and we don't leave just because things are difficult.
'This camp was great fun,' he continued. 'From the moment we arrived, we were immersed in activities and surrounded with love. We have been invited to other places, including kibbutzim. In difficult times, it is comforting to know that the Jewish people can be united, even if we don't think alike.'
Shay Levy, a teacher at Neot Katif who came to the camp with his wife and six children, said, 'It is no secret that since October, the Gush has been in a war situation, which has had serious implications on our lives and daily functioning. It is important for the children to get away for a few days and relax. We, the teachers and our families, are also in the same boat. So for us too this was a time to unwind.
'Our school has been operating under pressure,' he continued. 'But we have managed to continue our normal routine, despite the fact that one of our teachers was injured and that Noga Cohen, the mother of the three Cohen children, was an adviser at our school. Not one test or class was canceled during the year. This is important to the health of the community and the children. We continue to go out and to have fun. There is no talk of defeat or doubt. I am a native of Kiryat Shmona, so maybe I am better able to take it all in stride. But we do derive strength from the love and support we have been receiving from all sectors of the Jewish people. We are being smothered with love, even by those who do not identify with us politically, and we appreciate this.'
Levy pointed out that despite the enormous number of shells lobbed at Gush Katif, there has been relatively little loss both in terms of property and human life. 'This is a miracle, and we have to express great thanks to God. It is not by our own right that we have been spared, but on account of the deeds and kindness of the Jewish people.'
Michael Edri, another teacher at Neot Katif who attended the camp, with his wife and seven children, noted: 'Outsiders don't see the tensions. But they are there. In my class, I see them in the boys' faces. Everything is not as free as it once was. I don't let my children stay overnight at friends' homes. I want them at home if there is a mortar attack.
'My children sleep in a security room at night even though it means sleeping on mattresses on the floor. They never say they are afraid, but the fear is there. Nevertheless, I want to stress that even though we are on the frontlines, we continue to live as normally as possible. No one has left. I am working on enlarging my house. And more families are coming to live in Atzmona. We are strong and we believe in what we are doing. We are sure that our strength is being transmitted to our children and our students.'
It was very difficult to find a boy who would admit moments of fear. Maybe it is because of the parents' strength and beliefs. Maybe it's because it is very hard for teenage boys to get beyond machismo and admit fear. Or maybe they are at an age when boys just feel invincible and beyond danger. One boy did express bitterness at what he felt was a lack of empathy for his plight.
'Sometimes I feel that our lives are somehow worth less, that our suffering is deemed less,' complained Yair Tsur, 14, from Ganei Tal, a student at Neot Katif. 'When people were tied up in traffic going to the airport because of a terrorist threat, that was headline news. But if I have to sit in the security room in my house for hours because of warnings of attacks, it is not big news. Yet this happens to us nearly every week. When we had to come here, we left two hours late because of a terrorist bomb. I lost two hours of my summer vacation, but that was no big deal to the rest of Israel.'
The boys take a very matter-of-fact approach to what seems absolutely awful to outsiders. 'I was next to the youth club on the Shabbat that a mortar fell on it, injuring five kids,' recalled 14-year-old Oriel Batito of Netzer Hazani, a student at Neot Katif. 'Some of those injured were my friends. But we manage and we go on.'
Freckle-faced Levi Yitzhak Kirshenzaft, 12, of Neveh Dekelim, a student in the Talmud Torah, rattled off Hebrew military acronyms like a veteran IDF recruit. 'Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night from the pagazim [mortar shells]. At Boys Town, if you hear a boom it's just someone slamming a door. Here I am more relaxed than in Gush Katif. You know, I have friends in Kfar Darom and when I go to visit them, I get to travel in an armored safari vehicle. That is a real experience. There definitely is more action in Kfar Darom than in Neveh Dekelim.'
The Boys Town counselors, all students who just finished the 12th grade, managed to break through the air of bravado to connect with the boys.
Moshe Babai from Gilo noted that 'I am also in the line of fire at home. I wanted to help them. They tried to put on a brave face and not talk about what is going on in the Gush. They came here to have fun and forget the tensions. Seeing them have fun made me happy.'
'You could see on their faces that being at Boys Town made them really happy,' stated Naftali Lupa of Ginot Shomron. 'They had a great time and they were really a very normal bunch of kids. Not at all nervous or jumpy.'
'The kids were really closed at first,' recalls Maru Gete from Petah Tikva. 'But little by little they opened up and began to trust us. The way in which they live is very dangerous.
'I tried to understand how it is for them. They had a lot of fun at Boys Town. They could relax and let their guard down. They had the run of the campus. They look like such a quiet group of kids, but you should see them when they let loose. They can be quite a bunch of shovavim (little devils.)'
Levi Yitzhak's father, Yigal Kirshenzaft, a graduate of Boys Town, wrote a letter of thanks to Linchner after camp ended, describing his teacher, the late Rabbi Alexander Linchner: 'I will never forget his loving gaze and soft voice. I am glad that my son was privileged to sample the unlimited love of Israel found in Boys Town. This wonderful visit refreshed the children, and the care taken to meet all their needs was without a doubt a continuation of your father's wonderful way of life. May you continue this holy work in aiding Israel's children for years to come.'
His son expressed his thanks in a more down-to-earth manner. 'I had a great time at Boys Town. The counselors were great. The food was great, and the trips were great. I want to come again next year.'
(Box 1)A Long history of Jewish settlement
Gush Katif, located in the Gaza Strip, is made up of 17 settlements with a total population of more than 7,000, amidst a Palestinian population of 900,000. These settlements include six moshavim, nine community settlements (yishuvim kehilatim) and two cooperative moshavim (moshavim shitufi'im).
The history of Jewish settlement in Gaza stretches back over more than two millennia. In 145 BCE, the Maccabees conquered Gaza, bringing the first Jewish settlers in their wake.
During the period of the Mishna and Talmud, there was a large Jewish community in Gaza, with an impressive synagogue whose mosaic floor can be seen today in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.
During the Muslim and Crusader periods, Gaza served as the southern gateway to the Land of Israel. In the Mameluke period, a Jewish community of between 50 and 70 families existed, deriving its livelihood from working the land.
Under Turkish rule, the area experienced an influx of Jewish families, mainly refugees from the Spanish expulsion. In 1548, there were 116 Jewish families in Gaza. In the 17th century, rabbis from the Najara family headed the community, the most famous of whom was Rabbi Yisrael Najara, who composed a book of poetry called Zmirot Yisrael.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous upheavals in the area caused Jews to abandon Gaza, returning only in 1885 under the leadership of Rabbi Nissim Elkayam.
For centuries, there has been a special link between the Gaza Jewish community and the Jewish community in Hebron. Both their histories and their trials are eerily similar.
Following the Arab riots of 1929, surviving members of the Jewish community in Gaza, like their coreligionists in Hebron, were forcibly evacuated by the British authorities.
In 1946, at the end of Yom Kippur, Jews returned to Gaza with the establishment of Kfar Darom. Established by settlers from the Youth Aliya Department, Kfar Darom was one of 11 settlements built that night that ultimately secured the Negev as part of the State of Israel.
During the War of Independence, Kfar Darom found itself an isolated settlement under heavy attack. The first assault began in March 1948, even before the state was declared. With only 60 defenders, 30 men and 10 women from Kfar Darom and 20 Palmah reinforcements, Kfar Darom managed to repel an attack by Arab troops.
During heavy fighting between May 11 and 13 that year, the Kfar Darom defenders repelled an attack by the regular Egyptian army. The settlement was again attacked on May 15 by the Egyptian army, whose force included seven tanks. The settlement held but remained under siege for the next two months. During the night of July 8-9, the IDF chief of General Staff ordered Kfar Darom to be evacuated.
In 1970, three years after Israel's victory in the Six Day War, Kfar Darom was reestablished by Nahal soldiers, becoming a civilian settlement some years later. The rest of the Gush Katif settlements were established between 1976 and 1990.
Most of the residents make a living from agriculture. Gush Katif is noted for its hothouses, its orchards, flowers and wormless, insect-free vegetables. Forty percent of its fruits and vegetables and 100% of its flowers are for export, and residents also engage in dairy farming as well as raise fish in ponds.
(Box 2)A home called Boys Town
Combining Torah and technology, Boys Town runs programs for boys from junior high through junior college. It has some 1,000 students, many of them new immigrants, the vast majority of whom come from disadvantaged families. Its more than 5,000 alumni include engineers, educators, doctors, lawyers, judges and army officers.
Boys Town enjoys a special relationship with the IDF, especially the air force, by providing highly trained manpower. In April 2000, Boys Town was officially designated a 'CISCO Regional Academy' - the first center in Jerusalem for the instruction of the prestigious CISCO Networking Management Program in the field of network communications.
Boys Town owes its existence to the late Rabbi Alexander Linchner, who founded the institution in 1949 and headed it for nearly 50 years until his death in 1997 at age 89.
Born in the US in 1908, Linchner traveled to Eastern Europe at age 20 to study under the legendary Hafetz Haim. Inspired by him, Linchner went out into the towns and villages to gather Jewish children for study. He returned to the US in 1932, married, and went on to become the principal of the Torah V'da'at school in Brooklyn. In 1949, at the behest of his father-in-law, Linchner traveled to Israel 'to do something for the youth.'
'My father saw the immigrant camps and the child Holocaust survivors and he decided to create Boys Town - a place where disadvantaged youth would have the educational opportunity to succeed,' explained his son Rabbi Moshe Linchner, who serves as Boys Town's dean and chairman. 'His philosophy, from the very beginning, was that Boys Town should be independent and apolitical, concentrating on education, not politics, and that no boy should be turned away just because he could not afford to pay.'
Boys Town's first location was in St. John's Hospital just outside Jerusalem's Old City. Situated on the frontier between the Jordanian-held Old City and the Israeli-held new, its first students not only had to worry about exams, they also had to dodge Jordanian snipers firing into the classrooms. In 1951, that situation ended when Boys Town moved to its present campus in Bayit Vagan.
Because most of its students cannot pay full tuition, Boys Town depends on fund-raising to keep going. Surprisingly, despite Linchner's Orthodox background, 98 percent of Boys Town's donations are from Reform and Conservative Jews in the US. 'My father loved all Jews and all Jews loved him,' Linchner explained. 'Our students do not necessarily come from religious homes. We are here to serve the youth of Israel. We give them a chance to learn. There is no reason why all Jews cannot support this.'
Linchner related that a few years ago, at the height of one of the 'Who is a Jew' controversies, his father was in the US to address a fund-raising group of non-Orthodox Jews and was asked to comment. He opened his address by saying: 'I want you to know that I have come from Israel where we are running a reform school.'