Each day after canteen at Camp Ramah, Ester, a 12-year-old Ethiopian Israeli, would take her potato chips and chocolate bars and squirrel them away in her suitcase back in her bunk.
She was saving the free treats for her seven younger brothers at home, because she was worried that they weren't being cared for. Since her older brother was killed two years ago while serving in the Israeli army, her parents haven't been the same.
Living with the trauma and sorrow of losing a brother or sister in the Israel Defense Forces has scarred all of the 30 12- and 13-year-olds who spent 10 days at Camp Ramah in Ojai earlier this month.
The Legacy/Moreshet program, sponsored by Friends of the IDF (FIDF), gave kids who lost a sibling or parent in combat a bar or bat mitzvah present that allowed them to have an American-style summer blast -- if not to forget, then at least to enjoy a respite from the sadness that follows them at home.
But despite the fact that Ester (FIDF prohibits the kids' last names from being used) and her friends were having a great time, one morning Ester cried to her counselor that she needed to go home to take care of her family.
"I told her, 'your family wants you to be here. You are entitled to enjoy life,'" said Rachel Binyamin, the overseas coordinator for FIDF in Israel, who accompanied the kids on the journey.
Binyamin packed up a box of goodies for Ester to take home to her brothers, and told her, "This is for your brothers. What you get, you eat -- it's for you to enjoy."
For most of the trip, enjoyment wasn't hard to come by. The kids raved about the packed days at Ramah and special trips to Universal Studios, the California Science Center and the Santa Monica Pier.
Those trips, along with spruced up gift bags, got added into the program after sponsorships kept pouring in even after the $3,600 per kid price tag had been raised.
Marci Spitzer, chair of the Southern California region of FIDF and a camp mom at Ramah, said there is enough money left over to seed a program for next year or to contribute in other ways to FIDF's widows and orphans programs.
One donor wrote a check for $18,000. The Men's Club of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs donated more than $60,000, and promised more if FIDF needed it. Ramah camper Ethan Wolens sponsored a child as his bar mitzvah project.
"I have a blast here at camp, and it's like a home away from home for me. I wanted the Israelis to have camp as a home away from home also," Ethan said, standing outside the chadar ochel (dining room) before lunch one day.
Behind him, the Israelis and Americans had their arms slung around each other as they belted out a cheer the Israeli kids had taught them. The Israelis were going home in a couple days, and they posed for photos with their new American friends.
"When we got here, the Americans were so welcoming and so warm. They really embraced us and it made it so much easier to become a part of things," said Miri, whose brother was killed last year.
On the day the Legacy group arrived, Ramah's Israeli staffers welcomed them with songs and signs, and the entire camp stood to sing them "Hatikvah" after their first lunch.
The Israelis joined up with a unit their age to swim, sing, weave lanyards, learn hip-hop, play basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball and football, and to go to daily prayer services -- a first for about two-thirds of the Israeli group.
But their schedule differed somewhat from the Americans': the Israeli kids didn't get any down time, because too much time to think wasn't what these kids were here for.
The Israelis didn't talk with the Americans about why they're here -- about the huge holes torn into their lives. Instead, they talked about regular teen stuff.
"I don't want to bring it up, because I don't want to make them sad," said Hanna Port, an American camper who practiced her Hebrew and became good friends with the Israelis. "They're sad enough that they have to leave soon, and we've become such good friends."
But among themselves, the Israeli kids -- who met each other through this trip -- have talked about their losses, and, along with counselors trained to deal with their trauma, the kids offer each other an important network of support.
Sitting in the sun on a colorfully painted bench outside the art room, Naama, whose brother was killed just last December, began to cry when the subject was brought up. Naama's head immediately fell on Miri's shoulder, and Shir grabbed her hand, stroking it as she talked about what this trip has done for them.
"In the beginning, we weren't really bonded," said Shir, who lost a brother.
"Naama and I didn't even speak to each other, we didn't really understand each other. But now, we're like sisters. We really support each other."
The counselors have been doing a lot of hugging and hand-holding throughout the trip, but the trip is not meant to act as group therapy.
"Even though they all came here for this reason, we don't want to make them talk about it if they don't want to. We're not here to instigate dialogues and discussions," said Ori, one of six counselors, all of them active duty soldiers (IDF regulation prohibits them from giving their last names). "We are just here for them to have a great time and to enjoy life, even though it is clear that they can't forget and it is always on their hearts and minds."
Ariel, also a counselor, has a strong connection to Avraham, a Legacy camper, whose brother was Ariel's commander. Another of Avraham's brothers also died while serving in the army.
"I told Avraham that if his brother were alive, he would have done everything he could have to give him a trip like this," Ariel said.
The soldiers, who got a few weeks off from duty in Gaza and the north, feel that this mission -- to comfort the families of their fallen comrades -- is as important as anything they will return to after this trip.
It has also given a renewed sense of mission to the 25 Israeli staffers, also mostly army-aged, who spend their summer bringing a little bit of Israel to California -- a difficult task as Katyushas fall at home.
"They are struggling with being here and representing their country, knowing what their brothers and sisters are doing back in Israel," said Zachary Lasker, assistant director at Ramah. "For them to feel they are again connected, and that they have their eyes on these kids, has been very powerful."
Despite the situation in Israel, the kids have not been getting detailed updates, because each loss hits too close to home.
"At home we read the papers and it's so hard to read, 'this one was killed and that one was killed,' and you see their faces in the pictures and you know this person was a friend or a brother," Miri said. "I just hope things start getting better now."
For information on Friends of the IDF, go to www.israelsoldiers.org.
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