TORONTO — Forty-five Israeli children who have lost a parent in the service of the State of Israel recently returned home from a fully subsidized three-week vacation that began in Illinois and ended in Toronto.
The trip is offered annually by an organization called Israel Defence Forces Widows and Orphans (IDFWO), a non-profit association that provides social, emotional and financial support to 8,000 widows and orphans of Israel’s fallen soldiers.
Some of the programs offered by the organization include education scholarships for orphans, a special event honouring IDF orphans enlisting in the army, medical assistance and financial aid.
The trip, which provides the children with a break from reality and an opportunity to meet with other kids who have experienced the loss of a parent, began on July 12 with a two-week stay at Camp Chi in the Chicago area. The group then travelled to New York City, and spent a weekend in Connecticut before arriving in Toronto on July 30, where they stayed until last Thursday.
In Toronto, volunteers, most of them members of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, hosted the participants in their homes, and a committee, headed by Esti Cohen and Amy Bitton, organized activities including a bowling night at Bathurst Bowlarama, a day at Canada’s Wonderland, a tour of Niagara Falls and an afternoon at Debbie and Warren Kimel’s family cottage.
This was the second time the trip included Toronto in its itinerary.
During their stay in Toronto, two participants, both young girls who had lost their fathers when they were toddlers, spoke to The CJN about what the IDFWO trip has meant to them.
Shira Begin, 13, the great-granddaughter of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, said she first became involved with the organization last year, when she took part in the bar and bat mitzvah program – which includes a visit with Israeli President Shimon Peres, a ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem and a reception attended by the minister of defence and the chief of staff.
Shira lost her father, Maj. Yonatan Begin, when the F-16 fighter plane he was flying crashed into the Mediterranean during a training flight in 2000.
She said meeting other children who have lost a parent has been very meaningful for her.
“It’s nice to know that someone ‘gets you’ and helps you because you know that they went through what you went through,” Shira said, switching back and forth between English and Hebrew.
Emily Nesterenko, 12, was two years old, when her father, Alexander Nesterenko, an IDF reservist with the border police, was killed in a Palestinian ambush while on patrol near Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Speaking in Hebrew, Emily said this experience has allowed her to “meet new people, kids that you can trust, and it’s much easier to speak with them about what happened to you than it is to speak to other kids.”
“Other kids can tell you that they understand, but they can’t really,” Shira added.
But Emily insisted that it’s not hard for her to talk about her father’s death “because I approach it in a way that my father was a hero in the army and I like to tell the story to let people know what a hero he was.”
IDFWO resource development director Daniel Tuksar, who travelled with the group, said he was “absolutely overwhelmed” by the experience.
“First of all, I’m so proud of them because these are 12- and 13-year-old kids, away from home, and they are acting so nice, so polite, so mature and bringing so much kavod for us Israelis.”
He added that he gets goosebumps thinking about how welcoming and loving all the volunteers and hosts have been.
“The amount of love [the kids] are receiving and how they’re being embraced by every person who has been in touch with them – the hairs are standing up on my arms,” Tuksar said.
He said when it comes to families volunteering as hosts for the kids, “people are fighting for a chance to get involved.”
In addition to providing an unforgettable experience for the children, he said, a program such as this helps to build bridges between Israel and the Diaspora.
Although some of the funding for the organization comes from the Israeli government, IDFWO relies mostly on donations from Jewish communities in North America. In June, Toronto residents Stella and Peter Ekstein hosted a fundraiser in their home to help IDFWO pay for its programming.
For more information, contact Tuksar at Daniel@idfwo.org.